HERE IT IS just a few days after Thanksgiving, and I’m probably not alone in thinking about the poundage I usually put on (then struggle to lose) in just one extremely treat-filled month. There is no doubt from the many studies on this topic about the relationship between weight and longevity in humans. While there are no studies of longevity in dogs that I’m aware of, it’s likely the same relationship exists.
Longevity in dogs is a problem — or rather lack of longevity. The American Veterinary Medical Association claims dogs are living longer. Longer than what? A hundred years ago, sanitation and medical improvements saved infants and the young from early death, greatly affecting human longevity. The claim that dogs are living longer might be related to the reduction and elimination of diseases that kill puppies. At the other end of the spectrum, the sad fact is that dogs do not live as long as they used to.
When I was a child, dogs often lived well into their teens. My next-door-neighbor’s dog, an Irish setter, was the same age as I. She died when I was a freshman in college. We were both 17. They also had a cocker spaniel that lived to be 20!
Nearly 50 years ago, I interviewed for a job at a Newfoundland kennel with more than 40 dogs, many that were 18 to 20 years old. They fully expected their dogs to live well into their mid-to late teens. Now, a mere 45 years later, a Newfie that lives to be 10 is old— hardly an increase in longevity.
While genetics plays a role in longevity, there is a profound message for dog owners in this simple statement: Thin creatures live longer than fat ones.
Could it be that our pets’ reduced longevity is in part because we feed them too much? There is a lot we don’t know about why so few dogs live into their late teens, but certainly one factor could well be excess weight — even just a few too many pounds. A 50-pound dog that is just 10 pounds overweight is carrying 20% more weight than its frame and organs are designed for. This is considered to be obesity in humans, but in dogs it’s considered “show weight” or proof that we love and spoil our dogs — usually said with an apologetic shrug.
If by “spoiling” our dogs we’re shortening their lives, wouldn’t it be better to be tough (read “kind”) and cut out fattening snacks? Consider the greyhound, a large, sleek hound with a life expectancy many years beyond large, heavier hounds. Bloodhounds, a similar size, but much heavier dog, live to 10 or 11, while a greyhound often lives to 14 or 15. Greyhounds are one of the only show dogs for whom “show weight” is not overweight. You can see the ribs of a healthy greyhound, while it is often hard to even feel the ribs on many pet dogs.
I firmly believe that one of the reasons my English mastiffs lived to 13 or 14 (years beyond the life expectancy of the breed) was in part because I keep my dogs thin — anathema for many mastiff people. For many giant breed owners, bigger is better. They’ll proudly exclaim, “My Mastiff weighed 250 pounds!” He might have died at the age of 6 and could barely walk because he was grossly overweight, but, by golly, he was huge!
Veterinarians we talk to almost universally agree that most pet dogs are too fat. In many cases, they have given up fighting that battle. Despite recommendations that the dog needs to lose weight, many owners seem to have a hard time cutting back on their dog’s food and seem to believe they’re punishing their dog if they provide low-fat snacks. You’re not! You’re being kinder to your dog.
So in this holiday season, consider not sharing your turkey skin and leftover gravy with your dog. Or if you do, cut back on your dog’s food that day. Your dog won’t hate you for it, and you might well have him around a few extra months or years.