Fat dogs are being let down by their owners – my latest “Best of Health” article in Our Dogs

BCS9According to Channel 4’s “Dogs: their Secret Lives”, Britain faces an epidemic of dog obesity.  That was the theme of one of the programmes in this series which is hosted by Mark (“parade of mutants”) Evans who used surveillance filming of three dogs and their owners to discover how their lifestyle contributed to their obesity.

I have to admit that I’ve struggled to watch any of Mark Evans’ previous TV documentaries, but this particular programme, screened in mid-August, was a fascinating insight into the causes of obesity in dogs (or at least in these three dogs).  No surprises really: too much food and too little exercise!

Animal obesity specialist Dr Alex German and Veterinary Nurse Shelley Holden from Liverpool University Vet School joined Mark Evans in the programme and shared the results of some of the research into obesity being done at Liverpool.  Dr German said “Although treatment for weight loss may seem simple – just eat less and exercise more – it is not without its challenges, and owners, with busy lives, can find it difficult even to understand how their dog has gained weight in the first place.  By showing what dogs get up to out of their owner’s sight, this programme explores how understanding our animals’ behaviour and habits can help in producing a healthy diet and exercise regime.”

Established in 2004, the Royal Canin Weight Management Clinic at the University’s Small Animal Hospital is the world’s first animal weight management referral clinic and was set up to help tackle and prevent weight problems in animals such as dogs and cats.

Research by Mars UK published back in 2007 says that despite the growth of the obesity problem, nearly three quarters of pet owners claim that the weight of their pet is just right. One fifth of us apparently admit that we do not even bother to assess our pet’s weight as we do not see it as a concern.

The report also said that 45% of pet owners do not control the number of calories they feed their pet. Almost 90% of dog owners admit to feeding their pets treats over and above their normal meals, including human snacks such as biscuits.  Additionally, almost half of dog owners admit to not walking their dog at least once a day.  Mark Evans suggested that two 20 minute walks per day is the recommended minimum amount of exercise.

The programme repeated the findings of this research with Alex German showing how inaccurate owners can be when measuring out their dog’s food if they don’t use weighing scales.  Dr German said pet obesity was “entirely preventable” and could be reversed with “veterinary supervision and owner dedication”.

I didn’t think it was very helpful when he said that if you feed the same quantity of food every day and the dog’s weight remains constant then you’re feeding the right amount of food.  Surely, it’s the dog’s body condition that matters most, not its weight.  You could easily feed the same quantity every day and a fat dog could remain fat!

Mark Evans did, thankfully, show viewers how to assess the body condition of their dog.  Until recently, Body Condition Scoring (BCS) charts generally used a 5 point rating scale.  Now, it appears WSAVA is adopting a 9-point rating scale, although oddly, it uses a 5 -point scale of pictures to illustrate the range from emaciated to grossly obese: (http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/Body%20condition%20score%20chart%20dogs.pdf)

I’d have thought most people could quite accurately use a 5-point scale, but I doubt if many could discriminate to the detail of a 9-point scale.

Of course, it’s not just canine obesity that’s the problem, as the programme pointed out.  As with people, it’s the associated health problems and impact on life expectancy that, in many cases, are the biggest concern.  Diabetes, Heart disease, Musculo-skeletal issues and Cancers were among the issues identified.  A lifetime feeding study in Labrador retrievers showed that lean dogs live, on average, 1.8 years longer than obese dogs. (Effects of diet restriction on lifespan and age-related changes in dogs. JAVMA 2002; 220:1315-1320.)

In my own breed (Dachshunds), research by the RVC (2013) into factors related to Intervertebral Disc Extrusion (IVDE) identified obesity as a contributory risk factor.  The report said that IVDE risk is increased in obese dogs, but in high-risk breeds (as exemplified by Miniature Dachshunds), even being moderately overweight increases the risk. Nearly half (46.2%) of Miniature Dachshunds in the study population were overweight (BCS>5), with 13% substantially overweight at BCS 7.  Dachshunds with a BCS of 7 had slightly more than an 80% probability of having a disc extrusion.

A Dutch study (Corbee, 2012) examined the incidence of obesity in show dogs. On a 9-point BCS scale, the incidence of overweight was 18.6%. In other words, nearly one fifth of the dogs were being shown despite not being in optimal body condition (1.1% were identified as  obese). The author recommended “firm discussions with breeders and judges in order to come to different interpretations of the breed standards”.

The Channel 4 programme made clear that individual dogs really needed a bespoke weight-loss programme and that it’s not as simple as saying “feed less and exercise more”.  For example, the Bulldog in the programme was too unfit to cope with increased exercise initially and needed to reduce weight with an improved diet first.  By contrast, the fat Cavalier was given a programme with changes to diet, feeding regime and exercise.

I might regret mentioning another piece of research, but a 2010 paper reported on the relationship between overweight dogs and overweight owners. (Public Health Nutr. 2010 Jan;13(1):102-6). The analysis of owners and their dogs (and cats) at three veterinary clinics in Amsterdam showed that the degree to which dogs (but not cats) are overweight is related to the Body Mass Index (BMI) of their owners.  Interestingly, that correlation disappeared after correction for time spent walking the dog.  The researchers suggested that advice to overweight people “to get a dog and walk it at least three times a day” could be a useful way to increase human compliance with weight-loss programmes.

Given the impact of lifestyle factors on obesity and other canine health conditions, I can see that many breeds will need to give consideration to this as they develop their Breed Health Improvement Strategies.  We’re certainly moving in that direction with the Dachshunds.  Our 2012 Health Survey gave us good data on the prevalence of health problems in the six varieties of Dachshund, but overall, there weren’t too many surprises.  We’ve had discussions with the RVC researchers who published the paper on IVDE risk factors and agreed with them that it would make sense for our next survey to look in detail at lifestyle factors.  So, we’re currently in the process of designing “Dachs-Life 2015” and we hope to find out more about the size, weight, diets, exercise regimes and other factors that influence the health of UK Dachshunds.  I know other Breed Health Coordinators are having similar discussions and considering where it is relevant to ask about “lifestyle” in their health surveys.

Of course, there’s no point just doing this sort of survey as an academic exercise.  We have to use the results to help improve education programmes for owners and these will increasingly have to be delivered through social media channels. The occasional programme on TV can’t do any harm either!

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