The Battle of the Bulge

Dieting is America’s newest national pastime. We’re counting carbs and calories, and choosing from an ever-growing selection of lean, healthy, and ‘smart’ foods for ourselves and our families. We are bombarded daily with dire warnings from the media about the dangers that excess weight places on our hearts, and how our joints are adversely affected by even a few extra pounds. Our veterinarians warn of the same dangers for our canine companions. So why aren’t more of us paying close attention to our hounds’ weight?

One answer may be that we are not sure just exactly what ideal weight means. The veterinary literature suggests that at least half of all dogs in this country are overweight, and this is not just ‘couch potato’ pets—it includes dogs in the show ring and coursing hounds, too. Many judges in the conformation ring, for instance, seem unable to tell the difference between muscle and excess fat. In a breed like ours, where size and substance are often rewarded, this can cause problems. Excess weight can give the illusion of substance, and actually add height. Many dogs carry excess weight in the shoulders and withers, making them measurably taller than slimmer, healthier wolfhounds. If overweight dogs win in the show ring, more and more fanciers associate the excess weight with ‘correct’ conformation!

Take a minute to look at your wolfhound right now. No matter what your IW’s age or gender, there are basic guidelines you can follow for assessing his weight.

  • Waist If you can’t locate your dog’s waist, that’s your first tip that he needs to step away from the bowl a little sooner at each feeding. All dogs, regardless of breed, should have a discernible waist behind the rib cage. Looking at your dog from above, be sure you can find the end of the rib cage.
  • Tuck Up - Check to make sure your wolfhound still has a tuck up. All dogs should have one, especially sighthounds!
  • Pelvis - Run your hands over your wolfhound’s croup, making sure you can feel his pelvic bones.
  • Ribs - You should be able to feel the bony part of your wolfhound’s ribs easily.
  • Neck and Shoulders - Many dogs, especially older ones, carry fat in their shoulders and necks. Make sure you can easily feel your dog’s withers.

Why do we let our dogs get fat? A number of factors contribute to the problem. First, of course, is that we like to reward our dogs and give them little tidbits or treats to demonstrate our love for them. We also tend to forget that once our dogs reach maturity, they need to consume fewer calories than when they were adolescents. Also, the amount of exercise our wolfhounds get can vary from season to season. To maintain a healthy weight, we need to observe our dogs closely and adjust feeding levels to match age and exercise level—and watch those treats!!

Many owners who feed commercial foods are unaware that the feeding advice found on most dog food labels may not apply to our hounds. Obviously, not all dogs have the same metabolism, activity levels, or nutritional needs. Wolfhounds, for instance, have lower normal thyroid levels than most dogs, and are easy keepers once the rapid growth stages of puppyhood are over. Typically, the amounts recommended on the back of the bag are too much for our breed. There’s no substitute for monitoring our hounds, and adjusting feeding levels accordingly, no matter what the instructions say.

If you’re showing a dog who is carrying a few extra pounds, take the weight off as soon as he has finished his championship. If you expect your dog to compete in coursing, straight or oval track racing, agility, or obedience, it is essential that he be in the best possible condition as well, and that includes proper weight.

If your dog is kenneled in an area with no heat during the winter, you should wait for warmer weather before you institute a weight-loss regimen. If you think your dog is a good candidate for a diet, then here are a few tips to help ease your pain.

  • Feed him less — it’s the most important key to weight loss. If he begs or just looks too sad, try giving him green beans or canned pumpkin to help fill up his empty stomach. Most dogs find these very tasty. If you can’t resist giving him little treats, give him a half a cookie half as often.
  • If you would prefer to use a commercial weight loss dog food, then choose wisely. Look closely at the nutritional information on the label, just as you would inspect something you were considering for your own diet. Pay particular attention to protein and fat contents. Calorie content varies widely between brands. Compare any diet food with your dog’s maintenance diet, and strive to reduce his caloric intake by 25% to 30%.
  • Remember to make any significant diet changes gradually to avoid digestive upset, and consult your veterinarian if you encounter problems. Not all foods agree with all dogs. Some owners prefer to keep a hound’s basic diet unchanged, and use portion control and exercise to achieve weight loss.
  • Exercise is the other piece of the weight loss equation. This can be challenging, especially if you have one dog and a limited space for him to roam and play. Wolfhounds are not always good self-exercisers, and even if your dog gets to be outside a good amount of time each day, you may find him lying on the back porch waiting for you to join him. If your dog is resistant to exercising on his own, you may have to change your own routine, and take him to an area where he can run and play with other dogs, or institute long walks for the two of you. Such changes may seem a huge effort, but the bond between you and your hound will be strengthened, and you may both improve your health!

If your dog’s weight problem is severe, make sure you consult your veterinarian before instituting an exercise program. If your dog remains overweight or develops other problems, and your veterinarian suspects he may have ‘low thyroid’ (hypothyroidism), then ask the vet to run a thyroid panel and have it sent to Raymond Nachreiner, DVM, Ph.D., at Michigan State University. Dr. Nachreiner is a specialist in veterinary endocrinology who is a world-renowned expert in interpretation of thyroid test results. It is worth the time and effort to seek a consultation with Michigan State for your hound, because thyroid tests can be complicated to interpret, and correct treatment really depends on good understanding of test results.

Remember that the keys to health and longevity for you and your dog are similar! A proper diet which promotes a healthy weight for your dog is a basic step in his care.