I love my dog Xena. If you meet her personally, the second thing you’ll notice (the first being her size) is how fit she looks. I get comments all the time when we’re out walking together. My dog has the doggie equivalent of a six pack, rippling biceps, and a butt that won’t quit. Xena looks like a Rottweiler with a gym membership.
But she wasn’t always this way. In fact, on her very first yearly vet checkup, I was told she was fat. At the time she was getting 8 hours of vigorous activity per day at her open-format daycare. Plus running with me. And twice-daily training sessions. And perfectly measured amounts of food each meal.[easy-tweet tweet=”My dog has the doggie equivalent of a six pack, rippling biceps, and a butt that won’t quit” user=”henkler”]
I didn’t understand it. Xena was more active by far than your average couch-sleeping dog. And getting exactly the amount of food recommended for her size and age according to the back of her food bag. And yet she was still overweight.
So I did what I normally do when the data doesn’t make sense. I researched the hell out of it. In particular, I looked into the dog obesity epidemic, the dog food industry, and even our prehistoric relationship with these creatures that share our homes, couches, and beds.
Let’s get started.
Your dog is fat
Let’s face it. Your dog is probably a little bit chubby. You’ll take offense to it if anyone else points it out. But your vet reminds you every year that your pup could probably lose a teeny bit of weight. That’s probably an understatement.
You’re not alone. According to studies, nearly 54% of dogs in the US are either overweight or obese. Unfortunately, these studies don’t break down percentages by age of dog. If I had to guess, the other 46% were still younger dogs on the way to gaining their middle-age tummies. Dogs, like us, tend to get progressively fatter as they age.
Their owners usually have no idea. Obese dogs are ones that score a perfect a 5 out of 5 (or 9 out of 9) on the Body Condition Scoring system (BCS). They look a bit like a beer keg with legs. Of the dogs that were obese, nearly half of their owners thought that their dog was a healthy weight.
[easy-tweet tweet=”Of the dogs that were obese, nearly half of their owners thought their dog was a healthy weight”]
Dennis the Dachsund loses 44lbs
If your dog doesn’t have a clear “abdominal tuck” and an easily identifiable waist, your dog is overweight. When you look at your dog from the side, their abdomen should have a clear narrowing upwards where the ribcage ends.
From the side their lower half should look like the silhouette of a roller coaster. The belly should slope up sharply as it meets the hips. From the top, the belly should be noticeably “pinched in”, in comparison to the chest and hips.
The abdominal tuck (or lack thereof) is easy to see on shorthaired dogs. Once you start looking, you’ll notice the lack of it everywhere. If your dog has long hair, you’re going to have to use your hands as well in the inspection.
A pudgy dog is unhealthier than a lifetime smoker
The problem with a “little bit of weight” is that it is deadly to dogs. Humans can grow a beer belly once they hit their 30s and let it slowly swell for another 40 years. Dogs aren’t built to carry large amounts of extra body weight around.
We can keep an obese person alive and healthy with the help of medication and minimally invasive surgery. Dogs don’t get Lipitor to manage their cholesterol, metformin to control their prediabetes, and Synthroid to give their metabolism a boost. We usually don’t give them full hip and knee replacements or place stents to prop their clogged arteries open (even though we can).
Being only moderately overweight shortens your dog’s lifespan on average by 14%. Being a lifetime smoker gives you an 11% average shorter lifespan. Being just a little bit pudgy is deadlier to your dog than smoking is to you.
[easy-tweet tweet=”Being just a little bit pudgy is deadlier to your dog than smoking is to you” user=”henkler”]
I know I should quit.
Your dog’s secret identity is a wolf
You know dogs are related to wolves. But like me you may think of them as completely different species. But both dogs and wolves share over 99% of the same genetic makeup. In fact, both dogs and wolves are all lumped together in a single species – Canis Lupus. Dogs received the title of Canis Lupus Familiaris – the familiar wolf.
The face of a wolf
Every member of the Canis Lupus family can interbreed. That means your pup and a wolf could hook up and make some puppies together. Even a Chihuahua can breed with a wolf, though there are some logistical hurdles requiring some (extremely awkward) human assistance. There’s even dog breeders that mix wolves and dogs to raise some amazing puppies. Don’t adopt one and keep them inside all day. Wolfdogs need to run.
Wolves don’t eat carbs
I love pizza. You love pizza. My dog Xena loves pizza (at least the pepperoni bits). Carbs taste good, and dogs agree. Wolves surprisingly don’t.
This should be obvious when you think about it. What do wolves eat? They eat meat. Specifically, other animals they hunt and kill. Their diet is nearly exclusively made up of fats and proteins from other animals. And very occasionally, an easily digested berry or two.
This is one of the most significant differences between your pet and a wolf. Of the roughly 36 regions of the genome that differ between wolf and your dog, 19 have been identified to assist with the digestion of dietary carbohydrates.
Wolves don’t have these genes. They can’t handle digesting complex carbohydrates like grains. It’s like you trying to eat grass like a cow. It may fill your stomach, but your body is going to send it out the other end.
