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The Four-Pronged Approach to Keeping Your Dog Fit and TrimAnalysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
June 06, 2022
A recent study conducted by a fresh pet food company evaluated diet composition as a factor in overweight and obese dogs.
- A recent study conducted by a fresh pet food company evaluated diet composition as a factor in overweight and obese dogs
- A range of factors influence body condition scores in dogs, but four in particular stood out in the study: diet, exercise, probiotic supplementation, and treat quantity
- The study results indicate that a diet of fresh food, probiotic supplementation, and feeding treats at or under 10% of total daily calories are significant factors in helping dogs maintain an ideal weight
The peer review process for study manuscripts can be quite lengthy, and bioRxiv, which describes itself as a “free online archive and distribution service for unpublished preprints in the life sciences,”1 exists to allow study authors to make their work available as preprints before the peer review and journal certification process is complete. Per the bioRxiv website:
“This allows other scientists to see, discuss, and comment on the findings immediately. Readers should therefore be aware that articles on bioRxiv have not been finalized by authors, might contain errors, and report information that has not yet been accepted or endorsed in any way by the scientific or medical community.”2
Why This Study Is UniqueBack to the study, which was conducted by fresh pet food company NomNomNow.3 What’s unique about this study is that so very few exist involving fresh pet food diets. Big pet food conglomerates that produce ultraprocessed diets conduct studies all the time, but most small fresh food operations simply don’t have the funding.
According to study leader and NomNomNow bioinformatics analyst LeeAnn Perry, the categories of fresh pet food for purposes of the study included “commercial fresh food, commercial frozen food, and home-cooked food … typically characterized by the usage of whole foods ingredients that are gently cooked or minimally processed prior to being frozen or refrigerated …”4
The researchers collected body condition scores and demographic, diet and lifestyle data on 4,446 dogs. Owners of 1,480 dogs (33%) reported their pets were overweight or obese; 356 of that group (8% of the 4,446) were determined to be obese. Of the 4,446 dogs, 22% were fed fresh food only; another 17% were fed fresh food in combination with other types of food.
8 Important Dog Obesity InfluencesThe goal of the study was to evaluate the influence of a wide range of factors on overweightness/obesity, and obesity alone in dogs. The results indicate the following eight factors are significantly associated with both overweightness/obesity and obesity alone:
- Diet composition
- Probiotic supplementation
- Treat quantity
•Diet — Since dogs fed a fresh food only diet comprised the largest category (besides “Other”), the researchers used this as the reference level in their logistic regression.
Relative to fresh fed dogs, those fed dry plus canned, dry only, and dry plus fresh were more likely to be overweight or obese; dry plus canned and dry only, but not dry plus fresh food, were associated with obese only dogs. Dogs fed raw food only were less likely to be overweight/obese, but there was no effect on obesity alone.
•Exercise — Predictably, the researchers found that gradually increasing a dog’s amount of exercise per week decreased the likelihood of both overweightness/obesity and obesity alone.
•Probiotic supplementation (NomNomNow also makes a pet probiotic) — A total of 844 dogs in the study were taking a broad range of commercial probiotic supplements, and the results showed those dogs were more likely to be at an ideal weight.
To further validate this finding, the researchers repeated their analysis using only healthy dogs, since dogs receiving probiotics are more likely to have a medical condition resulting in a lower weight, and the results were the same.
Finally, the research team performed a similar analysis with other supplements including prebiotics, multivitamins, CBD oil, fish oil, herbal supplements, and immune support, and found that none of those supplements appeared to have a significant relationship with either the overweight and obese group of dogs or the obese only dogs.
•Treat quantity — The researchers examined the association between treat intake (by percentage of caloric needs being met by treats) and the dogs’ weight and discovered that while giving over 10% of a dog’s diet in treats was associated with overweightness/obesity, there was no significant difference between giving less than 10% and giving no treats at all.
They concluded that giving treats in moderation is not a risk factor for either overweightness or obesity.
Fresh Food, Probiotics and Treat RestrictionIn the Discussion section of the study, the authors explain that one novel finding is the association between overweightness/obesity in dogs and dry diets, a result that has in the past been (scientifically) observed in cats, but not in dogs.
“Specifically,” the research team writes, “we found that, compared to fresh food, dry food is significantly associated with overweightness/obesity, both alone and in combination with canned or fresh food.
Regarding the relationship between probiotic supplementation and dogs’ body weight, the authors observe:Furthermore, dry food only diets and dry plus canned combination diets were significantly associated with obesity, but not dry plus fresh combination diets. This may indicate that supplementing with other types of food ameliorates the more obesogenic consequences of certain diets.”
“… to the best of our knowledge this is the first large cross-sectional demographic study that has specifically identified probiotic supplementation as a potential protective factor with regard to overweightness and obesity.
