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Here’s the universal truth: We all love chubby dogs! But while they look adorable, the extra weight isn’t particularly healthy for your pet. And according to NYC’s Animal Medical Center staff doctor, Dr. Carly Fox, “it can potentially reduce their lifespan by a few years.” Just like babies, puppies start gaining weight immediately as they’re growing to adult size. “It’s interesting because a faster rate of growth has been correlated to being overweight as adult dogs,” explains Dr. Fox. She also adds that, just like in humans, most dogs tend to gain weight when they reach their middle age, which is anytime between ages five and 10.

Keeping your dog’s weight in check is key to ensuring they’re healthy and happy, but it’s easier said than done, especially if you’re someone who has a particular weakness for sweet puppy dog eyes. Thankfully, Dr. Fox is here to save the day. We consulted with her on the best practices when it comes to feeding your dog and choosing the correct pet food.

“The number one cause of dogs gaining weight is overfeeding,” says Dr. Fox. “Since dogs can’t feed themselves, the onus falls on the owner.” The second issue, adds Dr. Fox, is lack of exercise. The owner’s motivation to go for walks, head to the park, or play fetch with their pooch has a direct impact on a dog’s health. The third issue, Dr. Fox notes, has to do with perception. “In my experience, a lot of people are very quick to point out when a dog is very thin on a walk or at the vet, but if the dog is a little bit overweight, people aren’t as quick to judge; in fact, they find them cute,” she adds. Additionally, she also points out that feeding a pet makes us feel good. We tend to associate love with food, which can eventually end up harming your pet more than doing any good. And lastly, a lot of people don’t even recognize when their dogs are overweight, and they simply miss the signs until it’s too late.

So, How Do You Recognize If Your Pup Is Overweight?

In your pet’s early years, you’ll be going to the vet more frequently for vaccines and regular checkups. Dr. Fox recommends making sure you keep up with your appointments, since your vet will be able to correctly guide you to ensure your pet is growing at the appropriate rate. Vets also do regular visual and tactile tests where they rate your pet on a 1-9 scale (1 being skinny and 9 being morbidly obese) and determine a Body Condition Score.

Additionally, Dr. Fox recommends running your hands through your pet’s body to check if you’re (ideally) able to see or at least feel their ribs through their skin. She also advises checking if your dog’s shape is an hourglass, which is a general recommendation for all breeds and sizes. Lastly, invest in a weighing scale so you can check your dog’s weight on a weekly or bi-weekly basis at home.

Strict Meal Times and Calorie Counting

When you’re trying to establish healthy food habits for your pet, Dr. Fox recommends starting out by checking how many calories your pet needs per day, which can be easily calculated based on their body weight. For example, a 20-pound dog requires just 350 to 400 daily calories. Once you have that number for your pet, you can tailor their diet accordingly. As for choosing meal times, you can opt for two meals per day or, based on the breed and needs, distribute meals in smaller portions throughout the day.

Dr. Fox also recommends investing in a measuring scoop to make sure you’re feeding consistent portions. “When I ask patients how much they feed their dog, they usually say a cup, but in their mind, the cup is something random they’ve got out of their cupboard,” adds Dr. Fox. So adding true measuring cups to your feeding routine is key.

Another tool Dr. Fox recommends buying is a board or some kind of a checkmark chart to place right in front of your dog’s food bowls to make sure that the members of your household are not simultaneously feeding your pet.

Are Doggie Diets Real, and What Do They Look Like?

“Absolutely, doggie diets are real,” says Dr. Fox. For dogs on a diet, the first step is restricting their calorie intake by 25 percent. Dr. Fox also recommending cutting out treats completely. “If you have to pick a treat, pick treats like a vegetable, air-popped corn, or low-calorie store-bought treats.”

Lastly, she suggests adding a pedometer to your dog’s collar to make sure they’re getting adequate exercise.

How Do I Shop for Healthy Dog Food?

“Dog food companies know that people are very into looking at the ingredient list, which is why you see them adding fancy or attractive ingredients at the top of the chart,” notes Dr. Fox. Which means that, even if chicken is at the top of the list, it might not pack in as many nutritional benefits as the rest of the ingredients. Plus, you can never guarantee the quality of ingredients the brands use. “So I tell people to choose a food that’s relatively common, has well-studied ingredients made by companies with strong nutritional expertise and strict quality control, and ensure it has an approval from AAFCO,” says. Dr. Fox. She recommends steering clear of boutique brands that don’t have much science or research backing their products and use unnecessary ingredients to attract customers. “Trust me, your dog doesn’t need blueberries,” she adds. “The business of dog diets really plays to an owner’s perception rather than what is healthy, good, and nutritious for your dog.”

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