Fit & Fed
Everything you need to know about a healthy diet and exercise regimen for your dog.
Is your dog too fat? Is he getting enough exercise? And what the heck should you really be feeding him? Providing your dog with the best nutrition and fitness regimen can be confusing. That’s why we’ve rounded up 40 facts, tips, and tidbits to help keep your dog healthy.
Maintain or regain weight1. The most common chronic problem veterinarians see in dogs is obesity, says Susan Nelson, D.V.M., a veterinarian at Kansas State University. “As dogs get older we spend more time by far talking about weight with our clients than any other issue.”
2. If you can’t see or even feel your dog’s ribs, if his stomach hangs down from his chest rather than tucking up, and if he has no discernible waistline when viewed from the top, your dog is probably overweight, according to the Purina Body Condition System.
3. Your veterinarian might not tell you your dog is overweight, Nelson says. “A lot of pet owners get very offended when told their dogs are overweight, so we try to put it in gentle terms. Some veterinarians may be hesitant to mention it at all. However, if you ask them, they should let you know the truth.”
4. Keeping dogs lean is crucial for good health, says Jennifer Larsen, D.V.M., a board-certified clinical nutritionist at the University of California, Davis. “A long-term study demonstrated that dogs kept lean throughout life showed an improved quality of life, less orthopedic disease, and a longer life span by almost two years.”
5. If your dog is overweight, it’s a good idea to start counting canine calories. “That includes meals and treats,” Nelson says. “Calories from treats add up quickly.”
6. Sometimes, all it takes to help a dog lose weight is to cut down on or eliminate treats.
7. Calories from treats should make up no more than 10 percent of the diet.
8. When cutting back on treats doesn’t work, Nelson recommends discussing a diet formula with your veterinarian. “All diet foods aren’t the same,” she says. “Your veterinarian can recommend a good one.”
9. Only your veterinarian can tell you how many calories your dog needs each day. “Veterinarians have tools for calculating how much your dog should weigh and how many calories he needs, based on activity level, metabolism, and other factors,” Nelson says.
10. Many dog food packages now publish calorie content, but the numbers may not be per serving, so you might have to do some math. If calories are not listed, check the company’s website or call the customer service line on the package.
11. Feeding guidelines on dog food bags and cans tend to be generous, Nelson says. “Start by feeding on the low end of what they recommend, or even a little less, then adjust from there depending on your dog’s progress.”
12. While helping your pet lose weight, aim for slow, gradual weight loss.
Choose the best food
13. Don’t believe everything you read about pet food on the Internet, says Rebecca Remillard, D.V.M., a veterinary nutritionist at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. “All information out there does not have equal value, so consider the source. I spend most of my day debunking bad information or trying to put information in its proper perspective for people.”
14. By law, dog foods have to list ingredients, but that information doesn’t have to be specific, and says nothing about quality, digestibility, or bio-availability — the extent to which a nutrient can be used by the body.
15. Dog food labels list ingredients in order of how much the food contains. However, this can be misleading. If a label lists chicken, cornmeal, barley, oatmeal, and wheat, in that order, the food probably contains a larger proportion of grain than meat.
16. Choose a food that states on the package that it is formulated to meet nutritional requirements established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. “These are minimum requirements. I wouldn’t choose a food without that statement,” Nelson says.
17. Food ingredients with bad reputations, like byproducts and grains (including wheat and corn), aren’t necessarily bad and are fine for most healthy dogs, Remillard says.
18. Food allergies aren’t as prevalent as people think they are, Nelson says. “Some animals really do have food allergies, but they aren’t the cause of every problem.”
19. Organic food may be better for the environment, match a pet owner’s ethical choice, or fit into a certain lifestyle, but research hasn’t proven it is more nutritious than non-organic food.
20. “People like to talk about the wild, feral diet,” Remillard says. “Just because a diet is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s optimal. Nutrition science allows dogs to live much longer and healthier lives than they did living from garbage can to garbage can, when their only evolutionary imperative was to reproduce as soon as possible.”