Why does your dog eat carbs? Let’s go back in time a few years. Specifically, between 27,000 to 40,000 years ago, when we tamed our first wolf.
We didn’t have garbage trucks back then. Human settlements piled up their trash on the outskirts of the village. This included all sorts of food scraps. A lot of which was stuff that wolves liked – meaty bones and other parts of animals we don’t like to eat. Things that we can’t chew with our puny jaws. Garbage is what brought wolves in to live near human settlements.
The wolves that were the least afraid of us were the ones that got to steal our tasty animal scraps out of the garbage. The wolves that didn’t bite our children were the ones we didn’t hunt down and kill. Repeat this process over generations and we got wolves that weren’t afraid of humans. Domesticated wolves. Ones we could bring into our hut without fear of attack. Wolves with incredibly useful skills we leveraged to hunt other animals. In other words: the familiar wolf – a dog.
Then the Woman picked up a roasted mutton-bone and threw it to Wild Dog, and said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, taste and try.’ Wild Dog gnawed the bone, and it was more delicious than anything he had ever tasted, and he said, ‘O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy, give me another.’
The Woman said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night, and I will give you as many roast bones as you need.’
When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always. Take him with you when you go hunting.’
Back when wolves were being turned into dogs, the human diet didn’t have much carbs. Or at least many that we didn’t eat and then toss in the dump. We didn’t pull on our overalls and become farmers until around 12,500 years ago. That means we’ve had dogs by our side for at least 10,000 years before we had easy access to surplus carbohydrates.
That means prehistoric Xena was being fed a diet of mostly animal bones and scraps. Humans of this time likely had some access to carbohydrate rich foods like fruits, tubers, and nuts. But our four legged companions were likely getting the leftover animal parts we would normally toss in the garbage pile. And they didn’t have the necessary genes to digest carbs yet anyways. So everybody was happy.[easy-tweet tweet=”His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always”]
All that changed when we discovered farming. Our diet changed in the blink of an eye from one that was rich in proteins and fats to one that included vast quantities of carbohydrates. Grains became easier than meat to obtain. They were easy to store and didn’t spoil quickly. They allowed us to ride out famines. To stop focusing all our time on food gathering and build the first cities. To conquer the planet. To play Minecraft and upload cat videos to YouTube.
As a result, our access to foods rich in dietary proteins and fats became more scarce (or at least significantly more expensive). Our dogs had to adjust. It didn’t happen overnight. It took thousands of years. A dog that digested carbohydrate-rich food slightly better was the dog that survived times of famine. Selective pressure ensured that eventually our dogs could handle eating carbohydrate rich foods in increasingly larger amounts. Even a diet that was mostly carbs if necessary.
Your dog doesn’t like carbs that much
Sure, your dog likes ice cream. And waffles. And everything else on your plate. It smells good. You are eating it, so it must be the best.
HOOMAN FOOD IS TEH BESTS FOOD
The University of Sydney did a study to try to figure out what dogs preferred to eat, given complete freedom to choose. They picked 5 different breeds of dogs. They gave them free range to choose the type of food they wanted in the proportions they wanted.
It turns out that modern dogs still prefer the diet of a wolf. The dogs consistently chose a diet that was 63% fat, 30% protein, and 7% carbohydrates by calories. In fact, both wolves and dogs have no dietary requirement for any carbohydrates. A dog will die without ready access to some fat and protein. But Xena could go her entire life without a single calorie from carbs. She doesn’t need to be eating any.[easy-tweet tweet=”Wolves and dogs have no dietary requirement for any carbohydrates” user=”henkler”]
That’s the exact opposite of nearly every dry dog food on the planet, which is mostly carbs, some protein, and a drop of fat.
The reason nearly every dry dog food is a carbohydrate bomb isn’t a conspiracy by Big Dog Food. It’s the only way to mass produce it cheaply for store shelves. Dog food manufacturers need sticky carbohydrates to create food that can pushed out of a machine into nice crunchy dry bits. Without them, dog food would be a bag of mush with the consistency and texture of ground beef. And it would spoil in a few days, which means it couldn’t sit on a store shelf for months.
Besides manufacturing convenience, the other main reason dog food contains carbohydrates is to create what veterinarians call a “balanced diet”. One that includes all the vitamins and minerals a dog needs to survive and thrive.
In the wild, wolves get their nutrition through eating every part of an animal. In dog foods, the primary meat sources are just that – meat. Your dog’s food probably doesn’t contain bone, tendon, brain, blood, organs, skin, hair, and whatever else wolves love to chew on or lap up from a kill. Meat is vastly less vitamin and mineral dense than liver, brain, bones, or blood. It’s just the muscle and fat of an animal.
