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Physical activity is key, but when you're dealing with older dogs who have health conditions, exercise should begin with puppy steps — and slowly increase. Also, any exercise program should only be adopted in consultation with your pet's veterinarian.
Dr. Elizabeth Bixby, DVM, of the Waverly Veterinary Clinic in Iowa, created the Go Fetch Fitness group walking and education program to encourage gentle exercise for her canine patients and their owners. They meet in groups a few days a week at noon for a six-week period, and gradually increase the time and distance that they walk.
“It was selfishly motivated in the beginning,” says Dr. Bixby, a busy mother of five. “I have my own dogs, and the noon hour is the time of day that I could carve out and claim as my own to get any exercise at all.”
Human and dog participants are grouped into teams, and their total weight is calculated. Each week, the team that loses the most weight receives a prize, but individual participant numbers are not revealed.
Although dogs and people of every age participate and benefit, Bixby finds that Go Fetch Fitness works great for her geriatric patients and their senior owners. And it’s fun, too. “You might think they'd get used to seeing each other, but the dogs get excited every time. They form a real bond.”
For those beginning a veterinarian-advised walking regimen of their own, Dr. Cruz has a tip: “When you have a really overweight animal — especially if the pet is too big for you to pick up — make sure that you always carry a cellphone with you when you exercise with that pet, just in case you need to call for backup.”
Some senior dogs may require hydrotherapy, like underwater treadmills. “Water is marvelous for offering some buoyancy and taking pressure off joints,” Dr. Cruz says. Padded treadmills and other specialized treatments can also help obese geriatric dogs who are suffering from joint disorders.
Whatever fitness program you adopt, actual weight loss should also be a slow process — amounting to about 1 to 2 percent per week or about 3 percent per month — that's overseen by a veterinarian. “If you lose the weight too quickly, what you’re losing is not fat but lean muscle," Dr. Cruz says. "And seniors are already experiencing sarcopenia, which is a loss of lean muscle.”
As far as diets go, Dr. Cruz says that there is no magic food. While diet pet foods can work well for some dogs, they can be too fat restrictive, which can lead to skin problems for some older dogs already prone to thinning skin — not to mention the flatulence that can accompany certain high-fiber dog foods.
If you’re feeding them balanced food, sometimes it’s easiest to continue with the food the pet’s been doing well on, and speak to your veterinarian about cutting the portion back by about a third, Dr. Cruz suggests. Once you get the go-ahead from your vet, “use a measuring cup, so you know how much your dog is eating,” Dr. Cruz adds. In special cases, medication can also help a dog feel satiated sooner.
Dr. Cruz also recommends sleuthing out the root cause of the weight gain. Otherwise, your plans for slimming your pup could be sabotaged. Some pudginess results from cultural beliefs that being full-figured — even for four-legged family members — signifies health and wealth. Other times, it’s guilt-based.
“We work so much and don’t have time to exercise our pets. So what do you do when you feel guilty? You offer a treat or a snack,” Dr. Cruz says. “You say, ‘I can’t play with you, so here’s more food. I’ll make it up to you that way.’ ”
You should also keep in mind that some dogs beg for reasons other than hunger. “Oftentimes, it is behavioral,” Dr. Cruz says. At their age, many senior dogs know that begging at the dinner table will get them table scraps, even if they just ate. “How do you break that habit? I tell people that whoever has the least self-control during mealtime has to sit in the bathroom,” Dr. Cruz says. “And, sometimes, that’s the owner!”
Of course, you don’t have to eliminate treats. Just pick more appropriate snacks. “A 1-ounce slice of cheese to a dog who weighs about 20 pounds equals me eating one and a half hamburgers. That’s a lot of calories,” says Dr. Cruz, who suggests carrots instead, which are good for waistlines and teeth. "That way, you may wind up with not only a fit dog, but one with a great smile, to boot."
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