Blown Away: On Fat Dogs, Neuro Disorders, Bad Outcomes and Future Redemption
As you might imagine, I get about half a zillion e-mails every single day on the subject of what-do-I-do-with-this-dog? Or, I-have-this-cat-who... It’s enough to elicit compassion fatigue, all these e-mails that I just. can’t. get. to.
But every once in about 10 or 20, I’ll actually have time to open and answer and relax into them. Just as it should be. I donate my time when I can, and I let the stress roll off my back when I can’t. (Not that all those unread e-mails in my e-mail program’s "Q" folder weigh heavily on my soul or anything.)
Anyhoo, the point of today’s post was that I answered one of these and thought I might repurpose it for a post. Here you go:
Q: I recently had to put down my 7-year-old beagle due to a blown disc in his back and I am about to get another puppy. I was hoping you could suggest a healthy diet for a 7 to 9 week old female beagle puppy and recommend how that diet should change as she grows. My last beagle was overweight, and while this did not cause the bad disc, it certainly didn’t help his prognosis after the injury. I want to ensure that this does not happen with my new puppy. Thanks.
A: Kudos for knowing there’s always room for improvement. As your cautionary tale shows, breeds that are predisposed to neuromuscular and/or orthopedic conditions are at a greater risk for early death due to complications from excess weight.
Nowhere is this more problematic than with dogs predisposed to weight gain. While some studies support the fact that about fifty percent of U.S. pets are overweight and twenty percent obese, certain breeds need to be especially carefully monitored for excess weight.
But this is no measure meant to be put off for your dog’s adulthood. The key to success lies in knowing that weight management begins in puppyhood with cautious food rationing and attention to ideal conformation.
Btw, Labrador retrievers (especially chocolate Labs), beagles, pugs, and bulldogs are among the highest-risk breeds when it comes to obesity. This is partly because they’re couch-potato chow-hounds, but also because their conformation is barrel-ey, an unfortunate shape that makes their owners believe their dogs are "solid" and of normal weight when they’re really just plain fat … sometimes really fat. Which means they’re pretty far gone by the time I get to them.
So how do you head this off? Here’s what I do:
1. Significantly reduce her caloric intake after spaying her (same goes for neutering a male). I might even suggest leaving her intact for two to three years if she’s got good hip conformation. Just be extremely careful to avoid pregnancy.
2. Advance the timing of the adult food switch to six months rather than waiting the full twelve months to change over from the more caloric puppy stuff.
3. I would also recommend hiring a dog runner unless serious exercise can be undertaken by the primary caretaker. Beagles need to run — a lot. Investing in a $10-a-run habit early on, at least three times a week, would be tremendously helpful. Neighbors' teens can sometimes be tapped. If you're near a university, community bulletin boards can be invaluable. Pet concierge services and running clubs, available in most metro areas, can help you identify prospective runners as well.
4. On the food thing: I would stick to a super-premium food and be extremely careful about NOT paying attention to the label on the side of the bag of food. To start with, feed her as much as she wants to eat in one sitting three times daily. Pick up what she doesn't eat after ten minutes. Based on that quantity, increase her diet by 10 percent or so every week, taking care not to let her get pudgy. (Ask your veterinarian or someone with an athletic dog at the dog park for advice on this! Do NOT rely on your image of what your dog should look like.) At four months, switch to twice daily feedings. At six months, switch to adult food. After four months you might have to start stabilizing the weekly increase in the food, lest she get the pudge on.
5. Learn to body condition score. This is a method that allows you to look at your pet and assess her weight more objectively. Here’s a post on this.
6. Forever after, always be on the lookout for changes that indicate weight gain. If the body condition score approach doesn’t appeal to you, make sure to take a picture of her when she’s at her ideal shape. Make sure you know her weight when she was in her prime and keep it handy (in your wallet? in a folder on your computer’s desktop? as your screensaver?).
OK, so those are my tips. What would you have told this guy?
Dr. Patty Khuly