Being a dog owner – or, to be more specific, being a good dog owner – brings a lot of responsibilities. For the most part, your dog is totally reliant on you for their care and wellbeing. These responsibilities extend into every aspect of their life, from training and obedience, to exercise and nutrition. Taking some time to think about each of these facets can contribute to the health, happiness and overall quality of your dog’s life.
Now, if you’ve ever thought about (or even done just a small amount of research) on dog food, supplements, or the physical activity they require, you will be aware that the world of canine diet and weight management doesn’t follow a single strand of thinking. There are several conflicting viewpoints on what is ‘best’ for your dog. Although there is typically some scientific evidence and research behind these viewpoints, they can often be skewed by vested interests and large companies seeking to project the message that will present their products in the best light.
In this article, we are not seeking to tell you which of these viewpoints or approaches is ‘best’ for your dog, or advocate for a particular way of living. Every dog is an individual, and in consultation with your veterinarian, you should devise a nutrition and exercise plan that works for your circumstances.
However, just as with humans, there are clearly some core principles that are beneficial to consider when looking at your dog’s diet and weight management. We’re going to look at the factors you should consider when devising your dog’s overall diet and exercise plan.
Key factors for canine diet/weight management
- The dog’s age. The plan for a puppy will differ from the plan for a senior dog.
- The dog’s breed. Dogs which were bred to work – such as German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers – will have different exercise/nutrition requirements than less active breeds.
- The owner’s lifestyle and circumstances. The amount of free time the owner has available to devote to exercising their dog, or preparing meals, will inevitably have an impact on the choices they make for their dog.
- Food sensitivities/allergies and macronutrient breakdown. Some dogs have difficulties digesting certain types of food, due to sensitivities or allergies. The varying nutrient density in different types of dog food can have a significant impact on your dog’s health.
How age affects health, diet and weight management
Nutrition plays a vital role at all stages of a dog’s life.
As a puppy, it is imperative to give them a quality diet that will support their growing body. At this age, the puppy will have an abundance of energy, and will need an outlet for both their physical and mental wellbeing (which is why enrolling in puppy training is so beneficial!). In addition, their metabolism is extremely high, and the food they consume will be quickly digested and converted into energy – which will then be expended through exercise and playtime.
As your dog moves out of puppyhood and into adolescence, your dog should remain physically active, with a lifestyle that is appropriate for their breed characteristics and traits. Their metabolism will slow down, and they will likely not require as much food as when they were a growing pup. You should be able to find a food that they enjoy, which simultaneously gives them the range of nutrients they need to build and maintain their overall physical health.
Problems can arise as your dog starts to age. Inevitably, your dog will slow down, and they may not be able to (or may not want to) engage in as much exercise as they did at a younger age. Older dogs are also prone to thyroid issues and other health problems that may impact both their amount of movement and the food they can consume. Each of these factors can lead to weight gain in older dogs, so be aware of food intake (i.e. consider switching to a food specific for senior dogs) and potential health issues.
Why a dog’s breed plays an important role
Unlike humans, there is a wide disparity in the size, weight and characteristics of different dog breeds. This warrants consideration when it comes to putting together an exercise and nutrition plan.
The size of a breed will naturally influence the amount of food that the dog requires. It stands to reason that a bigger dog will need more food. Larger dog breeds also usually require more exercise as they can be more susceptible to dysplasia and arthritis if they do not move around throughout their lives.
Breeds which were originally bred to work – for example, Retrievers or herding breeds – naturally need more exercise for physical and mental stimulation. Offering these working breeds an adequate amount of exercise isn’t just vital for their physical health, but can also prevent behavioral issues resulting from boredom. Some breeds also tend to be more food-motivated, which can affect their diet and overall health.
The owner’s lifestyle and available free time
Often, one of the biggest influences on a dog’s diet and exercise program is the lifestyle of their owner. These are the available resources the owner has available to invest in their dog, which may be constrained by time or finances. It is sometimes overlooked but the circumstances of the owner can have a huge impact on the dog’s quality of life.
If the owner has little free time – for example, if they spend the majority of their day outside of the home, or they are occupied around the clock with childcare commitments – a dog may spend more time than is ideal locked in their crate, or lying around on the couch. There simply won’t be the time available in their schedule to commit to regular, lengthy walks, or other forms of exercise. For dogs who require lots of exercise, this can contribute to weight gain.
There may also be other elements of the owner’s lifestyle that could have an effect on the dog’s weight. For example, whilst there are several proponents of a raw diet (or partial raw diet), some dog owners a) may not have enough time to properly prepare raw food, b) may not have the budget to spend money on a raw diet, or c) may not have the expertise or time to research trustworthy providers and/or make sure their dog is eating a well-rounded meal with all of the essential nutrients required for their health.
The owner’s lifestyle can have a significant impact on the dog. For dogs who lead an inactive lifestyle and don’t get the chance to socialize with other dogs or expend energy through exercise, mealtime automatically becomes one of their favorite hobbies. This is because if a dog doesn’t have a ‘job’, food becomes one of their focal points – because it is one of the only things they can look forward to. Combined with a lack of physical activity, this can increase the chances of a dog gaining weight.
All of these factors mean it is vital to research the characteristics and needs of a particular dog breed before bringing them into your home, ensuring they are a good fit for your lifestyle and personal circumstances.
Macronutrient breakdown and food sensitivities/allergies
As you might expect, the type of food – including the macronutrient composition of your dog’s food intake – can have a huge impact on their health.
Too much – or too little – protein, carbohydrates or fat can result in an imbalance which could affect your dog’s health. Weight gain, weight loss and other health issues can arise as a result. Consult with your veterinarian before introducing a new type of dog food, and if you do embark on a new diet plan for your dog, make sure your dog is able to properly absorb and digest the food.
Allergies and sensitivities are also important to monitor. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes, there are types of food that simply don’t agree with our dog’s digestive system or can cause inflammation. It is therefore prudent to monitor your dog (especially when changing food) for any physical changes that could be a direct result of their food intake.
As we acknowledged at the beginning of this article, every dog is different – and if you have any specific questions or concerns about your dog’s health and wellbeing, you should consult with your veterinarian for specific advice.
However, when it comes to diet and weight management, there are common things we should all consider for our dogs. There is no magic wand we can wave to ensure our dogs remain healthy – but considering their age, breed, diet, and even our own living circumstances can provide a solid base on which to give them the best chance of a high-quality life.