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There are all kinds of special dog foods on the market today. Lots of them are touted as being healthier for your dog by pet food companies. Many of these claims tend to be exaggerated. Some dogs do need special diets or they need to avoid certain ingredients but the majority of dogs can eat most complete, nutritious dog foods.
In fact, most experts agree that dogs in the U.S. today are more likely to suffer from over-nutrition rather than malnutrition. That’s one reason why we have a canine population that is over 50 percent overweight or obese – many of them experiencing the health problems that go along with maintaining an unhealthy weight. This brings up the issue of low-calorie dog foods. Does your dog need a low-calorie dog food?
Your dog’s weight and condition
Your dog’s ideal weight and condition can depend on different factors:
- Overall health
- How much exercise s/he gets
- How much and what kind of food you feed
For example, it would be unrealistic to expect a 10-year-old senior dog to maintain the same level of fitness as a two-year-old dog just entering the prime of life. Some 10-year-old dogs may be very healthy and active but they usually have less muscle tone than younger dogs. They may begin to show signs of aging and have some nagging health problems. Their metabolism usually begins to slow and they don’t process food as efficiently as younger dogs. Many older dogs will rest and sleep more so they may need slightly fewer calories if they are gaining weight. For all of these reasons, you may start to consider a senior dog food that may have fewer calories or cutting back the rations of their regular dog food.
Dogs don’t have to be seniors in order to gain weight. Many dogs today are quite young when they start putting on extra pounds. If your dog is not getting enough exercise or if you are over-feeding, it’s very likely that s/he will become overweight.
Calories in dog foods today
Most holistic dog foods today have far more calories than traditional dog foods have typically contained. They are nutrient-dense and packed with more calories from chicken fat, fish oil, canola oil, and other fat sources. If you have formerly been feeding your dog a dog food with average calories and you switch to a holistic dog food, you may be nearly doubling the amount of calories you are giving your dog.
For example, Nutro Wholesome Essentials Adult Dry Dog Food Venison Meal, Brown Rice & Oatmeal Recipe contains 323 calories per cup while Nature’s Variety Instinct Original Grain-Free Recipe with Real Chicken has 499 calories per cup. Nutro has been a perfectly good brand for many years. Many dogs have done well eating their foods. Plus, some dogs with food allergies may do better eating a food with venison as the only meat protein. But someone switching to a holistic food with far more calories may not realize that the new food has so many more calories. If you change foods, be sure to check the label or company web site to see how many calories the food has. The guidelines and recommended feeding suggestions for dog foods are not always accurate.
Is your dog overweight?
While most pet owners and veterinary staff agree that pet obesity is a problem in the United States, and they agree that overweight pets are at an increased risk of pain and suffering, the vast majority of owners and vets report their own pets are a normal, healthy weight. This is despite survey results that show nearly 59 percent of cats and 54 percent of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese. So, something doesn’t seem to add up. People don’t seem to see when their own pet is overweight or obese.
There are some ways that you can tell if your dog is overweight. Even though dogs come in all shapes and sizes, overweight and obese dogs do share some characteristics:
- They tire easily;
- Minimal exercise makes them huff and puff;
- You have trouble feeling their ribs;
- They may have rolls of fat on their body;
- Dogs lack muscle tone;
- There is no “tuck up” or waist behind the dog’s rib cage;
- Seen from above, the dog’s back may appear wide and flat, like a table top.
None of these are good signs.
Dogs who are overweight or obese are more likely to have health problems and diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, heat stroke, heart and liver disease, respiratory difficulties, and problems during surgery. Fit dogs simply live longer, often by a year or more – a long time in the life of a beloved pet.
With most dogs in healthy shape you should be able to feel (but not see) their ribs. In the case of some Sighthound breeds, such as Salukis and others, you may be able to see their ribs at times. This is not unusual. You may also be able to see the ribs of some hunting dogs when they are in fit condition with good muscle tone. Again, this is not a bad sign. It’s normal for these breeds. Unfortunately, in our society, we have come to equate overfeeding dogs with love. Many people seem to try to show their pets how much they love them by stuffing them with more food. This is not a healthy way to express your fondness for your dog and it will eventually shorten your dog’s life.
If you are not sure if your dog is overweight or obese ask your veterinarian. Most vets should have a body condition chart in their offices so you can compare your dog's condition with a dog's ideal body condition.
Helping your dog lose weight
If your dog needs to lose weight there are a number of things you can do to help. Feeding fewer calories is a good place to start, whether it is cutting back on your dog’s regular portions or changing to a low-calorie dog food.
Keep in mind that whether you feed your dog smaller portions or you change to a low-calorie dog food, a dog on a diet is not going to be any happier than a human on a diet. He’s definitely going to know he’s getting fewer calories so expect begging, pleading, and raids on the trash can as he looks for snacks between meals. You can give your reluctant dieter some healthy, low-cal snacks such as carrot pieces and apple pieces. You can also add low-sodium green beans to his meals to help him feel fuller when he eats without increasing his calories very much. But don’t give your dog a lot of cookies and treats. They are full of calories so feeding them would defeat the purpose of your dog’s diet.
