Your dog may have special medical needs, he may be obese, or you might suspect that he has allergies. Check with your vet and read the guidelines below.

What is Obesity?

As far as your vet is concerned, your dog is obese (very overweight) if he weighs about fifteen percent more than he should. In the mind of his doting owner, he’s pudgy, chubby, stout, heavy or (brace yourself) just plain fat! And that’s not good for him, his heart, his kidneys, joints, lungs or his liver.

How Can You Tell Whether Your Dog is Obese?

Well, love is blind, so maybe you can’t tell, but if your neighbors are pointing and laughing at your dog’s belly dragging on the lawn, take that as a clue. Seriously, though, if you can retain your objectivity, you can almost always identify the absence of a waistline, waddling, and sluggishness.

The true test is to close your eyes and run your hands along your dog’s sides. If his ribs feel less like a piano keyboard and more like a fluffy cushion, then it’s time to stop buying imitation bacon strips.

What Can You Do?

Instead of depriving him of food, the idea is to adjust the balance of nutrients. That sounds difficult, but balanced diets for weight reduction are readily available. Your general strategy will be to feed Princess fewer calories and more fiber, with some high-quality protein.

A good food for obese dogs not only provides the right number of calories to achieve weight reduction, but also balances the remaining nutrients to ensure good health. And it might not be a bad idea to take Belle and King for a walk every chance you can. Just increase exercise level gradually. Scientists have seen a high correlation between sedentary/obese dogs and their sedentary/obese owners. This means there’s a good chance you need the extra exercise anyway.

But I Didn’t Overfeed Him and Never Give Him Table Scraps . . .

If you’ve been very careful about your dog’s diet and he’s still obese, you should check with your vet. Some breeds are prone to obesity (Labs, Cairn Terriers, Cocker Spaniels and Dachshunds, more than others). Obesity can also be a symptom of a medical condition such as diabetes or hypothyroidism.

Does Your Dog Have An Allergy?

The most common sign of a food allergy in dogs is itchy skin. Assuming you’ve checked your dog for fleas as soon as she started scratching, you should also look for a rash. If you see a severe rash—or you suspect the scratching has been going on for some time—you should schedule a trip to the vet.

Will My Vet Tell Me to Switch Dog Food Brands?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. If your dog’s condition is caused by a food allergy, the offending food “allergen” is usually a protein and may be present in many commercial diets. Your vet is most likely to prescribe a plan that is designed to help identify the offending ingredient.

The plan works like this:

  1. Feed food that consists of at most two ingredients (probably a therapeutic “hypoallergenic” diet).
  2. Give your dog only distilled water.
  3. After a few weeks, when you see improvement, switch to regular water.
  4. After another week, if improvement continues, add a small amount of one ingredient that was in your dog’s former diet.
  5. If the signs of allergy don’t recur after another week, add another original ingredient.
  6. Continue until symptoms recur and you’ve isolated the offending ingredient.

Your vet may keep your pet in his office or pet clinic for a few days and nights in order to treat the itch or rash and launch your pet’s new eating plan.

That Sounds Like a Lot of Trouble!

Yes, a diet with all these steps requires that you spend money on special food and carefully track which ingredients are added each week, but there’s really no other treatment. Many people switch their dogs to lamb and rice as soon as they suspected a food allergy, but you have no guarantee that a commercial diet of lamb and rice doesn’t also contain the offending ingredient.

Given the large number of conditions that can make a dog itch and scratch, undoubtedly some dogs out there with a diagnosis of “food allergy” have been misdiagnosed. Treating for a “skin problem” and changing foods does not constitute a proper diagnosis of food allergy . . . even if the scratching stopped. Fortunately, few dogs have true food allergies.

Special Diets for Sick Dogs

A loss of appetite is an important indication that your dog isn’t feeling well. Vomiting or diarrhea might also indicate a dietary problem. Before you switch diets, though, you should make an appointment and have your veterinarian check him out. Eating and digestive problems may be indications of medical disorders unrelated to your dog’s diet.

Cancer, renal failure (kidney failure) and heart failure are the most common non-accidental causes of death in dogs. As your dog ages, your vet can screen your dog for these diseases by performing simple blood tests and a urinalysis.

Meanwhile, if your vet does suspect one of these three major diseases, she may prescribe a special diet to help control the condition:

  • a diet with a controlled amount of high quality protein, but low in sodium and phosphorus for a dog with kidney problems
  • a diet low in sodium for dogs with heart disease
  • a high fiber diet for a dog with diabetes
  • a diet that is highly digestible, with carefully controlled sodium intake, for dogs with liver disease.

Other Factors

Your vet must take many factors into consideration when recommending dietary changes for your dog. For example, if your dog is overweight and is a good candidate for heart disease, your vet may prescribe something different from what she’d recommend for a younger dog who has been diagnosed with colon cancer. Work with your vet by observing your dog carefully, noting any changes and reporting them to your vet during regular checkups. Every special diet calls for constant monitoring.

A last note: if your dog is undergoing surgery (for spaying, for example), chances are a special diet is not recommended unless another condition exists.