Creature Comforts: Self-help program

Once, when we ran out of dog food, my husband brought home a 40-pound bag. At the time, we had three dachshunds, weighing an average of 15 pounds each. This presented a problem, as the bin in which I usually stored the dog food accommodated a 20-pound bag, tops, and it would be some time before we made an appreciable dent in this massive new bag. It was rather comical to see the dogs’ little, beady eyes light up, looking longingly at the bag of food that weighed more than all three of them combined. Dachshunds, although short, are very resourceful. So, we resorted to storing the enormous bag of dog food in the nearby bathroom, door closed.

Several days later, Walter was the last of the dogs to return to bed after the usual 5 a.m. repast. This was so unusual, that I lay awake for maybe 10 minutes, wondering what was keeping him.

When he finally came back to bed, he was still licking his chops. Peculiar. At first, I assumed he had bullied meek, little Shultzie out of his breakfast, but as that only takes a fraction of a second, it did not explain the remaining nine minutes and 59 seconds Walter was delayed.

His distended belly and extremely satisfied attitude said it all: I had forgotten to close the bathroom door, and Walter had entered into a “self-help” program in that he had helped himself to as much food as he could eat.

Fortunately, his overindulgence only resulted in no dinner that evening, and many extremely large bowel movements over the next two days. Less fortunately, one of our Pug patients once went on a dog food binge that necessitated emergency treatment for his resultant excessive bloating, pain and difficulty breathing! Now, that’s some seriously piggish behavior.

A frequently asked question: How much should we be feeding our pets?

Unfortunately, it is an impossible question to answer simply, as it depends on so many things.

What stage of life is the animal in? What body condition? How much exercise does it get? How many calories does each can/cup/pouch of food contain? How many other calories are consumed through the day? Is the food being measured or given free choice?

Further complicating things, a pet’s exercise level may vary with the years – perhaps even the seasons of the year. For example, in good weather, many of us feel like getting outside, and often bring the dogs on outings where they are more likely to experience lots of good, fun, energy-expending, calorie-burning activities. Swimming, hiking, fetch, play dates with other dogs, Frisbee, you name it.

Some dogs, like a typical Labrador retriever or husky, absolutely love the cold weather – they’re built for it – and expend far more energy at that time of year than any other.

Many people lose sight of these things, and we hear about “winter weight” all the time: “Oh, that’s just his ‘winter weight,’ he’ll lose it when we get out more in the summer.”

Unfortunately, he probably won’t. In midsummer, a lot of dogs spend more time indoors, where it’s cool and comfortable, and don’t expend any excess energy. It’s unsafe to take them anywhere if they have to spend time in a hot, parked car, so they often are left out of family excursions at this time of the year.

Sometimes, it’s not about the dog or the weather, but about the health of the owner. If you’ve just had knee replacement surgery, for example, it is unlikely you’re doing much dog-walking lately, despite the perfect weather – and won’t be for some time. This has an impact on the dog, too.

So, deciding how much to feed a pet is not that simple. My standard recommendation for dogs is to provide each with its own bowl and insist they do not switch with one another.

Offer a measured amount of the best quality food that you can. It is important to understand that the food company’s recommendations only are to be used as guidelines – they are never absolute. A few high-energy animals need more than is recommended, but my experience is that the majority of pets need far less than is recommended. Deciding just how much is correct takes a bit of careful observation and some fine-tuning.

Pets that already are at a healthy weight should be monitored carefully for changes, and steps should be taken to measure and limit the calories in their food before obesity sets in – especially for cats.

Maintaining a healthy weight on a dog is decidedly easier than for cats that become overweight. Cats cannot lose weight rapidly without putting themselves at risk for liver and other metabolic disease, but they also are not amenable to increased exercise, particularly the indoor variety.

Wyatt, my “big boned” cat and I have had this discussion a million times. He says that when I engage in regular exercise, he’ll join in. Unfortunately, his appetite and exercise ethic and mine are in perfect alignment – we enjoy eating too much and hate exercise, so neither of us is ready to model swimsuits. But only one of us resembles Jabba the Hut, and thankfully, it isn’t me. Wyatt seems to take great pride in his massiveness, which causes problems when he decides to flaunt it on the arm of my chair, clumsily knocking over my drink and stumbling onto my computer keyboard. We have been working on it for some time, now. The fact that he’s a shameless glutton has impeded our progress some.

Measuring the prescription weight-loss food Wyatt shares with his brother cat, Virgil, has helped both to slim down some and to keep their forms and weights consistent, which could not have been achieved with a “normal” cat food diet, and most certainly not with the typical grocery store variety.

Cat foods sold in the grocery store, dollar store or any store that ends in “mart,” are virtually guaranteed to contain an unhealthy amount of calories for the typical indoor adult cat. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

As far as my dogs go, I cannot keep them from participating in unsanctioned “self-help” programs every now and then, as they are crafty, agile and opportunistic. Like the time I caught Walter standing in the center of our dining room table eating an entire platter of enchiladas. Literally, the whole enchilada.

Walter would not do well at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and in no time at all, would be obese. That, my friends, is a dangerous proposition for a dachshund, as added weight and flabbiness would most certainly put him at much higher risk for the all-too-common dachshund back problems.

As Walter clearly has a malfunctioning “off” switch to his hunger, I must decide for him how much is enough. Thankfully, he still seems to like me – which is more than I could say for myself if our situations were reversed.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at