You should also increase your dog’s exercise, even if it’s just making sure that he gets some daily play or the two of you take a long walk. Regular exercise will increase your dog’s muscle tone and help his conditioning.
Remember that it’s important to help your dog lose weight gradually. No crash dieting. Your dog didn’t gain weight overnight so he won’t lose it quickly. Aim for your dog to lose about 3 to 5 percent of his body weight per month or about 1 percent per week. This may not sound like much but it adds up. If your dog weighs 50 pounds, that can add up to 2 pounds or more in a month which starts to be noticeable.
Low-calorie dog foods
Most of the better quality dry dog foods today have between 300 and 500 calories per cup. Government regulatory bodies have asked pet food companies to add this information to package labels but not all companies have complied yet. If the information is not on the label you can find it on the company web site.
If your dog is overweight and you are feeding a food that has a lot of calories, you may need to think about changing foods. There are lots of good dog foods that have between 300-400 calories. Even if your dog needs a grain free food or a novel protein, you should be able to find some good foods in this calorie range. Many of the Natural Balance kibbles fall in this category, for example, plus they have a new low calorie dog food that is higher in protein and low in fat called Fat Dogs with only 250 calories per cup.
Most low-calorie dog foods will be labeled “low-calorie” or “low fat” by dog food companies. Or they may be called “Healthy Weight” or “Weight Reduction” foods. Sometimes you see the terms weight control, lite, less calorie, and so on. You may have to read the product descriptions to see exactly what the company claims the food does. Some low-calorie dog foods have lower fat than others. Some will have more fiber than others to try to make your dog feel fuller. Some foods will use more carbohydrates for the same purpose. It’s important for you to read the ingredient labels and nutrient percentages to see the approach the company is taking and if it will be suitable for your dog. Even though you may want your dog to lose weight, you probably don’t want him to be so full of fiber that he has enormous poops six times per day!
Adult dogs require a minimum of 5 percent fat by dry matter basis, according to AAFCO guidelines. This is extremely low. Most veterinarians and pet nutritionists consider diets that have less than 10 percent fat by dry matter basis to be low-fat. Foods that have 10 to 15 percent fat would be considered moderate fat. Some dogs do require very low fat diets, especially if they have certain health problems or if they can’t eat higher amounts of fat without discomfort. However, most dogs, even those on diets, will probably not do very well if you feed them a diet that is extremely low in fat. That’s because the poor dog will make your life miserable until you feed him something. If you’re feeding your dog a very low-calorie (or low-fat) diet, your dog is going to follow you around, wake you up in the middle of the night, and beg you constantly for food. That’s just the truth. You will be better off feeding your dog a less drastic diet, even if it’s low-calorie, so he loses weight more slowly. At least he won’t be starving all the time or begging for food constantly. And you won’t feel like such a monster.
Even if you are looking for a low-calorie dog food, protein is still important in your dog’s diet. This is especially true for senior dogs since they can start to have trouble metabolizing nutrients as they age. Many senior dog foods do double-duty as low-cal foods, unfortunately, and they are low in both fat and protein. We recommend avoiding these foods if you have a senior dog. Senior dogs need more protein, not less, unless your dog has a serious health problem that requires you to reduce his protein percentage.
Keep in mind that low-calorie dog foods are usually less tasty than other dog foods for your dog. That’s because it’s normally the fat in a dog food that makes them taste good to dogs. When companies reduce the fat, they also remove much of the taste. You may have to add some low-calorie canned food or some fresh food from your kitchen to make the food taste better. Just watch the calories.
These suggestions are just a starting point. You always need to observe your dog’s condition when he’s dieting to see how he’s doing. Is he losing weight? It’s important to weigh your dog regularly. Does his coat look good? Is he active? Does he continue to have good bowel movements? All of these points can be indications of how your dog is doing on his low-calorie dog food.
We would be remiss if we didn’t recommend monitoring your dog’s meals. Many people today like to free feed their dogs – putting down food and letting their dog eat whenever he likes. This is another big cause of obesity. When you leave food sitting down all the time, a dog can snack and nibble all day, whether he’s really hungry or not. We suggest feeding meals at specific times, measuring your dog’s food, and removing it after 15-20 minutes. This cuts out snacking and eating extra calories round the clock.
Lots of dogs today are eating more calories than they really need. You can cut back on the amount of regular dog food you’re feeding your dog or you can look for a low-calorie dog food. There are many low-calorie foods available. We suggest looking for a food that has around 10 percent fat by dry matter basis as long as your dog has no other health problems to consider. Go slow and don’t try to make your dog crash diet. It’s best to aim for him to lose between 3 and 5 percent of his body weight per month. Increasing your dog’s exercise, even a slight amount, will help build muscle tone and help him lose weight.