About two years ago I had Shayne at a park hiking when I was approached by a woman and her lab. As she approached I began shoveling food in Shayne’s face to keep her from being too concerned about the lab. Out of absolutely nowhere, this woman began yelling at me and berating me about starving Shayne (yeah, I know, ironic since I was shoveling hot dogs in her face). She threatened to call the humane society and report me for abuse/neglect. Pointing toward Shayne, she said, “She is absolutely too skinny! You can see all her muscles … she’s all skin and bone!” The kicker? She had a show-line lab who was … well, rather rotund. Okay, that’s a really nice way of putting it… this lab had easy 15-20lb more weight on him than needed… that’s about 20% heavier than he needed. As nice as possible, I respectfully replied that Shayne is fine. She’s a competitive athlete who needs to be lean so she can safely compete, since a dog that is too heavy could injure themselves and that if the woman still wanted to call the humane society, I’d welcome the call since they would say she’s in excellent condition.
Shayne is lean, yes, but she is not starved or emaciated. This woman had absolutely no idea what a dog in proper condition should look like. What is so sad is that I regularly encounter people who have no idea what a dog in good condition should look like. There is plenty of blame to go around to why so many people are ignorant to proper canine conditioning. I think the sheer number of overweight and obese pets has made it seem like it’s normal for dogs to be fat so people aren’t worried when their canine packs on the pounds. Certain breeds in large kennel club dog shows are being shown grossly overweight or in poor condition. Vets are tentative about alerting patients to weight problems for fear of offending the humans. People are simply unaware how to tell if their dog is in the proper condition.
So, today I’m going to talk a bit about how to determine the proper condition of your canine companions–okay maybe not just talk, but show some pictures. I’m going to use some pictures of Rio as examples of underweight though he is not actually underweight. Due to some very specific lighting and his breed mix, I’ve been able to take pictures that make him look much skinnier than he is in actuality. He is on the lean side of normal but his visible ribs and hips are largely due to his sight-hound heritage.
One thing to note is that photos and looking at your dog can only do so much. You really need to get your hands on your dog and feel them to determine conditioning. Rio, in some of his photos, looks very thin and frail almost, but put your hands on him and you feel that he is actually quite solid and muscular. If you are unsure about what a dog in good condition feels like, you can use your hand as a guide.
Run two fingers across the back of your relaxed hand (not completely flat and not a fist, just a nice relaxed position) just below the knuckles. You should be able to feel the individual bones in your hand without pushing hard and with only minimal fat covering. This is pretty similar to what your dog’s ribs should feel like if they are in proper conditioning. Run your hands across your dog’s rib cage… is it similar to your hand? Can you feel the individual ribs without pushing hard and with only minimal fat covering?
If you turn your hand over and run your two fingers across the palm of your hand below your knuckles, this is about what an overweight dog feels like… you have to push pretty harder to feel the individual bones as there’s a moderate covering of fat.
If you run your fingers across your palm down by your thumb (even just circles in that area)… this is what an obese dog would feel like… a very thick covering over the ribs. You can maybe tell there is a bone in there somewhere but you can’t feel it.
Now make a tight fist and run your fingers across your bottom knuckles. This exaggerated valley/mountain is representative of an emaciated/underweight dog. There is no fat and the muscle/tissue in between each rib has diminished resulting in the big valleys in between the ribs.
If that’s what the various conditions feel like, what might some of them look like? Well an underweight dog will likely have multiple ribs showing (while standing still or relaxed, many dogs in proper condition show ribs while running or while breathing heavy), an exaggerated tuck, a very noticeable waste (when viewed from above), hip points or vertebrae may show, and there are often sunken areas of the face (fat stores above the eyes are pretty common)
A dog in proper condition should have a noticeable abdominal tuck (some breeds will have more than others but it should be there), a waist when viewed from the top (again some breeds more noticeable than others), with smooth coated dogs you should see some muscle definition.
I hear, “He’s not overweight, he’s just solid as a rock” all the time and unfortunately the vast majority of the dogs are overweight, not just solid. Dogs, unlike humans, do not always get “squishy, jiggly” fat on their ribs, they often get this very solid type of fat (men with beer bellies often have this quality… it’s not a jiggly belly but somewhat solid). Another way to assess the conditioning is to check your dog for common fat-stores. Many dogs will carry their jiggly fat on the front of their chest in between their front legs… run your hands down the front of your dogs neck and stop when your hand is between the shoulders, many overweight dogs will have a jiggly fat store here.
Perhaps what is the most frustrating is that people are simply unaware that their dog is overweight. Vets are reluctant to tell people the truth because they don’t want to lose the business or offend the people… if they mention it at all they generally say, “Oh fido looks like he could lose a few pounds”–this for a dog who is 30% heavier than he should be. Also, kennel clubs show certain breeds, like labs, pretty overweight. Lab breeders will say that the dogs are “bone heavy” but when you put your hands on the dog, it’s really clear that it’s not bone.
This is what happened to an online forum friend of mine recently. About 9 months ago she started a weight loss journey for her 4 year old lab, Savannah Blue-Belle (Savvy). She is one of the many people who didn’t intentionally make her dog fat… Savvy just started packing on the pounds but her mum just thought she was filling out since she didn’t look too much different from the labs being shown on T.V. It wasn’t until someone (okay it may have been me) mentioned her dog was obese or bordering on obese and needed to lose weight did she realize it. Honestly, Savvy DID resemble the show labs and her vet hadn’t mentioned, in any serious fashion, that she needed to lose weight so her mum didn’t think it was a serious issue. Now, 9 months in, she’s probably lost 25lbs with another 15 or so to go. She’s made this journey publicly and I love her for that… it’s hard to make a dog diet and it’s hard to take the weight off… but she’s doing such an amazing job bringing Savvy back to a healthy weight.