“Remember, this is for the best interest of your pet. You may not see results immediately, and that is totally fine. If you keep up with the routine, you will see results in the long term.”
Shaelyn St. Onge-Cole, RVT, Veterinary Technology Instructor at Foothill College
The average American needs to get more exercise, and that applies to American dogs, too. A 2017 clinical survey found that 56 percent of dogs in the US, or 50.2 million in aggregate, were obese. This is hardly just a problem of aesthetics: clinical obesity in pets can lead to a series of secondary health concerns, and contribute to a reduced quality of life and a shorter life expectancy.
For humans and dogs alike, regular exercise, along with a healthy diet, is the answer. But the responsibility rests primarily on dogs’ human companions to set up healthy habits that both can enjoy and benefit from. And veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, and other veterinary professionals can play a vital role in helping those pet lovers keep their pets happy and healthy.
January is Walk Your Dog Month, and it’s a time to recognize the important mental and physical health benefits of regular exercise, for dogs and humans alike. It’s also an opportunity to make the most of those walks together, and start off the new year with positive routines. And it’s the perfect occasion for veterinary professionals to talk to pet lovers about how to prioritize their pet’s health.
Raising Awareness About Pet Obesity
“Pet obesity is such an important subject to speak with owners about,” says Shaelyn St. Onge-Cole, RVT, a Veterinary Technology Instructor at Foothill College. “Obesity can exacerbate many other health issues such as arthritis and heart disease.”
Obesity shouldn’t be a shameful topic. As St. Onge-Cole explains, many people give food as a way to show their love, and that habit extends to giving extra food to their pets. It may not even just be the owner themselves, but extended family members and loved ones who sneak a little extra bacon under the table. But pet obesity, like human obesity, can be sneaky: weight gain may amass slowly, making it harder for pet owners to recognize the overall change.
“Asking the owner to explain all the foods that their pet may have in a day can bring to light the amount of food their pet is getting,” St. Onge-Cole says. “There are different body condition scales that can be utilized to help the owner see where their patient sits. You can give the owner the sheet and have them look at the different characteristics of each number and have them check their patient. The owner will identify that the patient is overweight on their own.”
How to Get Started With Healthy Habits
Regular exercise is the best prescription for keeping yourself and your dog happy and healthy. Most dogs should be walking around 30 minutes a day, which is enough to improve cardiovascular health, promote a balanced weight, and boost immune function.
Dr. Ernie Ward, the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), recommends setting a brisk pace at the start of each walk, around 15 minutes per mile, and following this up with a casual pace for the remainder of the walk. The brisker portion of the walk may be shorter than the casual portion at first, but the ratio should increasingly favor a brisk pace over time.
“In the beginning, any extra movement is great,” St. Onge-Cole says. “But like increasing exercise in humans, deciding one day to walk your overweight pet for five miles straight can be problematic if the patient is obese. It can cause strain on the heart, joints, and respiratory system.”
Pet obesity isn’t something that’s fixed overnight. According to the APOP, a dog can, generally speaking, safely lose 1 to 3 percent of its body weight per month, but any faster than that could lead to poor medical conditions. That means that most overweight dogs will need a weight loss plan that stretches across several months. In the beginning, it may start with simply having your pet walk a few laps around the kitchen before you set their food down, St. Onge-Cole explains. Eventually, it can grow to encompass a wider range of healthy exercise habits, which can extend from simple walks to other creative ideas.
“I like to involve children in the weight loss journey, and ask them if they have any ideas to increase the patient’s activities,” St. Onge-Cole says. “I’ve had some really awesome suggestions from children, and they often really like to be involved.”
The Importance of Proper Nutrition
Along with regular exercise, proper nutrition is critical to keeping your dog healthy. While veterinary professionals and pet owners may have mixed opinions upon what types of food are best, calorie intake is widely agreed to be the biggest factor in maintaining a healthy weight for one’s dog.
“Having a very specific amount of food to feed is really important,” St. Onge-Cole says. “You can check in with your veterinarian to find out how much food or how many calories the pet can have per day. You can also use low-calorie treats to feel like you are treating your pet. Some dogs love veggies like carrots or broccoli, or you can freeze low sodium chicken broth and use that as a treat on a hot day.”
Small changes can have a big impact. APOP studies have found that feeding your small dog as few as ten extra tiny kibbles of food per day can add up to an extra pound of weight gain per year. Accurately measuring portions, counting calories, and sticking to designated feeding times can all help keep a pet’s diet on track. Food puzzles can be a helpful tool, too: they slow down the rate of feeding, discourage owners from immediately refilling the bowl, and make the eating process more stimulating for pets.
“When you reduce the amount of food, some dogs will act like they are starving, but they are not,” St. Onge-Cole says. “If you want to treat your pet, use some of their measured food as treats, and every time you want to give a treat to your pet, have them walk for it.”
How to Keep Up Healthy Habits
January may be Walk Your Dog Month, but it’s important that the habits one builds last longer than your average New Year’s Resolution. And despite all the focus on health, exercise, and diet, your walks with your dog are still supposed to be fun and interesting.
“Different routes are often a nice way to mix things up,” St. Onge-Cole says. “The more smells, the better for dogs. It’s a great idea to find ways to keep the walking interesting for people, too. If the people aren’t engaged, they may stop or shorten the walks.”
Taking new routes, adding in dedicated playtime, and inviting a friend and their dog to join in on walks can keep routines fresh and interesting for everyone involved. Visits to dog parks can build up a dog’s social skills, and not every walk needs to adhere to a strict pace and schedule—sometimes it’s more fun for everyone to let the dog navigate where you go. A little trial and error might be needed to find the right balance, but it will result in a healthier, happier life for both dogs and their human companions.
“Remember, this is for the best interest of your pet,” St. Onge-Cole says. “You may not see results immediately, and that is totally fine. If you keep up with the routine, you will see results in the long term. If you have a setback, don’t give up and don’t be embarrassed and ask for help if you need it.”