I Promise Not to Say Kilocalorie to You.

Now that we all are walking around Omaha together…or will be when winter finally ends…my next suggested resolution for you is much simpler.  In fact, it should take all of five seconds.

I want you to go look at your dog from above.   Dave and Sara, get a stepping stool! Mom and Dad, sit criss-cross next to Ernie!   The rest of you…stand over your dog.   Now everyone, see what shape he or she is.   Next, run your hands over their sides from their neck to their tummy.

There!   You are done!   Now you may go do something more fun.   Or read on to interpret the results of the two very important medical tests you just performed.

In the first test, you are looking for a waist on your dog.  I realize different breeds are different shapes.  Yes, it is fine that your Pug is football shaped!  He may not, however, be soccer ball shaped.  Most dogs should have a slightly “tucked in” waist right behind their ribcage.  They should not be completely “straight” from their neck to their tail, or worse, have a big tummy that is visible from above.  You can also look at them from the side and their waist should “tuck in” a little there too.

Second test:  You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs, but not see them.  If you are unable to feel their ribs with a gentle pat over their sides, they may have fat pads there, which is an indication they may be overweight.  If you are able to feel and see their ribs well, they may be underweight.

There are two common body condition score methods, 1-9 and 1-5.  I like 1-5 because it is simpler, but either is good.  In the 1-5 system, 1 is very skinny, 2 is too skinny, 3 is ideal, 4 is overweight and 5 is obese.  Our goal is to assess your pet now, match that score to his or her current weight and make an educated guess at an ideal weight.  We will use diet and exercise to get them to their ideal weight and adjust the actual number in pounds as we get closer, until we have a lifelong ideal weight to try to keep them close to.

If you tuned out at “diet and exercise” come back!  This is a much easier concept in pets than it is in us.

With people, there is emotional eating, eating when we are bored, eating for fun.  Try to adjust that concept to emotional feeding, feeding when we are bored, feeding for fun.  Would you agree that most emotional issues with food and our pets are our issues projected onto them?  I LOVE lining my three black dogs up by the snack cabinet and passing treats out.  Do NOT tell my Dad-in-law, but I LOVE feeding Ebony right off my plate at dinner.  I love seeing them jump in happy “I’m going to get lunch meat” circles…all MY issues, huh?  The truth is, if I had to feed them one-half-cup-light-kibble-twice-a-day-until-at-a-healthy-weight, eating the measured diet would not be so difficult for them, but it probably would be difficult for me to carry out.

So, as is often the case, I have a SIMPLE concept for you that is in no way EASY.  However, if you needed to get all strict (with YOURSELF) for awhile, so your pet could be healthy, you could do it, couldn’t you?

You are right that dogs DO get hungry between meals, especially when we feed them less to help them lose weight.  This is an area where fiber may help.  Perhaps switching to a light (higher fiber) or even prescription diet would help.  High fiber treats and snacks are also available.  We can work on a diet plan together.

Exercise is a similar issue.  It is a simple concept that is not easy to implement.  We will talk about cats when I have something intelligent and helpful to say!  However, exercising an otherwise healthy but overweight dog is pretty simple.  If he or she has health issues, such as arthritis or heart troubles, let’s work together to get those stable first, then we will come up with a safe, modified exercise plan.  But if your dog has a clean bill of health, and a green light for exercise, the sticking point is going to be our own inertia, not our dog’s.

So assuming you have a dog who has been blessed “healthy and safe to exercise and have on an adult maintenance diet” by the health care team, here are some rules of thumb.  Talk with me about dog food brands.  There are so many excellent choices, and you are such great owners, that chances are the food you are now feeding is ideal.

The only two feeding patterns I do not like are free-feeding and once a day feeding.  First, free-feeding…Dogs are not self-regulating feeders, so most can not have constant access to food and remain at a lifelong healthy weight.  But some can.

And cats are not self-regulating feeders either, and if I tell you it is not an option for your dog, my cat Max will find out I told you that and tell you what HIS feeding schedule is.  And then you will both laugh at me.  Incidentally, we are not allowed to let the bottom of either side of Max’s food bowl show.  Seriously.  He has woken us up in the middle of the night to remind us.  So if you free feed your dog, I believe you when you say it is what works best for your family!

The opposite extreme is once a day feeding.  Everyone used to do this.  And it is still pretty common.  So don’t feel bad if you do.  However, studies show that MOST dog bites occur just before the daily meal of dogs fed once a day.  I know…your dog is not a biter!  But researchers suspected this pattern indicated a blood sugar issue.  Follow-up studies showed that dogs are very often hypoglycemic if fasted for twenty-four hours, which is essentially the situation of dogs fed once a day.  So their blood sugar gets low and they get CRABBY.  Or sad.  Or sluggish.  Just like us.

My rule of thumb for feedings is three times a day for puppies until the age of four to six months, then twice a day for the remainder of their life.

A rule of thumb for amount of food is one cup per day per ten pounds of puppy divided into appropriate feedings until the age of one.  (A ten pound puppy would be fed 1/3 cup three times a day.)

For adult dogs, the amount is one cup per day per twenty pounds, divided into feedings.  (A twenty pound dog would be fed 1/2 cup twice a day.)  This is a very rough rule of thumb.  If the amount you are feeding is keeping your pet at a healthy weight, then obviously, that is the amount that is right!

The amount will differ from dog to dog, and be skewed by activity level and metabolism changes.  If your puppy is growing, weigh him or her every week or so, and do the two body condition score tests (waist check and rib check) often, and increase feedings to maintain steady growth.  With large and giant breed puppies, you do not want them to gain weight too quickly.  Slow, steady growth will minimize their risks for joint problems later.

As far as exercise goes, walking is my favorite one.  Base the length of walks on your and your pup’s fitness level.  Base the number of walks per day or week on what works best for your schedule.

Running crazy in the yard or dog park is also good, but does not replace walking with you.  Swimming is an excellent exercise and may be ideal if your pet has joint issues or is recovering from an injury or orthopedic surgery.

Running is good for some dogs, mostly based on whether the two of you enjoy it!  But also, they must be in good enough health to be a running buddy, and large and giant breed pups must wait till they are Big Dogs to run, to allow their cute little growth plates to mature first.  If you allow your dog to run alongside your bike, be very careful to watch for him to become tired.  He will be done long before you are!

Agility is great exercise and fun for both of you.  Hunting is great exercise too.  I’ll bet you can think of a hundred more exercises that I have not thought of.  If you have more ideas, post them here, because I hope that 2009 is the year we are all going to get (and stay) healthy together!

So here are your action points:

1)  Do a quick check of your dog’s overall body condition score, considering appearance, the rib check, the waist check, and lastly, the number of pounds he or she currently weighs.

2)  Decide (with the health care team) if he or she needs to gain or lose weight, or is at an ideal weight.   Figure his or her body condition score.

3)  Reassess your food brand, food type (maintenance, light, prescription, etc.), meal frequency, and amount of food.  If you don’t measure food, consider measuring how much you currently give, so you have a “starting point” if weight is ever an issue, even if it is not now.  Again, bring the health care team in on this step.  You pay us for our smarts, so get your money’s worth!

4)  Decide on an exercise plan.  Try to think of activities that are fun enough for the both of you that you will want to continue long term.

That’s it!  You are set!  Good luck, and let me know how it goes!  You are AWESOME owners, and most of your pets are healthy now, so I know you will do GREAT.  Ebony, Noodle, Joy and I will try to keep up with you!

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