You are at your puppy’s second vaccination visit. At this visit, your veterinarian is going over the second tier, new puppy-owner education. She has already spoken to you about house training and socialization. She stands across the table from you, looks you directly in the eyes, and says, "I have found a way for you to help your dog live 15 percent longer."
She continues, "For your dog, a Labrador Retriever, that could be 1½ to 2 years!" You lean over the table with bated breath, waiting to hear about this miraculous technique for raising your puppy. She leans toward you and says, "Don't let your puppy get fat."
Your veterinarian is referring to a study conducted by Purina. In this groundbreaking study, Purina divided litters of puppies into two groups. The first group was fed 10 percent less than the second group. Other than that, nothing else was done differently. The dogs were allowed to live out their lives until they were euthanized for various health problems. Purina was looking to find out if simply keeping a dog thin would alter their lifespan.
The answer is that it does alter their lifespan — by a significant amount of time. The dogs that were fed less in the study lived 15 percent longer. When I first heard about this study, which was published in 2003, my jaw dropped. Fifteen percent is a big number.
What is even more shocking is that the thin dogs — while apparently healthy — look awfully skinny to me. I would be hard-pressed to get an owner to drop their dog’s weight to that level. The dogs in the heavier group would not be considered heavy by any standards. I think that most veterinarians would have characterized their body condition as healthy. So, dogs that are kept thinner than you expect they should be live a lot longer than dogs that are heavier.
When you look at an adult dog from above, you should see a waist just before the hind legs. The abdomen should go in on both sides. When you view the dog from the side, there should be a clear abdominal tuck (a slope up from her chest to her hind legs). If your dog has a straight line from her chest to her hind legs, she is overweight. You should be able to easily feel your dog’s ribs without much pressure.
So, how does this translate to you and your puppy? Part of keeping a puppy orthopedically healthy, as outlined in a previous blog, is keeping her rate of growth slow and steady. If she grows too fast or carries too much weight, you may affect the way her bones and joints develop, predisposing her to joint problems in the future.
(Also see Is Your Pup Prepared for Her Genetic Destiny)
It is still a good idea to feed your puppy three times a day, so appreciate that chubby puppy belly while you can — as long as it's not too chubby. While puppy food provides the right nutrition for most puppies, some, especially large breeds, can be in danger of growing too fast and may need an adult food. Be sure to ask your vet if you're feeding your puppy the right kind of food. And make sure to keep her well exercised. This will also help with behavior problems.
Now, I can hear some of you complaining that I always spout off about using treats for this and that and now I am telling you to keep your dog’s weight down. Which one is it? Both. For example, I took Maverick to work today so that he could train with some of my patients. Then he went with us to run errands and we all went out to lunch, where he was expected to lie down outside while we ate. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon, he received a chicken breast, a snack bag of dog food roll, and half a snack bag of cheese (doled out in the form of ¼ inch sized treats). I was expecting this puppy to focus for an hour at work, lie quietly in his crate when he wasn’t working, and then be calm during lunch. He worked hard and deserved payment.
Because I knew that this was going to be the plan for the day, I fed him ¾ of his breakfast and ¾ of his dinner. If he had any energy left tonight, which he does not, I would have walked him, swam with him in the pool, or played in the yard.
Now, that is not the healthiest way to feed your dog every day, but this is not an average day for Maverick. I will not give up rewarding him for positive behaviors with the highest value rewards when necessary, and I will keep him thin to extend his life. That way, he will live a long time and be free of behavior problems. I hope that you will do the same for your dog.
Dr. Lisa Radosta