A long study of canine diet and health has found that dogs fed a reduced-calorie diet live an average of 1.8 years longer than dogs allowed to eat more and are slower to develop chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that caloric restriction in a wide range of animal species significantly boosts longevity. Dogs are the only large mammals — and the closest human relatives — for which a diet-restriction study has been completed. Similar studies involving primates are ongoing.
The results were announced by scientists at the Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Nestle Purina PetCare Company, University of Illinois, Cornell University and Michigan State University at a symposium in St. Louis. Partial results were published earlier in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The study involved 48 Labrador Retrievers from seven litters. Littermates were paired, with one dog fed 25% fewer calories than its sibling, starting at 8 weeks of age. The researchers found a median life span of 13 years among dogs whose food intake was reduced, while dogs in the group fed a diet higher in calories were uniformly overweight and had a median life span of 11.2 years.
“Impressive as they are, the life span figures are only part of the story”, explained Gail K. Smith, professor of orthopedic surgery and chair of the Department of Clinical Studies at the School. She added:
“The study also showed that lean body conformation forestalls some chronic illnesses, most notably osteoarthritis, and that diet can either mitigate or exacerbate the expression of genetic diseases.
“This study should reinforce for dog owners the importance of keeping their dogs lean, with palpable ribs and an obvious waistline. Avoid giving dogs too many high-calorie treats and consider a brand of balanced dog food formulated to be low in caloric content while providing a sense of satiety.”
Smith added that, while simply reducing a dog’s food intake, as in this study, can also be effective in maintaining a healthy weight, this approach often leads to begging — a behavior that many owners find themselves unable to resist in their canine companions.
The team of researchers has reported previously that the onset of osteoarthritis, an often painful and occasionally debilitating condition for many large-breed dogs, was delayed substantially by reduced food intake.
Overall frequency of the condition was also reduced: At age 2, only one of 24 calorie-restricted dogs had developed radiographic osteoarthritis of the hips, as opposed to to six of 24 dogs in the unrestricted group. By age 10, six restricted dogs (42% of that study group) and 19 unrestricted dogs (79% of that study group) had hip osteoarthritis.
“Dogs in the calorie-restricted group didn’t require treatment for osteoarthritis until a mean age of 13.3 years, fully three years later than the dogs in the control group”, Smith explained. “Because osteoarthritis is painful, this deferral represents a substantial boost in quality of life.”
Caloric restriction also significantly delayed the onset and severity of other illnesses. Dogs on a restricted diet who developed such conditions were 2.1 years older, on average, than their overfed counterparts.
Dietary restriction has been shown to have a positive effect on the life span of rodents and invertebrates. Research spanning decades has found that dietary restriction is the only nutritional change that consistently extends the life span of animals.
Smith was joined in the study, funded and conducted by Nestle Purina PetCare, by Darryl N. Biery at Penn, Richard D. Kealy, Dennis F. Lawler and Joan M. Ballam at Nestle Purina, Elizabeth H. Greeley and Mariangela Segre at Illinois, George Lust at Cornell and Howard D. Stowe at Michigan State.
Managing Obesity in Dogs
America’s obesity epidemic grows. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 Americans are clinically obese. This holds true with our pets as well, with 53% of dogs in the U.S. reported obese by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Overweight dogs are at risk for health problems and do not generally live as long as dogs that are trim.
In addition to being at a greater risk for heart disease, overweight dogs show greater incidence of arthritis, circulatory problems (high blood pressure), pancreatic disorders (pancreatitis), diabetes, liver disease and more.
Obesity is the 4th leading cause in deaths today for dogs and the cost for medical care for conditions relating to obesity is high and growing. Dogs that maintain an ideal weight have an extra lifespan of close to 2 years than their overweight counterparts.
How to Tell that Your Dog Is Overweight
Run your hand along his side and if you cannot feet his ribs, it’s time to start a weight reduction program. If you dog does not have a waist, it is time for a weight reduction program.
In most cases, our dogs are obese because we feed them too much. Just like us, output has to exceed input and when it doesn’t we (and your dog) pack on the pounds. While some breeds are prone to obesity (Dachshunds, Labradors, Cockers, etc.) and others are not (Greyhounds, German Shepherds, etc.), bottom line is we are to blame for our pet pudginess.
Your dog doesn’t dish up its own food nor does it open the refrigerator searching for a snack. Our pets rely on us for their dinner.