The study authors identify treat feeding practices as “robust predictors of body condition [weight]”:The mechanisms behind this relationship are unclear, but in addition to modulating energy harvest and nutrient absorption through alterations in microbiota, probiotics might act through improving insulin sensitivity … or increasing satiety … Additional prospective data should be collected to identify whether there is a causal relationship.”
“In contrast to previous studies which identify even a moderate frequency of treat-feeding as a risk factor … we find that feeding treats in moderation, i.e. with 10% or less of total caloric needs being met by treats, is neither associated with overweightness/obesity nor obesity.
This discordance between findings may be due to differential effects of treat quantity and treat frequency. However, these results should be interpreted cautiously as owner assessment of calories provided by a given treat may often be imprecise.”
Dos and Don’ts for Keeping Your Pet at a Healthy WeightIf you’re a regular reader of my Healthy Pets newsletter, the results of this study won’t be surprising, because they touch on several of the recommendations I offer pet parents on the best way to prevent weight gain in dogs, and help them lose weight if necessary.
1.DON’T feed a starch-heavy, carbohydrate-laden, ultraprocessed diet — Ultraprocessed pet foods are a significant contributor to the pet obesity epidemic in the U.S. Many pet parents overfeed, but very often the problem is also the quality of food they're offering in addition to the quantity.
If you're feeding kibble, while it might be free of grains, it can't be free of carbs, because carbs are necessary to form kibble. If you look at the package label, you'll see potato, sweet potato, lentils, peas (pea starch), chickpeas, tapioca and/or other carbohydrate sources. Starch breaks down into sugar, even though you don't see sugar on the pet food package label. Carbs that aren’t burned for energy are stored as fat.
Many dry pet foods are heavy in carbs (40 to 50% of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems in pets. Carb intake above the daily needs of your pet (less than 10%) activates internal enzyme factors that go to work storing the excess as body fat.
Calculate the carbs in your pet’s dry diet by adding up the moisture, fat, protein, fiber, and ash (estimate 6% if you don’t see it listed) on the pet food label and subtract this value from 100: this is the amount of soluble carbs in your pet’s diet (aka sugar).
DO feed your pet fresh food — Cats and dogs need food high in animal protein and moisture, with low to no grain or starch content (which is pretty much the opposite of what dry pet foods offer, especially grain-free kibble).
A high-quality fresh food diet is the best choice for pets who need to lose weight. It's important to adequately nourish their bodies as weight loss occurs, making sure their requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients are met.
The key to healthy weight loss is to meet your pet's nutritional requirements through a balanced diet but feed less food (portion control) and encourage more exercise, which forces his body to burn fat stores.
The first step is to transition him to a diet free of potatoes, corn, rice, soy, tapioca or any other vegan filler to get the carb content down to a biologically correct value of no more than 20% with a goal of less than 10% for healthy dogs and cats.
My best recommendation is a nutritionally optimal homemade fresh food diet of lean meats, healthy fats, plus fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates. These “healthy” carbs are the perfect way to maintain your pet’s microbiome, while providing fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. Homemade diets give you ultimate quality control over the ingredients going into your pet’s body.
If you can’t prepare your pet’s meals, partner with a transparent company happy to discuss ingredient sourcing and quality control with you. You can also find lots of folks that will work with you to create a customized homemade fresh food diet for your pet at freshfoodconsultants.org.
2.DON’T free feed — Also known as feeding ad libitum or the all-day all-they-can-eat buffet, this mistake by necessity goes hand-in-hand with a poor-quality diet, specifically kibble, because it's the only type of food you can safely leave at room temperature 24/7. Free feeding is the perfect way to wind up with an overweight or obese pet.
In addition, a constantly available food source turns your carnivorous hunter into a grazer, which goes against her nature.
Wild cats and dogs are always on the move in search of their next meal; they are fasting and exercising in between meals. Many domesticated pets, on the other hand, are free fed. Many pets and people graze all day, which results in chronically elevated blood sugar, a constant demand for insulin (increasing the likelihood of insulin resistance), the over consumption of calories and circadian rhythm disruption.
A growing body of research on animal models demonstrates time restricted feeding (TRF) translates into healthier, longer-lived animals with fewer metabolic diseases.5 I have found this to be the cheapest and easiest way to create health, especially if you can’t feed an ideal, fresh food diet or maintain an ideal exercise schedule for your animals.
My suggestion is to aim for an 8-10 hour feeding window: feed your pet’s meal(s) and all training treats within 10 hours (with a 14-hour fasting period) which allows ample time for the body’s reparative and restorative processes to unfold, according to their inner biologic clocks.
We can’t sleep and eat at the same time or heal and digest at the same time and constantly stressing our pet’s bodies by going to bed on a full stomach translates into ongoing metabolic stress during the night. I recommend not feeding your pet within two hours of bedtime.
