Think You Know What a Hungry Dog Looks Like? Think Again

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It’s a common problem we dog-treating veterinarians encounter almost every single day. It happens when the owners of overweight dogs, typically in an effort to reduce their dog’s dietary intake, meet an obstacle they mistakenly refer to as “hunger.”

Hunger­: As in, “I tried to cut down her food to two scoops instead of three, and she was so hungry she followed me around all day with that hang-dog look on her face.”

But here’s the thing: “Hunger” in this context seldom approximates the veterinary definition. When veterinarians refer to hunger, we tend to mean what happens when an organism doesn’t receive the nutrients it needs to achieve its biological goals. Yet what dog owners mean by hunger has more to do with how their pets act when they're deprived of a satisfying resource they're accustomed to receiving.

In other words, most owned and loved dogs, like most Americans, are seldom truly hungry in the clinical sense of the word. In our culture’s common tongue, it’s employed more as a general term relating to the behaviors our pets display when they want food.

In case it’s not already obvious, what I’m offering here isn’t a novel concept. Everyone from Oprah and Dr. Oz to your own physician has told you so: Wanting to eat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hungry. Living in a land of plenty, we modern humans have a way of getting these things confused. Which is presumably why we tend to suffer obesity at such alarming rates.

So why should it be any different when it comes to our dogs? It’s not.

Feeding Styles Contribute to Obesity

At a recent conference I attended on the subject of pet nutrition, childhood obesity expert and professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine Dr. Theresa Nicklas, described how different parenting styles correlated with obesity in children.

Which came as no surprise to the practicing veterinarians in the room. We’re are all too familiar with the indulgent “parenting” style of the owner who laces the food bowl with cream and distributes treats every time the dog looks her way. We’re also no stranger to a “neglectful” style of the owner who fills a bowl of kibble into bottomless perpetuity and pays no attention to the amount of food the pet consumes daily.

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