Friday, August 08, 2008

Murder by Can Opener: How Pet Owners Kill Dogs

In the church parking lot the other night, a woman I know asked me how her dog looked. She was pleased it had lost a little bit of weight, but in truth I could not see much difference.

To be charitable, let me say that the dog had a beautiful red coat that was as sleek as a seal, and it had the kind of massive cinder-block head that proclaimed its origins: a Lab-Pit bull cross as docile as any dog you could possibly hope to find.

I liked this dog, but it was fat -- really fat -- and I told the woman it still needed to lose between 15 and 20 pounds. She was crushed.

In truth, a lot of dogs in America are fat, and so too are a lot of Americans. For all the hand-wringing we are hearing about poisons in dog food, the number one killer and maimer of dogs in this country is the can opener.

Pfizer is now selling a drug to combat canine obesity (I kid you not) but in truth the problem is almost never the dog's genetic fault.

Behind every fat adult dog is a weak human who cannot say "no," or who cannot control others in the household who insist on stepping in to give the dog a treat.

In the latter case the issue is simply making a big damn deal out of it if other people feed your dog without asking your permission. People in your house should fear crossing the line every bit as much as I feared touching my father's trombone as a child. Humans can be taught to leave well enough alone. I can assure you that no man goes into a woman's purse without permission more than once. Feeding a dog should never be a community responsibility -- one person has to have absolute ownership and and authority over what, and how much, the dog eats.

More often than not, however, the reason a dog is fat is not that other people are feeding it but that that the owner thinks that every time he or she eats a meal, the dog must also get a bite or two. Look at those eyes!

But that's not the end of it, is it? The dog also gets to lick the plates, and maybe the kitchen bowls. The dog also gets a little canned food mixed in with his dry food as "a little treat." Anything that falls on the kitchen floor the dog is allowed to have. Plus there's the biscuit the dog gets every night before it goes to bed ....

Add it all up, and you have a LOT of calories going into that dog.

And, more often then not, you also have a dog that will die many years sooner than it should, often after having spent the last half of its life lethargic, and more often than not with joint problems.

Unseen are the same kind of diseases that stalk overweight humans: heart disease and clogged arteries, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

A lot of people -- including some veterinarians -- do not really know what the correct weight is for a dog.

Here's the answer: If you cannot easily feel your dog's ribs, it is too fat.

And I don't mean you should have to dig into the flesh to feel those ribs -- you should be able to run your hands down the side of a dog and feel at least three or four of them without even trying.

If you have a smooth-coated adult dog like a pointer or a smooth-coated Jack Russell, you should be able to see at least two or three ribs when the dog breathes deeply after running a short distance.

Rest assured that no one who reads dog-oriented web sites and books is ever going to have a dog that is too thin. People who sign up for canine list-servs, buy books on dogs, and read pet columns in the newspaper are much more likely to feed their dogs to death than they are to run their dogs even a pound or two too light.

How do you get the weight off a fat dog? Simple: stop feeding it so much.

Portion control IS weight control.

Step one to getting a fat dog down to the right weight is to cut out ALL canned dog food, all treats, and all table scraps. When you cook or eat your own meals, the dog should always be put outside, in a crate, or in another room on the other side of the house. Do not confuse your meal time with your dog's meal time.

Feed your dog a decent dry bagged kibble like Purina or Pedigree (brands hardly matter, no matter what anyone says), and measure it out carefully. Do not heap up when you measure, and do not give treats of any kind. Have some discipline for God's sake!

My recommendation is to feed your dog two small meals twice a day with a small leather chew in the morning to help clean the teeth and give the dog's stomach something to work on during the day.

How much food should you feed? Simple: Feed your dog LESS than the amount the dog food manufacturer recommends on the label.

Remember that the dog food company wants to sell you more food, therefore the label is basically setting out a maximum food intake, not necessarily the correct one. If you live on a farm and the dog is running around a lot as it follows you from field to field on a tractor, that dog food label might be perfect. But if your dog spends almost its entire life sleeping in a sunny spot at the end of the driveway or curled up on the sofa, as most American dogs do, the "recommended" food amount on the label is going to lead to an overweight dog. If your dog is fat it is being over-served. Feed it less; it cannot get simpler than that.

Another tip is to feed your dog according to the weight your dog should be, not to the weight it is now. You would think this is obvious, but it's not to all people. If you feed your overweight 20-pound dog the amount of food the label says a 20-pound dog needs, you will never get a healthy 12-pound dog out of the equation.

Along with portion control, try to increase the amount of exercise your dog gets by walking it, roller blading with it, bicycling with it, or teaching it to retrieve a ball, Frisbee or stick.
Instead of buying love from your dog with food, take time to brush your dog's coat, to brush the dog's teeth, to walk it around the block, or to toss it a ball. Most dog's want attention every bit as much (or more) than they want food.

If you are teaching your adult dog obedience or a few simple tricks, feed the dog only when it is being worked. If you do this, you will find, rather quickly, that a hungry dog is a smart dog. If you want to boost any dog's intelligence quotient by 50 points, simple don't feed it for a day and see how well it performs the next. Stupid dogs can be made geniuses overnight by simply skipping meals for 24-hours. Amazing, but true.

No dog will ever suffer from missing an occasional day's worth of feeding. In fact, with small dogs, it is so hard to keep them at a proper weight that skipping a meal once in a while is almost required to maintain them in shape.

Finally, remember that ALL fat dogs are ugly, but that almost all dogs at the correct weight (or a bit under) look better and live longer.

Your dog is not responsible for its own weight -- you are. A certain amount of responsibility comes with an opposable thumb. Live up to it by running your dog on the light side.
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