You can’t feed your dog ground hamburger meat every day and expect them to be healthy. Dragging home whole undrained animal carcasses isn’t a convenient option for feeding your dog. Animal nutrition scientists figured out how to combine various fruits and vegetables in your dog food to ensure they are getting what they would naturally from a kill, but cheaper.[easy-tweet tweet=”Dragging home whole undrained animal carcasses isn’t a convenient option for feeding your dog”]
Dietary carbohydrates make your dog fat
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates behave rather strangely when they are digested.
Specifically, when a carbohydrate is digested it gets transformed directly into a simple sugar molecule called glucose. Glucose is then sent into the blood stream to power your dog’s cells. In fact, it is the preferred source of energy for every cell in your dog’s body.
The problem is that glucose is toxic in high amounts. If you know anybody who is diabetic, they’ll tell you the same thing. Too much glucose in the bloodstream will kill you. Emergency! Toxic Glucose levels! We’re going to die! Get the HAZMAT team out there to clean it up!
The HAZMAT team is insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells your dog’s body to grab the glucose and start cramming it everywhere it will fit. In the muscles. In the liver. And when those fill up (which they do fairly quickly), to start cramming glucose into fat cells.
This cycle repeats every time your dog eats a significant amount of carbs.
To compound the problem, your dog will eventually start to become resistant to insulin. This means increasingly larger amounts of insulin will need to be released to clear your dog’s bloodstream of toxic levels of glucose. More insulin results in more pushing of the excess glucose into the fat cells.
Repeat this cycle long enough, and your dog starts looking more like a beer keg and less like a wolf.
Proteins and fats don’t behave in the same way. Sure, proteins can be converted into glucose if your dog’s body requires it. But unlike carbohydrates, your dog won’t have a large spike of insulin when eating them.
I’m not saying carbohydrates are the only reason your dog is fat. But your dog’s diet is probably the biggest one. And the easiest one to change.
Dietary carbohydrates make your dog fart
Blame it on the dog. The thing is, it isn’t the dog’s fault. It’s yours.
Xena can clear out a room. I used to come back to my office after a quick coffee break, and she’ll have turned it into her own personal dutch oven. It would make my eyes water. And she would sit on her bed and laugh at me.
Why do dogs fart? Well, a fart isn’t usually produced by your dog. It’s made by what is living inside them.
Gas is produced when indigestible food passes through the stomach and arrives in the gut in mostly the same condition it was in when swallowed. It can’t be just any random thing. It must still be food. Swallowing a penny won’t turn into gas. Eating a bunch of grass will.
The bacteria in your dog’s gut eat carbohydrates that aren’t completely digested by your dog through a process called fermentation. Just like that jug of apple cider that balloons outwards and starts to taste a little funky, farts are a byproduct of the bacteria inside your dog turning undigested food into gas.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the primary differences between a dog and a wolf is their ability to digest carbohydrates. But even though they can digest carbs doesn’t mean they can do it extremely well.
Dogs differ in their ability to digest carbs. Some breeds or even individual dogs can do it better than others. But none of them do it as well as we do. When you feed your dog a carb rich diet, you end up also feeding the trillions of bacteria in their gut, which then produce gas.
Even eating one of the lowest carbohydrate dry dog foods available, Xena could still clear a room. It doesn’t take many carbs to keep her happily farting all day long. Fortunately, there are natural enzymes you can add to your dog’s food to help them with carbohydrate digestion. They work extremely well.
These enzymes won’t help with the insulin resistance issue from a high carbohydrate diet. But it will save you from being embarrassed when guests come over.
What you can do about it
Change to a lower carbohydrate dog food
Don’t buy dog food with carbohydrates as the majority source of calories This is significantly harder than it sounds. And it rules out nearly every dry dog food on the market, including the ‘premium’ brands. I could write an (extremely long and math-heavy) article on why this is so difficult.
Short answer: Dog food doesn’t have the same requirements for labeling as human food. As such, reading the label doesn’t give you a clear picture of how much carbohydrate it contains. In fact, dog food doesn’t even have a requirement to list carb content at all. Most don’t.
The Optimal Dog has already done the hard work on this one. Check out their fantastic post on the subject.
Personally, I’m currently feeding Xena with Orijen Regional Red. At first glance, it looks like it is twice the cost of comparable high-quality dry dog foods. But since it is so dense (e.g. full of healthy protein and fat), Xena’s portion sizes are much smaller. Calorie-to-calorie, it’s around what I was spending before on other brands of ‘premium’ kibble.
Regional Red is by far one of the lowest carbohydrate content dry dog foods you can buy. Almost nothing else comes even remotely close. And the only one I’ve seen that actually lists their carbohydrate content on the bag. After putting Xena on it (and keeping her calorie intake constant), she slimmed up to a healthy weight on her own.
Unfortunately Orijen doesn’t sell direct on Amazon. You can buy it there, but be prepared for prices 50% higher than your local pet store.
Give your dog a fat boost
Eating fat doesn’t make your dog fat. A high quality fat drizzled over food boosts the amount of healthy fats in your dog’s diet.
Is your dog fat? Or are they the picture of canine health? Let us know how you maintain your pup’s healthy weight (or not) in the comments below.