Canine etiquette question: what do you say when you encounter someone whose dog is seriously overweight? I have been in this predicament more than several times and am torn between not wanting to offend or alienate the person, and advocating for a diet and change in feeding habits on behalf of the dog’s long term health.
We know that dogs cannot make themselves fat because they have no control over what they get to eat (outside of the occasional successful counter surfing!) The way a dog gets fat (other than a few metabolic illnesses that a veterinarian can rule out) is if the owners are over-feeding or over-treating. And only by holding up a mirror for the pet parents can we stop their bad choices before the dog becomes an absolute blimp! I had this socially awkward quandary again recently, which was uncomfortable but had a pretty good outcome.
I go for daily long walk/hikes off leash with my dogs Maisie (a 2 year old rescued Blue Weimaraner, who is now “battling the bulge” herself since she turned two) and Wanda (almost 16 weeks, who was severely malnourished when I got her at 7 weeks so I have to encourage four generous meals a day just to get some cover for her ribs and hip bones). We have the privilege of taking these walks on a land trust near where I live in Vermont, an area that has become a magnet for a wonderful assortment of dogs whose people also take them on paths in the fields and woods.
I was walking with a friend whose two black labs are gorgeous specimens of the hunting type of this breed. [As it happens, the slimmer of the two dogs had gone off her food when I first met her owner, and ever since my recommendation they switched to a super premium tasty food, they have been eating Halo’s Spot’s Stew which impresses my friend with the pieces of actual vegetables around the kibble!]. We bumped into a mutual friend whose female Lab had become enormous in the months since I had last seen her; her body was a rectangular block, sort of the shape of a refrigerator – no curves, no tucked up tummy or carved out waist – just a solid mass of flesh.
I wasn’t going to say anything, but my friend piped right up and said “That dog has got to lose weight! What are you feeding her? The owner said she was only giving a cup of food morning and night– a decent enough brand she bought at our local Tractor Supply. I told her that 2 cups of food a day was actually too little for a 70 pound dog, First she said the dog was only about 50 pounds and no amount of persuasion could convince her this dog was at least 20 lbs. more than that – and maybe even 20 lbs was how much she was overweight!
I suggested that she must be giving the dog a whole lot more than two cups of kibble a day and she laughed and admitted that yes, she and her husband did give treats to her dog—pizza, ice cream, barbeque, french fries, chips, you name it. Even though I have always advocated adding real meat and other human food to prepared dog food, but I never intended it to be high carb, sugary junk food! But I didn’t want to insult the devoted dog owner, any more than I would want to embarrass the mother of a human child who has become obese from being allowed to junk food and sugary drinks.
I knew that dog was headed for a lifetime of physical health problems, whether from joint issues carrying all that extra weight (especially over the shoulder area in a large breed dog, which puts extra stress on the front leg joints) or diseases influenced by obesity, like diabetes or cancer. I knew this lady and her husband loved this dog like a family member, wanted only the best for her, and did not perceive the harm they were doing in plying the dog with caloric human foods (that aren’t even nutritious for people) all the while thinking they were showing their love to her.
I tried to interest the woman in joining the Halo Healthy Weight challenge and receive the Healthy Weight management food and Spot’s Stew in a can for three months, while Dr. Donna calculates the calories the dog needed to lose weight. All she had to do was take “before” and “after” photos and get a weekly weigh-in at the vet’s office, which would have been easy since the dog goes there once weekly anyway for a doggy daycare afternoon.
I think she didn’t want to go public with her problem – or perhaps not hold up her end of the bargain – but she really got the message anyway. She wanted to switch to the Halo weight management food and do it herself, eliminating the bad treats and substituting green beans, frozen broccoli florets, or all protein treats like Halo Liv-a-Littles instead. She actually followed my car right back to my garage and I gave her my extra bag of the Halo Healthy Weight food – she wanted to start right away.
So if you’re dubious about telling someone their dog is getting chubby and it’s going to be all downhill from there—be creative and find a way. Even if it’s a little uncomfortable to get through it, I promise that person will thank you one day in the future, and so will their more fit, more comfortable and possibly longer-lived dog will, too!
Tracie Hotchner is the author of THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know.
She is also a renowned pet radio host and producer, having spent 7 years on the Martha Stewart Channel of Sirius/XM with CAT CHAT® and even longer with her award-winning NPR radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) that continues to broadcast in the Hamptons and the Berkshires. Her most recent accomplishment is the pet talk radio network she has created on the Internet called The Radio Pet Lady Network.