Ideal Body Condition

We all know on average, as humans, we don’t eat enough vegetables, or drink enough water. We know that fast food is not good for us, but we eat it anyway.  We can make these choices for ourselves. Unfortunately, our dogs do not have the ability to make these same choices – they eat what we feed them.  So, as a responsible dog owner, it is up to us to figure out what, and how much, is best for each of our dogs to eat.

Before I go much further into this discussion, please note that my advice and opinions are not intended to replace the opinions of canine nutrition experts. The knowledge I have accumulated on dog feeding has come from my own personal research, education in the fields of animal science and biology, and experience feeding elite canine athletes. However, whenever you are considering changing or manipulating your dog’s diet, I encourage you to check out as many sources as possible. The article is directed towards Lab owners, but the information can be universally applied to all dog breeds. Each dog is an individual and it is important to consider allergies, medical conditions, body condition and activity level, and their influence on proper diet.

Labs have a tendency to become overweight, but it is a preventable condition that occurs for
several reasons:

1) Labs have insatiable appetites. Labs are not fussy – they will eat anything, and everything that you feed them, and they will often ask for more.

2) Labs have big, sad, brown eyes that many owners can not resist giving into – even if they KNOW their dog has already eaten.

3) Labs, as sporting dogs, are bred and designed to be able to hunt all day long. When they are not exercising at this rate, they will gain weight like crazy. Most pet owners do not exercise their dogs nearly as often or as vigorously as was intended by the breed’s design.

4)The current trend in the conformation ring is the presentation of big, beefy Labs – because people see these hefty dogs winning, they believe that a Lab should look this way.

5) Veterinarians are often not gutsy enough to tell pet owners when their dog is overweight- because many people are sensitive about their dog’s weight and seem to take the advice personally.  Unfortunately, vets feel that they risk offending the owner and losing their  patronage if they tell you that your dog is too fat.

6) Many owners simply just don’t know what a healthy weight is for their dog, so they would rather err on the side of plumpness rather than have a dog that was too skinny.

Whether your dog is an elite canine athlete, or the most beloved of house pets,  it is crucial that your dog be maintained at his  ideal body condition, or as close to it as possible, for his entire life. It is entirely too common today to see dogs that are not only overweight, but obese. Remember that your dog depends on you to make judgements about his lifestlye – most dogs will eat whatever you give them, so please don’t rely on his judgement to tell you when enough is enough.

Just like with people, a dog’s numerical weight isn’t as important as his or her proportion of body
fat. For example, Nestle’s body weight would range from 53 pounds during times of relative
inactivity, to 58 pounds when she has reached her peak condition.  Her percentage of body fat  is
the same (ideal) at both weights, but her muscle mass increases when she is more active,
accounting for the extra weight.  If I allowed Nestle’s weight to remain at 58 pounds year round,
she would look like a blimp during the less active portions of the year, compared to the preferred
lean muscle mass at peak times. In summary, don’t base your dog’s body condition on how much
he weighs- or how much his breed is supposed to weigh. Do your homework and learn to
determine your dog’s visible body score – and then feed and exercise him so that he is as close
to ideal as possible.

So what does the ideal body condition of a dog look like? Basically, you should be able to feel all of the dog’s ribs under a light layer of fat – but you shouldn’t be able to see them all. It’s likely you are going to see the last couple of ribs when your dog is in good shape and you might see them all when he is breathing heavily or exercising- but you should do this evaluation when your dog is at rest and standing/breathing normally. When looking down over your dog, you should be able to see it’s waist, and from the side you should witness abdominal tuck. Check out this link for a visual guide from Purina. Remember, a greyhound in ideal condition will look significantly different than a Bullmastiff in ideal condition, due to their differing bone structure. But gliding your hands over the rib cage will feel the same in ideally conditioned dogs of both breeds.


shelbyWhat is the difference between a ‘skinny’ dog and a ‘lean, fit’ dog? Check out this photo of Shelby in ideal body condition. Note that although you can see a  hint of her last two ribs, you can also see her massive muscle definition in her thighs and shoulders. This is a sign that she is very fit as is NOT too skinny.

So now you know a bit about what a healthy dog looks and feels like, and you are wondering why
you need to worry about your dog’s body condition. Here are my reasons:

1) Overweight dogs have shortened lifespans (up to 2 years shorter! how sad is that).
2) Puppies that are overweight can incur severe damage to their joints, and may be especially at risk for conditions such as hip dysplasia or knee injuries.
3) Dogs that are overweight are sick more often, injured more often, and more prone to ongoing illnesses such as diabetes.
4) A dog cannot perform in competitions safely, or anywhere near it’s maximum potential, if it is overweight.

Here are some helpful tips to remember:

* The ‘recommended amount’ of feed on your dog food bag is often too much. Use it as a starting point and then adjust to your dog’s individual needs.
* Most dogs, unless they participate in extremely gruelling activities such as dog sled racing or field trials, should be fed a ‘maintenance’ type diet, NOT a ‘performance’  or ‘high-energy’ variety
* A small amount of good quality dog food will do your dog a lot more good (and will help him or her feel fuller) than a large amount of grocery-store brand kibble. It may be easier to maintain a good lean weight on your dog with a raw diet that is free from starchy fillers.
* Healthy, fat-free treats include celery, carrots, or apple slices – use very small treats for training rewards.
* Although a walk through the neighbourhood is good stimulation for you and your dog, as well as an excellent opportunity to get fresh air and some one -on- one time, it does not really count as exercise for medium and large breed dogs. Walking just isn’t enough!

verona n21A lean, fit Verona in action.

Whether or not your dog is athlete should not have any effect on how fat you allow him to become. Dogs that are not active are already at risk of developing serious health problems – do not compound this by adding obesity to his list of risk factors. If your dog is overweight, do NOT allow him to engage in vigorous physical activity right away. First, consult with your canine nutritionist to work on a diet plan, and as your dog loses weight, you may gradually increase the intensity of his workouts.

For more information on how keeping your dog lean will improve their health and longevity, click HERE to read about Purina’s life-span study.

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