Gazette Vet: Killing Them with Kindness

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by John Andersen, DVM

“Petey” was a dog who was killed by kindness. Petey weighed 30 pounds.

The problem was that Petey should’ve weighed 20 pounds. Petey was morbidly obese.

You really can’t blame him though. He was just a dog who loved food. His appetite was ridiculous. He could never be satisfied. He was always begging for food. Petey’s main problem was really his mom and dad.

Now I will say, it can be difficult figuring out how much to feed a dog. Especially when you’ve had them since puppyhood. Most dogs need more food per day at 4 months of age then they need when they’re fully grown. The problem is they don’t come with instruction manuals. Some 50-pound dogs are fit and trim on 4 cups per day, while some 50-pound dogs are obese despite only getting 2 cups per day. And the food bag feeding guidelines?! More like obesity guidelines… “If you want your dog to have chronic health problems induced by obesity, feed them according to our label.” In other words, the guidelines on the bag of food suggest way too much food for most dogs.

Back to Petey. We had seen Petey since he was 8 weeks old. It became clear by around 16 weeks that he was getting a little pudgy, even for a puppy. When asked about how much he was eating, mom confessed that they fed him whenever he asked for food. We had a nice discussion about this. I informed her that Petey, like 90 percent of all dogs, needs to be limited in the amount of food offered to him. In other words, if we feed him what he wants, he will be very overweight. I relayed the fact that most dogs’ appetites are simply unrealistic. Whether it’s because of their personality, their breed, or their genes, most dogs are not satisfied being thin.

Petey’s mom wasn’t convinced. If Petey was asking for food, he must need it! Who was she to deny him  this basic right?

Over the next year, Petey was fed, and fed, and fed. And Petey grew, and grew, and grew. When I saw him at his one-year-old check-up, I was actually a little shocked at how obese he was. I had a long talk with his mom and dad about what a major health problem this was. Petey just looked at me and begged for a treat.

When I inquired about how much they fed him, it was clear that they were still simply overfeeding him. I discussed this with them and gave them specific feeding guidelines. It was all really simple—decrease the amount of food you feed him and he’ll lose weight. He’ll be hungry, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s normal!

But Petey still grew. When I saw him a year later, he had gained even more weight. But he did not come in for a routine check-up. He came in because he was very sick. His parents said they had noticed that he had been drinking lots of water and urinating a lot over the past month, but they thought it was because of the hot summer. Then he began to have accidents in the house, but they thought it was because their neighbors got a new dog. More recently though, he hadn’t eaten for two days, had been vomiting, and this morning he collapsed when he went outside.

When he came in to the office, he was in shock, profoundly dehydrated, unable even to lift his head. A few lab tests later and I found out why. Petey was diabetic. Worse, Petey was in a diabetic coma—a critical condition that occurs as a complication of untreated or unregulated diabetes.

I discussed the diagnosis and the treatment necessary to try to make him better. Petey was past the point of just needing to start insulin shots—he needed several days of hospitalized care and intensive management. For a number of reasons, Petey’s owners decided to put him to sleep. Petey was literally killed with kindness.

This is an extreme case of course, and my ultimate point in all of this is to illustrate the fact that obesity in dogs is always a matter of consuming too much food, which is a matter of being fed too much food (I’m reminded of another, larger species in which this is also the case.). OK, maybe there’s an occasional dog with a low thyroid problem, but almost all of those dogs are overweight to begin with. Coincidence?

So, point #1: The majority of dogs will be very hungry if they are fed an appropriate amount of food to keep them trim. They should be begging over an empty food bowl twice a day, everyday (though there are some thin grazers out there…). Ask your vet specifically about your dog’s current body condition and caloric needs. Overweight? Needs less food. Easier said than done, though.

And point #2: If you ever get a puppy, make it your highest priority to keep it thin. Ask your vet how much you should feed him for his age and body size. Realize this is different for different dogs and will change as they grow.

I have yet to have a client call me and tell me their hungry dog ate their children (but drywall, shoes, and garbage are all fair game). Just remember, you’re in control!