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Our Biggest Loser

By Ashley Stanton

Last fall, Gerald’s owners called our clinic concerned about his immobility and weight. He was easily 20-lbs overweight and could barely walk. His family was an elderly couple; they could not pick him up or carry him around. They felt torn between loving their pet and knowing he needed care they could no longer provide. After Gerald’s examination, the veterinarian and her staff had a frank conversation about all the options: implementing an aggressive weight loss program; finding Gerald a new home; taking him back to the shelter he came from; as a last resort, euthanasia.

As a veterinary assistant for over eight years, I have had a strong interest in weight management for pets. Obesity is one of the most common health problems we see in dogs and cats. Sadly, many pet owners do not even recognize their pet is overweight. They often do not understand the nutritional needs of pet dogs and cats. When I learned about Gerald’s situation, I knew I had to step in and try my best! I sat down with the family and offered to adopt Gerald. The owners knew this was the best decision but needed some time to think about my offer. About a month later we received a phone call from Gerald’s family — they were ready to surrender Gerald.

When his family brought Gerald to our veterinary clinic so I could take him home, they had a few of his favorite toys. They also informed me about his diet so I could continue his feeding routine. Gerald was eating multiple flavors of dog food mixed together, beef stew with butter and salt, cream cheese and peanut butter, and fried chicken.  Although I am sure Gerald LOVED his diet, things needed to change to get him feeling better. At this time Gerald he could barely walk, and he became easily winded just walking across our small parking lot.

In November 2020, Gerald’s starting weight was 39.1 lbs. He is a standard dachshund and an ideal weight for his frame is about 15-20 lbs. Carrying around all this extra weight he really struggled to move. He had toileting accidents because he could not make it to the door quickly enough. He struggled to hop up the one step into my house. He had a bald spot on his belly due to his tummy rubbing on the ground. He really could not exercise much because of the strain on his body and joints. For a dachshund (as well as other long-backed dogs), obesity can be a literal killer: obesity increases the risk of painful and potentially paralyzing intervertebral disc disease.

Because his ability to exercise was limited, I needed to be VERY strict about EVERYTHING that went in his mouth. However, this can be a difficult task in

Gerald waiting for his turn at The Doggie Paddle swimming pool.

itself, especially because dogs are natural scavengers – they tend to supplement their diet with things found outside (like chipmunks)! I immediately changed Gerald’s diet to Purina Veterinary Diets Overweight Management. This is the ONLY food he was offered. He did go on a food strike for a few days (with all the changes in his world this was not unexpected), but eventually he started to eat his food readily! Gerald’s veterinarian calculated a daily caloric target for him, and I measured his kibble out exactly. Knowing that he was not going to die if he refused to eat his prescribed kibble for several days, I was able to stick to my guns and did not tempt him to eat by top dressing his kibble with people food or other treats.

I also administered laser therapy regularly to Gerald’s back, hips, knees, and ankles. Just watching him move you could tell he was in pain. As the weight started to come off, you could see Gerald’s attitude improve along with his mobility. Every week he was losing weight! Even with minimal exercise – initially a workout for him was hobbling across the room to where I was waiting to give him some loving –  the pounds were coming off! The only other exercise Gerald could stand to do was swimming at the Doggie Paddle in Oshkosh. Swimming is great exercise for dogs with joint problems because it takes strain off the joints and encourages a wide range of motion while burning calories. Gerald really did not mind swimming much at all! When he started, he required a large life vest to help keep him afloat while swimming. Since losing weight, he now fits in a medium vest. What an exciting day when we could downsize!

All the little things Gerald started to be able to do were major accomplishments: going up the steps on his own, being able to run and play with my other dogs, swimming without assistance. My husband was initially not on board with having another dog but seeing Gerald’s improving health and emerging personality changed his mind. By Christmas, we decided Gerald was in his forever home with us. We could not part with the little fluffy “bear” after seeing such a dramatic transformation.

Gerald found a chipmunk snack!

As time goes on and the weight comes off, Gerald is coming out of his shell and becoming your typical dachshund again. He chases chipmunks in the yard (and he actually can run to get them!) and rolls in the grass (or mud, or anything nice and smelly!). What Gerald has taught me is that although weight loss goals may be daunting, and exercise can be difficult for very obese or older dogs, it IS possible with determination and will power – you may have to harden your heart to those big brown eyes looking longingly at you while you eat your own dinner. It is such a rewarding experience to see a dog change so much.

While exercise is important for a dog’s health and well-being, diet is extremely important too. Most people do not realize that when trying to get a dog to lose weight, they need to measure out portions formulated for the dog’s GOAL weight, not its current weight. Your veterinarian can help you calculate the correct daily calorie intake for your dog to help them lose the proper amount of weight. With dogs like Gerald who have a lot of weight to lose, the caloric goal may need to be adjusted by your veterinarian over time. Dramatically and suddenly reducing the amount fed can be a difficult adjustment for a pet, so the reduction may have to be gradual as the dog’s stomach slowly shrinks.

Gerald has finally hit his goal weight of 21 lbs. From this point forward, we will maintain his weight by increasing his calories daily JUST A SMIDGE to maintain this weight rather than continue to lose weight. We will continue to swim so he can get exercise and maintain a proper weight.  Carrying that weight for so long did put a strain on Gerald’s small frame, so we will also continue laser therapy as needed for his joints to keep him comfortable.

Do not get discouraged when your dog hits a plateau in their weight loss journey. This is typical just like in human dieting! Just keep working at it and you will get there.

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