Gazette Vet: Cut ‘Em Back

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by John Andersen, DVM

I have been doing a lot of running this year and just recently I downloaded an app for my phone called RunKeeper. It is a program that tracks your route using GPS and gives you your current pace and mileage traveled. At the end of each run, it gives you a run summary along with total calories used.

The first time I used this app, I ran a five-mile loop that included the great new Western Albemarle High School cross country course. After huffing and puffing through hills of the x-country course, I was rewarded with the last mile home, all uphill. When I finally reached my house, I was spent and totally out of gas. The phone told me my summary and to my surprise I had only burned 600 calories.

I admit I’m not much of a calorie counter and don’t really have a good reference point there, but I was a little disappointed at just burning off 600 calories. I was running at a fast pace and when I was done my legs were trembling and I was wheezing like I had asthma. Surely I had just burned off more energy?!

So I went inside and did a little research. The phone was right. Most “calorie calculators” put me burning 550-600 calories over five miles. Then I looked up some favorite foods. My grueling cross country run would be totally negated by eating just 2 donuts. Or a large order of French fries from McDonalds. But that Qdoba burrito I ate for lunch that day? Well, I better go run the course again because that’s what I would need to do to burn off that guilty pleasure.

What in the world does this have to do with this veterinary column?

Well, if there’s one thing my clients probably get tired of me talking about, it’s diet and nutrition. Aren’t you bored already? On many occasions I’ve had clients tell the nurses before I get into the room: “and tell Dr. Andersen not to lecture me about her weight…”. I get eye rolls, floor stares, or sometimes they just fade out and start talking to their dog during our discussion.

I am admittedly pretty passionate and particular about people keeping their dogs fit. Fit dogs live longer, are healthier, are less expensive, and simply enjoy life more than their overweight counterparts.

And when I have one of these “weight” conversations, I rarely talk about exercise and rather focus all of their attention on how much the dog is eating.

When I saw that “600 calories burned” readout, I felt validated as to why I take the “less food” approach to weight loss vs. “more exercise.” I’ll explain with my dog Boone.

Boone is my one and a half year-old Labrador and he loves to run. With the summer heat, running has been a bit off limits, but we’re getting back into it with these cooler evenings and mornings.

Boone weighs 60 pounds, and with the help of our calorie calculators, if I take him on a two-mile run, he will burn a whopping…90 calories. That’s right. So that works out to one large milkbone, or one greenie dental treat, or ¼ cup of food.

So if I told you that I took my dog on a two-mile run seven days a week, you’d expect him to be pretty fit, right? Well, if I’m overfeeding him by just a little bit, or giving him just a few too many treats per day, he’s going to be overweight. Now yes, he’ll have increased muscle mass and cardiovascular stamina, but if he’s overweight, he’s still going to be dealing with all of the issues associated with that—a marked increased risk for osteoarthritis in his joints, more likely to overheat, more likely to develop heart disease and hormonal diseases.

Now of course, when we’re trying to get the pounds off, increased exercise will help. But the reality is that most dogs are getting the amount of exercise that can fit into their owners’ lives. I would love to have the time to take my dog on 5 mile hikes twice a day, but the reality is that some days he’s lucky to get out of the fenced yard.

So the main focus should always be on the food. It’s a simple equation: calories in vs. calories used. Calories used is a really hard one for most of us to increase dramatically, and we’ve discussed how much exercise it takes to raise that significantly. So the answer for weight loss is easy: cut ‘em back! There is a certain amount of food to keep even the laziest of dogs beautifully thin.

Well, easy in theory anyway. Unfortunately, most dogs have a hunger level that is dramatically greater than their caloric need. When they are fed an appropriate amount to keep them thin, they will tell you in every way that they are starving. They’ll howl, they’ll beg. They’ll wake you up early. They’ll get into the kitty litter box. They’ll eat who knows what. But hold strong, mom and dad. As long as they have energy to put on a good show, they’re doing just fine. In just under 10 years of practice I have never once seen a dog harmed by an appropriate diet reduction.

Let’s face it. We feel bad. We have bad habits. The scoop is too big. He really expects a treat when he comes in. If I don’t give him something before I leave the house, he’ll be mad at me. If I don’t give him something from the table, he’ll beg.

Or my favorite, “he really doesn’t eat that much, he never finishes his food.” Usually that’s because Fluffy has enough food out for five dogs. She can’t finish that food anymore than I can finish eating all the food at the Wood Grill Buffet.

Ok, I’m done. You can leave the appointment now. I hope you haven’t felt lectured to. But I do hope you’ll be re-energized to get your dogs in tip top shape so they can tear it up this fall!