Hi, I have a question about my new dog’s eating habits. We have a 6 year old Chihuahua and an 8 year old Labrador Retriever. Last year I found a mixed breed dog and since I couldn’t find the owners, I decided to keep her. She weighed 22 pounds when I found her a year ago. She now weighs 30! I’m not sure if she was underweight because of neglect when I found her, or if she’s become overweight since she began living with us? The Lab and the Chihuahua have always been allowed to free feed. We leave their food and water out all the time and just refill it when it gets low. Neither of them have ever had a weight problem. I don’t really want to disrupt the Lab and Chihuahua’s eating habits on account of the new dog but I’m not what to do, since the only solution I can think of would be to give each dog their own serving of food once/twice a day in separate bowls. We thought that the new dog would eventually catch on to the fact that she doesn’t have to worry about having enough food any more. But it’s been a year and she still seems to worry about being fed/getting enough food.Like I said before, I don’t want to mess up the other dogs but I don’t want the new dog to become unhealthy and overweight. Please help me decide what to do so I can make sure my three pups stay healthy and happy.
Well, we have a couple of things to talk about here.
First, how can we tell if your dog is overweight? My general rule of thumb is that I want to be able to feel their ribs when I rub their side, feel their back-bones when I rub their back, and feel their hip-bones when I rub their hindquarters. If I can’t feel the ribs under there, no matter how hard I rub, we’ve got too much padding! In general, it is better to have your dogs a little on the skinny side —thin dogs live longer, are healthier, and have fewer joint problems.
I’m going to guess that your rescue might be overcompensating a bit for previous missed meals, since she’s added over 25% of her body weight since you found her. But, remember, muscle weighs a lot more than fat —moving in with 2 active dogs could have her running around a lot more, and she may have gained a bit of that weight in muscle, not fat! Even so, you should still be able to feel those ribs.
All right, so let’s say your dog is overweight, no ribs to be found. It may not be from overeating! Some animals do have hormonal problems that can lead to weight gain. An underactive thyroid gland, which regulates the body’s metabolic rate, is the most common endocrine disorder in dogs —but it’s also the most overdiagnosed endocrine disorder in dogs, so make sure you have the proper tests done before accepting that diagnosis. Hypothyroid dogs tend to be sluggish, overweight despite having a mediocre appetite, cold all the time, and often develop skin problems. If this sounds like your dog, a simple blood test called a “free t4″ will accurately tell you whether or not she might benefit from a thyroid supplement (a screening test, called just the “T4,” often gives false positives, leading to the overdiagnosis issue). You say that your dog seems worried about getting enough food —so I suspect that hypothyroidism is not the problem here.
More often, just as with people, you can distill the basic cause of obesity down to too much food and not enough exercise. Some dogs just love to eat —we’ve all heard the phrase “chow-hound!”
Dogs eat for a variety of reasons, not all of which have to do with hunger. The relative size of a dog’s stomach, compared to its body, is much larger than our own; evolutionarily, this extra capacity allowed dogs to consume several days worth of food when it was available. Of course, in our pampered pets’ world today, food can be too available —so filling up that big stomach every day can really pack on the pounds in a hurry!
When you have multiple dogs in a household, pack dynamics often come into play. In a pack, dominant (alpha) animals control the food —they eat first, and then the lower ranked (beta) animals get the leftovers. Some dogs, trying to show off how dominant they are, do their best to eat all the food first, to tell the others “I’m number one here!” Sometimes you’ll see this in action when a dog comes by to visit, the arrival stimulating the resident dog to jump up and scarf down a bowl of food that they had been ignoring for hours. Other times, a beta dog overeats out of concern that it may not get any the next time food is divvied up —even if that missed meal never happens, the instinct to eat more ‘just in case’ can be strong. And certainly, some dogs who spent too much time hungry on the street overeat because of “emotional issues.”
All well and good, but more important, what can you do to help your dogs maintain a healthy weight? There are a number of strategies, some more successful than others; which approach will work best for you depends on your dogs and your own lifestyle.
It may be that your rescue dog is simply temperamentally unable to leave a food bowl full, and you are absolutely right that the simplest solution would be to feed each dog separate and defined meals, once or twice a day. That, combined with more exercise, could go a long way towards a slimmer, healthier rescue dog. The good news is that your other dogs will most likely adapt quickly to the new reality of ‘eat now, or wait until tomorrow.’ How much to feed each dog depends on a number of factors (see my previous post); generally, if feeding conventional dog food, I start with around 80% or what the label suggests.
But there are a few more things that you could try as well….
As a veterinarian who believes that proper nutrition is the cornerstone of health, one of the first things I look at is the food itself. Obesity is, after all, a result of “malnutrition.” All foods marketed in the US as pet “food” carry a label that proclaims they are complete and balanced foods, formulated to meet the nutrient levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) for the species and life-stage listed (unlike “treats,” which have no nutritional requirements). Unfortunately, this is a very low bar, and while foods formulated to the AAFCO standards are assuredly “adequate nutrition,” in my opinion, many fall far short of being “optimal nutrition.” After all, people can survive eating ramen noodles, pizza, and donuts (as amply demonstrated by college students across the country) —an adequate, but far from optimal, diet! Sometimes, dogs eating a conventional dry dog food overeat because their body is craving more of some nutrient than they are getting from their highly processed food. I like to at least add a good balanced multivitamin supplement (especially one that includes minimally processed glandular extracts, like Standard Process’s canine formulas). High nutritional value meat-based treats, like grass-fed bison liver, are also great supplements, and far better than nutritionally void, empty-calorie treats like flour-based biscuits.
Unlike many vets, one thing I do not usually recommend to combat obesity is a conventional low-fat “diet” dog food. Appetite is actually turned off by fat consumption —for example, you can eat fat-free rice cakes until they’re coming out of your ears and still feel hungry, whereas a really rich, high-fat french cream sauce will make you feel full before you’ve eaten half your meal. If your dog eats twice as much of a low-fat food that has a third less calories, she’s going to gain weight, not lose it! You can restrict the amount of food given, but dogs eating low-fat foods tend to act hungry all the time, and are more likely to scavenge wherever and whenever they can. Also, I have found that animals eating low-fat foods tend to have dry skin and many more skin issues. In fact, I have had far more luck getting dogs to lose weight by putting them on higher fat, higher protein diets, or even just by adding a splash of olive oil to their food so that they’re more satisfied with less food (not too much or you’ll give them the runs!).
Fortunately, higher quality foods have become much more widely available, and there are even certified organic and unprocessed whole-food options (freeze dried or frozen) for people who want to go beyond the realm of cans and kibble. I’ll try to go into more detail about foods in a future post.
Hope this information helps!