Obesity is a huge risk to our pets' health, but the number of overweight pets is increasing. One study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention suggested that over 50% of dogs and cats in the United States are carrying excess weight. This has a number of adverse effects such as osteoarthritis, skin fold infections, diabetes, and cardiorespiratory disease. Some medical conditions do cause weight gain, but most often, it's a case of too much food and too little exercise.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have been involved in investigating a genetic cause of obesity in Labrador Retrievers. We all know how much Labs love to eat, and it's not uncommon for them to be a little heavier than we'd prefer. It turns out that 25% of Labs have a mutation in a gene that controls the sensation of hunger. The abnormal gene doesn't work as it should, so dogs that are affected are always hungry and even more likely to eat more than they should. They'll scrounge and scavenge even when their committed pet parent carefully regulates how much food they're given.
One interesting finding was that the mutated gene was present more frequently in assistance dogs. This makes sense; assistance dogs are often trained using food and a constantly hungry dog responds very well to this type of training. The mutation was also found in Flat-Coated Retrievers, but not in any of the other 38 breeds also examined.
Other animals also have genetic changes predisposed to weight gain. Mice can have a mutation in a gene that is responsible for producing a hormone called leptin. Leptin signals to the brain that the mouse has had enough to eat. Mice with the gene mutation don't produce leptin; hence, their appetite is never switched off. The result is obesity and symptoms that are like type 2 diabetes in humans. The interesting thing about these genetically abnormal mice is that if they are given leptin, they lose weight.
This knowledge is important in keeping our pets well, but it has even greater ramifications for human health. Some people have a similar genetic mutation to that found in Labradors. They can also have changes in a gene that is involved in leptin production and its action on the body. This means that studies such as these could help obese people with a profound and positive impact on their quality of life and well-being.
Whatever your dog's breed or genetic status, you need to monitor their body condition closely. Feed them an age-appropriate food that suits their exercise level and measure the amount that is put in their dinner bowl. Treats are fine, but in moderation; they should total no more than 10% of their daily energy intake. It's also a good idea to cut out those high-calorie treats and replace them with steamed vegetables such as diced carrot or pumpkin. Finally, it's always helpful to add a little more exercise to your dog's life. This could be an extra stroll in the evening or a longer walk on the weekend. For those dogs that are already a little heavier than they should be, look for a hydrotherapy center where they can swim or walk on an underwater treadmill – this is excellent exercise as it doesn't force their legs to carry their weight.