Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Pudgy Pups

Overweight dogs face lower quality of life, greater risk of disease and a shortened lifespan

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Can you pinch an inch? Not on your own body, but on your dog's? If you can, he could probably stand to lose some weight. It's something to think about as we enter a new year with good resolutions to improve ourselves -- and our pets.

When we hear the word "malnutrition," we think of starvation, but you might be surprised to learn that obesity is the most common form of malnutrition in dogs. It's estimated to affect nearly 53 percent of the canine population, according to a May 2014 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. That's a lot of extra weight!

Why are so many dogs fat? Often, it's because owners don't recognize the problem. And veterinarians may hesitate to speak up because it's not uncommon for people who are overweight to have pets with the same problem. A 2013 study found that people who were 60 or older and overweight themselves tended to have overweight pets.

Carrying too many pounds is a serious problem in pet pups. Obesity, defined as being 20 percent or more over their ideal body weight, puts dogs at higher risk of joint problems, poor mobility, reduced kidney function, poor response to anesthesia and skin and urinary tract infections.

That's not all. A long-term study found that osteoarthritis and chronic diseases in general developed approximately two years later in dogs who remained at or below their normal body weight than in dogs allowed to become overweight. The trim dogs lived an average of two years longer than the fat dogs.

There are more benefits, according to Martha Cline, DVM, a veterinary nutritionist who spoke on obesity last month at a San Diego veterinary conference. Dogs who achieved even modest weight loss suffered significantly less lameness. Quality of life gains included increased vitality and reduced emotional disturbance and pain. Dogs who lost weight also had improved renal function.

To tell if your dog needs to lose weight, give him a visual exam and the hands-on test. A dog's body should be shaped like an hourglass, not a sausage. As you look down at him, can you see an indentation behind his ribs before the body flares out again? That's his waist.

Then put your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine and fingers splayed out on his sides. As you gently press inward, you should be able to feel his ribs beneath a layer of skin and muscle. If the ribs are buried beneath rolls of fat, it's time to talk to your veterinarian about a safe diet and exercise plan.

A veterinary exam, including lab work, ensures that your dog doesn't have any underlying health problems that are causing weight gain or that could be worsened by changes in activity levels or type of food.

One easy change you can make is to measure your dog's food and feed meals twice a day instead of leaving food out all the time. Even better, put a day's supply of dry food inside a puzzle toy so your dog spends the day actively "hunting" for his meals. Instead of high-calorie treats, offer small bites of chopped carrots, green beans or apples.

To add more activity, begin with brief walks. As his stamina improves, gradually increase the distance. Always stop before your dog shows signs of exhaustion, such as panting or reluctance to go further.

For dogs who are currently in good shape, the best thing you can do is to make sure they don't become sedentary as they age. Keeping dogs at a healthy weight is a lot easier than trying to take pounds off.

Q&A

Hungry cat must

stay off table

Q: Our 10-year-old cat has recently begun demanding table food. When we sit down to eat at the dinner table, he jumps on top of it. I immediately pick him up and put him on the floor. This is repeated several times. Today, I was eating soup and ignored him, so he pawed my ear. What do you suggest for behavior modification? I'm thinking of putting him in the bathroom while we eat. -- via email

A: You are fighting a battle on two fronts: the feline love of being up high, and your cat's desire to share your food, which is obviously more interesting than his own. You're on the right track as far as being consistent about putting him back on the floor right away when he jumps up on the table. Don't do it in an angry manner; be matter-of-fact, but don't let him get away with it. I have some other suggestions as well.

One is to feed him before you sit down to eat. If he has already eaten, he may be less interested in checking out your food.

You may also try teaching him to go to an alternative space, such as a nearby perch -- where he can be up off the ground and still see you -- or the sofa or his bed. Reinforce your cat being in this spot by rewarding him intermittently with a treat, attention or play.

Conversely, make the tabletop unpleasant by covering it with aluminum foil. Cats don't like the feel of it beneath their paws.

There's also nothing wrong with putting your cat in a different area, such as the bathroom, while you eat. It's a valid way of managing the problem and can be a great strategy until your cat learns to stay off the table during meals. -- Mikkel Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

By the numbers:

5 facts about cats

-- The CATalyst Council's Stats on Cats rounds up interesting info on our feline friends. Did you know that according to a 2013-2014 pet ownership survey by the American Pet Products Association, 25 percent of cat owners have used some type of training device for their cat? Three percent of cat owners have purchased pet health insurance. Only 40 percent of cat owners had taken their cat to the veterinarian in the past year. Ninety-one percent of cats had been spayed or neutered. There are no drawbacks to owning a cat, according to 19 percent of the respondents.

-- If your dog barks excessively while you're away from the house, it can be frustrating trying to figure out how to get him to stop. To solve the problem, look for devices that reward dogs at a distance by monitoring barking and rewarding periods of quiet. Other monitors include activity collars and camera systems that allow owners to observe a dog's activity and behavior during the day, permit interactive games to keep the dog occupied during the day and dispense food rewards when the dog is quiet. To find one, search online for electronic pet treat dispensers, or ask your veterinarian or dog trainer for a recommendation.

-- Winter play is more fun with your best friend. We're talking your dog, of course. Just make sure he has the right coat, build and stamina for the activity of your choice, whether it's snowshoeing, sledding, cross-country skiing, skijoring (a combination of cross-country skiing and dog sledding) or just having a snowball fight. The following breeds are our nominees for best snow-play dogs: Alaskan malamute, American Eskimo, Bernese mountain dog, Chinook, Finnish lapphund, Finnish spitz, Great Pyrenees, Icelandic sheepdog, Leonberger, Newfoundland, Norwegian elkhound, Saint Bernard, shiba inu, Siberian husky and Tibetan terrier. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.