DO challenge your pet at mealtime — Separate your pet’s daily food allocation into several small portions and place them in different locations around the house for her to find. Make use of food puzzle toys for dogs and indoor hunting feeders for cats, which encourage hunting behavior and provide mental stimulation.
Also consider putting food bowls at the bottom and top of your staircase if you have one to encourage muscle-building and glucose-burning exercise throughout the day. While many people feed their pets twice a day, feeding just once a day actually offers a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes.
3.DON’T follow pet food package feeding guidelines — Most people who feed commercially available pet food follow the suggested feeding guidelines printed on the package, which often isn’t the best approach. These recommendations typically use overly broad weight ranges such as “under 20 pounds” when clearly, a 15-pound dog requires significantly more calories than a 5-pound dog.
Package feeding instructions also use wide serving ranges, such as “feed 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups.” These suggestions obviously don’t consider, for example, an animal’s activity level, and they tend to be short on other important details, such as whether “feed 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups” is a daily or per-meal guideline.
DO feed your heavy pet to achieve weight loss — Decide (with the help of your veterinarian, if necessary) what your dog’s or cat’s ideal weight should be. Then use one of the following formulas to calculate the precise number of calories to feed daily to get your pet down to his ideal weight and maintain it.
For example, let's say your canine BFF is 30 pounds and his ideal weight is around 22 pounds: Daily calories (canine) = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70.
First, convert his weight from pounds to kilograms. One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide his ideal weight (not his current weight) in pounds by 2.2. 22/2.2 means your dog's ideal weight in kilograms is 10. Now the formula looks like this: Daily calories = 10 (kg) x 30 + 70. And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 370.
If you feed your dog 370 calories a day, he should drop steadily to his ideal weight of 22 pounds and maintain it.
Let’s say your cat’s ideal weight is a slender 12 pounds rather than her current weight of 16 pounds: Daily calories (feline) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8. (The formula for cats includes a slight adjustment to account for the extremely sedentary lifestyle of most kitties these days.)
Her ideal weight of 12 pounds divided by 2.2 converts to 5.5 kilograms; now the formula looks like this: Daily calories = 5.5 (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8. And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 188.
4.DON’T ignore your pet’s need for exercise — You’ll never see a fat dog or cat in the wild because they follow their natural instincts, which includes the drive to be physically active. And while your Chihuahua doesn’t behave or look much like her wolf cousins, she was designed to move like they do.
Given the opportunity and incentive, your little lap dog will walk impressive distances, hike, run, play, chase things, dig in the dirt, roll in the grass, enjoy every minute of it, and be healthier and happier for it. Only her humans, and possibly her too-heavy, uncomfortable body, are stopping her from being the little athlete she was born to be. How sad and unnecessary is that?
DO make sure your pet gets daily aerobic exercise — Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (and preferably 60) of aerobic activity will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone. If you're unable to provide your dog with this much physical activity (and some dogs require even more), consider joining a pet sports club or doggy daycare. Another option is to hire a dog walker (or dog jogger, hiker, or biker).
If your pet is very overweight or obese, she may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise initially. Swimming is an excellent low-impact, gentle form of exercise for dogs who need to start out slow, as well as those with arthritis or mobility issues.
Ask your veterinarian what exercises are safe for your pet to do, and which you either need to avoid or put off until she's in better condition. If you're dealing with a fat feline, check out 10 ways to help your cat exercise.
5.DON’T overfeed treats — Treats — even very high-quality healthy ones — should make up less than 10% of your dog’s or cat’s daily food intake. It's also important to remember that treats aren't a complete form of nutrition and should never be used in place of nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate meals.
Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet, and overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies.
DO feed tiny healthy treats on a very limited basis — Limit treats to training and behavior rewards only. Again, keep treats at or fewer than 10% of your pet’s daily food intake, which means offering very small pieces of healthy foods, very infrequently.
My favorite treats are berries, other fruits that can be cubed into tiny, bite-sized morsels (e.g., melons, green bananas, and apples), frozen peas and blueberries, and raw sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas).
The ultimate snack for dieting dogs is bone broth ice cubes. For ideas on preparing homemade treats for your furry companion, download my free e-book "Homemade Treats for Healthy Pets," where you’ll find lots of nutritious and simple recipes for both cats and dogs.
Sources and References
- 1 bioRxiv: About bioRxiv
- 2 bioRxiv
- 3 Perry, L.M. et al. Risk factors associated with canine overweightness and obesity in an owner-reported survey. bioRxiv, January 7, 2020
- 4 PetfoodIndustry.com, April 30, 2020
- 5 Longo, V.D. et al. Fasting, circadian rhythms, and time restricted feeding in healthy lifespan. Cell Metab. 2016 Jun 14; 23(6): 1048–1059