The annual cost of food is the most expensive part of keeping a dog. There's such a wide range of dog food on the market - from €10 to €100 for a large bag of dry food, plus the choice of fresh food, from raw through to home cooked. Every different way of feeding a dog has its own proponents, but the truth is that there is no single ideal way for every dog.
The goal of owners should be to find a way of feeding their pet that suits their pets as individuals: the aim is a diet that the dog enjoys, that is reasonably priced and convenient to obtain, and that results in a dog that's well muscled, bright-eyed, glossy-coated and fit.
Readers may be shocked to learn that the most common negative impact of a poor diet in Irish dogs has nothing to do with the choice of foodstuff. It's far simpler. Irish dogs are too fat: they get too much food.
Estimates suggest that only one third of Irish dogs are at their ideal weight; two thirds are either overweight or obese. It's so common for dogs to be carrying too much weight that people see it as "normal". When dogs are at their optimal body weight, owners are accused by passers-by of starving their pets. It's as if we now like our dogs to be well-rounded.
Many people are too relaxed about this issue, perhaps believing that a little extra weight is a healthy sign of contentment, or even a sign that the animal is cherished by their owners. There's no truth in these ideas: if pets are allowed to gain too much weight, they suffer serious negative consequences.
A study published last week is a useful reminder of the damaged caused by obesity in pets. The study was done retrospectively, examining the records of over 50000 dogs over a twenty year period. The lifespans of dogs were compared, ranking those of overweight and obese dogs beside those in optimal body condition. The results were clear: dogs that carried extra weight had shorter lives. The magnitude of the difference varied from breed to breed: tubby German Shepherds lived for five months less than their lean counterparts, while obese Yorkshire Terriers died two and a half years earlier because of their excess weight. But the results were so consistent across all breeds that it can now be said with confidence: if you let your dog get too fat, they will die younger than if you keep them lean and fit.
If there was a disease that caused dogs to die prematurely like this, people would pay attention. They would be happy to pay for an injection or pill that prevented their pet from dying young. Yet for some reason, pet obesity is becoming increasingly common.
The life-shortening effect of extra weight is only one aspect of extra body weight. There are two other serious impacts: the aggravation of other diseases, and the significant impact on daily quality of life.
A number of common diseases are seriously aggravated by obesity, including heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Research has shown that with many ill dogs, weight reduction can be as effective as powerful medication. Arthritis is probably the best example: if arthritic dogs are overweight, they can gain more benefit by losing weight than by taking the most potent medication. And dogs are more likely to die of heart failure if they are lugging around extra kilograms of body weight. So as well as these diseases being more common in overweight pets, the illnesses also have a more profound effect on the animal.
The impact on a dog's daily quality of life is the least well recognised aspect of obesity. The best example of this that I recall was a six year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Millie. She had ballooned to around 30% above her ideal body weight: she weighed 10kg instead of 7kg. And she was miserable. She had lost interest in everything apart from sleeping and eating. She stayed in bed all day, refusing to go for walks, and even refusing to interact with her owners in any way at all. She just slept, only emerging to eat at meal times.
Obesity is a chronic state of inflammation: blood samples from fat pets show elevated levels of inflammatory by products that affect the brain, causing depression. And levels of serotonin are reduced, again, causing a negative impact on the "happiness" state of the brain.
Millie was put onto a special diet, with high fibre and protein, and low carbohydrate. Her high fat treats like sausages and bacon rind were replaced by low fat versions such as raw carrots and pieces of popcorn. She was given measured amounts of food, instead of the "have as much as you want" approach that she was used to. She lost weight slowly but steadily, at a rate of around 2% per week. It took six months to reach her goal. Her owner was astonished at how her joy in life improved as her weight dropped. She stopped sleeping so much, and she began to play with her owners. She started to enjoy going for walks, even getting excited when the leash was brought out. Her owner told me that it was as if she had been transformed into a young dog again. "We thought that she was just slowing down with age. Now we realise that she was just suffering the bad effects of obesity."
If you want your dog to have a longer, happier, healthier life, make sure that you keep them at their ideal weight. And if you are not sure how to do this, talk to your local vet.