Pudgy Senior Dog
Calories in versus calories out. It’s pretty basic stuff, really.

Of course, the equation gets a bit complicated when your plump pet lives to beg for treats. Add to that the aches and chronic health conditions of an aging dog, and the problem becomes even trickier to solve.

Finding the right solution, in conjunction with your veterinarian, can potentially add quality years to your dog’s life. But what is that solution? What can you do when your senior pup is becoming a chunky monkey?

Vetstreet looks at some of the ways that veterinarians who work with senior dogs can address an older pet’s portly physique, taking his aches and pains into account.

How Do I Know If My Older Dog Is Really Overweight?

“Obesity has definitely increased — in people and in pets,” says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, DVM, an associate veterinarian at the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital. “Back in 1960, about 6 to 12 percent of dogs were considered to be overweight or obese. In 2010, the last time it was really checked, 25 to 40 percent of pets were overweight or obese.” According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, those figures have since jumped to 53 percent for dogs and 55 percent for cats.

One reason there are so many chubby canines: Not every owner realizes that their dog is overweight. According to Dr. Cruz, this is in part because, just like with people, pups usually gain the weight slowly, making it more difficult to notice if your pooch has developed a paunch.

To do a quick check yourself, Dr. Cruz suggests looking at your standing dog from above. “There should be a waistline, right after the rib cage,” Dr. Cruz says. “Rub your hands [gently] along the side of the rib cage. With a little bit of pressure — and those are the operative words — you should be able to feel the ribs.” If you can’t, your dog is likely overweight.

Of course, to properly diagnose and treat your pet, you need to make an appointment to see your veterinarian. Seniors should have two wellness visits per year, since, at that age, if something goes wrong, it can go downhill very quickly, Dr. Cruz notes. Plus, if your dog is overweight, your vet can determine if there are underlying medical causes, such as metabolic issues or reactions to any medications that your canine takes.

Most vets will check your dog’s weight, assigning it a body condition score on a scale of one to nine (although some vets use a one-to-five scale). “One is the bag of bones that you don’t want to see, and nine is the swollen balloon, with the little paws sticking out,” Dr. Cruz says. If your dog’s number is five or higher, he could benefit from losing some weight.

Many health problems that senior pets face are often caused or worsened by added pounds. For example, overweight dogs are more likely to have arthritis, and extra weight only increases the pressure on the joints. Fat also releases pro-inflammatory chemicals into your canine’s body.

How Can I Get My Senior Dog to Up His Activity Levels?

Physical activity is key, but when you’re dealing with older dogs who have health conditions, exercise should begin with puppy steps — and slowly increase. Also, any exercise program should only be adopted in consultation with your pet’s veterinarian.

Dr. Elizabeth Bixby, DVM, of the Waverly Veterinary Clinic in Iowa, created the Go Fetch Fitness group walking and education program to encourage gentle exercise for her canine patients and their owners. They meet in groups a few days a week at noon for a six-week period, and gradually increase the time and distance that they walk.

“It was selfishly motivated in the beginning,” says Dr. Bixby, a busy mother of five. “I have my own dogs, and the noon hour is the time of day that I could carve out and claim as my own to get any exercise at all.”

Human and dog participants are grouped into teams, and their total weight is calculated. Each week, the team that loses the most weight receives a prize, but individual participant numbers are not revealed.

Although dogs and people of every age participate and benefit, Bixby finds that Go Fetch Fitness works great for her geriatric patients and their senior owners. And it’s fun, too. “You might think they’d get used to seeing each other, but the dogs get excited every time. They form a real bond.”

For those beginning a veterinarian-advised walking regimen of their own, Dr. Cruz has a tip: “When you have a really overweight animal — especially if the pet is too big for you to pick up — make sure that you always carry a cellphone with you when you exercise with that pet, just in case you need to call for backup.”

Some senior dogs may require hydrotherapy, like underwater treadmills. “Water is marvelous for offering some buoyancy and taking pressure off joints,” Dr. Cruz says. Padded treadmills and other specialized treatments can also help obese geriatric dogs who are suffering from joint disorders. 

Whatever fitness program you adopt, actual weight loss should also be a slow process — amounting to about 1 to 2 percent per week or about 3 percent per month — that’s overseen by a veterinarian. “If you lose the weight too quickly, what you’re losing is not fat but lean muscle," Dr. Cruz says. "And seniors are already experiencing sarcopenia, which is a loss of lean muscle.”

What Else Can I Do to Help My Senior Pet Slim Down?

As far as diets go, Dr. Cruz says that there is no magic food. While diet pet foods can work well for some dogs, they can be too fat restrictive, which can lead to skin problems for some older dogs already prone to thinning skin — not to mention the flatulence that can accompany certain high-fiber dog foods.

If you’re feeding them balanced food, sometimes it’s easiest to continue with the food the pet’s been doing well on, and speak to your veterinarian about cutting the portion back by about a third, Dr. Cruz suggests. Once you get the go-ahead from your vet, “use a measuring cup, so you know how much your dog is eating,” Dr. Cruz adds. In special cases, medication can also help a dog feel satiated sooner.

Dr. Cruz also recommends sleuthing out the root cause of the weight gain. Otherwise, your plans for slimming your pup could be sabotaged. Some pudginess results from cultural beliefs that being full-figured — even for four-legged family members — signifies health and wealth. Other times, it’s guilt-based.

“We work so much and don’t have time to exercise our pets. So what do you do when you feel guilty? You offer a treat or a snack,” Dr. Cruz says. “You say, ‘I can’t play with you, so here’s more food. I’ll make it up to you that way.’ ”

You should also keep in mind that some dogs beg for reasons other than hunger. “Oftentimes, it is behavioral,” Dr. Cruz says. At their age, many senior dogs know that begging at the dinner table will get them table scraps, even if they just ate. “How do you break that habit? I tell people that whoever has the least self-control during mealtime has to sit in the bathroom,” Dr. Cruz says. “And, sometimes, that’s the owner!”

Of course, you don’t have to eliminate treats. Just pick more appropriate snacks. “A 1-ounce slice of cheese to a dog who weighs about 20 pounds equals me eating one and a half hamburgers. That’s a lot of calories,” says Dr. Cruz, who suggests carrots instead, which are good for waistlines and teeth. "That way, you may wind up with not only a fit dog, but one with a great smile, to boot."