21. Different foods are appropriate for different dogs. “What applies to a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy doesn’t apply to a senior Chihuahua,” Remillard says. “A formula should fit your dog’s life stage, size, and health condition.”
22. Puppies need puppy food, and that applies to large- and giant-breed puppies, too, despite what some breeders and even vets might say, Larsen says. “Research has debunked the notion that large-breed puppies need less protein. Instead of an adult formula, choose a large-breed growth formula, which will be less energy dense, so you will be less likely to overfeed.”
23. Home-prepared pet food can be safe and nutritious if formulated to meet your dog’s individual needs, Remillard says. A veterinary nutritionist can formulate a diet for your dog.
24. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition advises that most commercial pet food is safe, but pet owners should keep an eye on websites that contain accurate, updated information about recalls. The American Veterinary Medical Association provides such information, as does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
25. The contaminated wheat gluten implicated in the pet food recalls in spring 2007 was a human-grade ingredient. “Human-grade food products are just as likely, if not more likely, to be contaminated or be subject to a recall than pet food,” Remillard says.
26. Well-known pet food companies engaging in nutritional research with internal quality control procedures are likely to produce safe, high-quality, nutritionally complete dog food. For questions about quality control, check the company’s website or call the customer service number on the package.
27. Nutritionists still have a lot to learn, Remillard says. “We don’t yet know what the perfect canine diet is, and many more advancements are on the horizon, including some exciting things like how diet can actually influence how DNA is expressed.
Move it or lose it
28. Exercise is one of the most important ways to address behavioral problems. “It’s the first thing we look at when dealing with annoying behaviors,” says Joanne Reaney, owner of DogSports training and activity center in Lancaster, Pa. “Destructiveness and hyperactivity in particular can be caused by insufficient exercise.”
29. Active dogs can eat more, but small dogs need a surprisingly small amount of food to maintain weight if they aren’t exercising.
30. Walking is just as important as running or playing, Reaney says. “Walking wears them down physically and mentally.”
31. Dogs aren’t likely to get enough exercise alone in a fenced yard, Nelson says. “A walk provides sustained aerobic exercise. Otherwise, they might run the fence once or twice, but then are more likely to just amble about or lie down.”
32. Doggie daycare or day camp is a great way to keep dogs exercised. “When the dog is moving around all day, he won’t run around like a maniac when you get home,” Reaney says.
33. Couch potato dogs need to start slowly. “Gradually increase the length of walks, roll a ball instead of throwing it, and keep it low impact at first,” Reaney says. “Slowly introduce higher intensity activities.”
34. Dogs, just like people, can overtrain and burn out. “Keep exercise fun, not exhausting. Stop before the dog wants to stop so they are eager to do it again,” she says.
35. Of all the canine sports available to dogs, agility offers the best variety of physical and mental activity, says M. Christine Zink, D.V.M., a canine sports medicine consultant in Ellicott City, Md.
36. Puppies younger than 6 months should not be exercised for the purpose of conditioning for dog sports, Zink says. “Limit training to body awareness and good-citizen-type training, such as Sit, Down, Come, and walking on a leash.”
37. From 6 to 14 months, dogs can begin strength training and jump training, but no higher than elbow height, she says.
38. “Only after 14 months of age should dogs begin gentle endurance-aerobic training, such as running distances over a mile or two, and only then should they begin to train [for activities] where they bend their backs and jump full-height jumps,” Zink says.
39. Dogs lighter for their size tend to do better in sports, suffer fewer injuries, and have longer performance careers, Zink says. “A Corgi and a Papillon have the same job to do, but a Corgi weighs five times what a Papillon does.”
40. When in doubt about any information regarding nutrition or exercise advice for your dog, always ask your veterinarian.
Eve Adamson is a New York Times best-selling author, DOG FANCY contributing editor, and award-winning pet writer. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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