Theoretically, weight loss seems simple enough: fewer calories in and more calories out equals weight loss. Unfortunately, it is not always that simple.
Before you start restricting your dog’s intake or change their diet, you should visit your veterinarian for a check-up, looking for underlying medical conditions, such as Hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease. These diseases, along with others, should be eliminated as possible causes or contributors to your dog’s weight problem.
Many times dogs were started on a diet but fail to lose weight because the diet wasn’t the problem-a disease was. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and can perform blood tests to ensure that there are no obstacles to weight loss for your pet.
How Much Does Your Dog Need to Lose
Any weight 15% above the ideal is overweight. In relation to humans, even a couple of pounds can be serious depending on the size of your dog. For example, if you have a 10-pound Chihuahua, but his ideal weight is 5 lbs, this means your dog is 50% overweight. If, on the other hand, you are 125 lbs and gain 5 lbs, this is only a 1% gain.
You would have to weigh 187 lbs to reach the 50% overweight range. Imagine carrying a 62-pound child on your back all day and how tired you would feel at the end of a day: your joints and back hurt, you are out of breath and grumpy. Again, consult with your veterinarian about how much weight loss they recommend.
Realistically, treats are going to happen. Keep in mind that portion is everything. Portion is dependent on the size of your dog.
A treat with 20 calories isn’t much to a Great Dane who requires 1400 kcal / day, but if you are a Chihuahua, a 20-calorie treat is 10% of your total 21O kcal / day diet. If you feed more than one treat a day it is going to add up fast. Here are some treat tips and suggestions:
- No table scraps. They are often high in fats and sugars and thus calories.
- Treats should never make up more than 10% of your pet’s daily intake.
- Use your dog’s kibble for treats.
- Try fresh veggies. Cooked green beans, broccoli and carrots are high in fiber (giving your dog a greater sense of fill) and are low in fat. No Ranch dressing!
- Rice cakes: a piece or two are acceptable, but not the whole cake.
- Air-popped popcorn: not salted, no butter.
- No OTC treats like Pupperoni, beggin’ strips, etc. These are high-fat junk food, the equivalent of you eating half a bag of potato chips and a snicker’s candy bar.
Other Feeding Suggestions
- If your dog whines and begs for more food while you are eating, hold firm. This causes a lot of owners to buckle. Your dog will beg if he knows that he will get him more treats and snacks.
Suggestion: While you are dining, put your dog outside, in his carrier or other room. Give him a rawhide bone to gnaw on to keep him busy while you eat. This way you remove the temptation to give in.
- Go for a walk when your dog begs. This distraction and interaction may be just enough to make it forget its desire for food. Many dogs substitute food for affection, so flip the equation, play tag, laser point, ball, frisbee instead. You may find that playtime displaces meal time.
- After feeding your dog, pick up the bowl. Why tease the dog with an empty bowl? You also remove your temptation to fill it. Write on the bag or container how much a day your dog needs and feed only that amount.
You might want to measure out the total daily food into a separate container, so that family members know how much the dog has been fed, and how much is left for the day. You can use the kibble in this container for treats, when the day container is empty, which means no more food for the day.
- Try feeding your pet out of food toys, such as Omega Paw’s Omega Tricky Treat Ball, Premier’s PetSafe Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble Toy, Company of Animals’ Dog Tornado Interactive Plastic Toy. These interactive food delivery toys can be filled with your dog’s meal and he gets to work for his dinner by figuring out how to get the food out of the toy. Exercise and food at once!
Finally, make sure you monitor your dog’s progress. Keep a food log (that helps with people too) and weigh your dog weekly. Most veterinary offices will be more than happy to have you come in and use their scale.
Remember that your dog may hit a plateau, where he seems stuck at a certain weight (common in people too). Don’t despair or give up, but keep on the plan and you will get there. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to make adjustments in your dog’s program if your dog is not progressing.
A good way to help you enjoy this adventure with your dog is to take a before-diet picture and several during the weight reduction process and then one at its conclusion. You will be amazed at the difference.
Make it fun for the whole family by including pictures of your dog having fun playing and walking with the family. Start a picture board and talk about how much fun you and your pet have shared. As your dog loses weight, his level of energy will increase and you might be surprised by how much more fun he can be and have with you.
Image credit: Wikimedia.