Visiting Veterinarian

"He's just big-boned!"

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - July 5, 2007

Fat. In our culture, it's a four-letter word. As a society we spend a huge amount of time and energy in our quest not to be fat. We get liposuction, take drugs, join gyms and Weight Watchers, read diet books, buy diet foods, have our stomachs stapled, and spend our lives looking in the mirror asking, "Do these pants make me look fat?" Yet, as a nation, we grow fatter every year.

You know this already. It's not news. But did you know dogs are having the same problem? Okay, maybe they don't care if their pants make them look fat, but canine obesity is on the rise. It is estimated that 25 to 47 percent of our dogs are overweight or obese. For years, veterinarians have encouraged owners to institute weight management programs. We haven't been too successful. As someone who has personally lost the same 20-odd pounds over and over again, I empathize, but that doesn't change the fact that being overweight has health risks, for people and for pups - heart disease, insulin resistance, exercise and heat intolerance, arthritis, and a decreased life span, just to name a few.

Pfizer Animal Health has jumped on the diet industry band wagon with a new product, Slentrol®™ for dogs. That's right. Doggie diet pills. Unlike the type of stimulants that have given human diet pills a bad reputation, Slentrol is a Microsomal Triglyceride Transfer Protein inhibitor. Whuzzat? In a nutshell, it prevents some of the fat ingested in food from being absorbed. Instead, these lipids accumulate in cells lining the intestines. This sets off a feedback loop to the dog's brain causing a reduction in appetite. Every few days the fat-filled intestinal cells naturally slough and pass in the feces. According to Pfizer, 90 of the weight-loss activity with Slentrol is due to the decreased appetite and about 10 is due to the reduced fat absorption.

Is Slentrol® a great breakthrough that will lead to improved health for our best friends? Or is this another diet gimmick? It all depends...on you.

Take your dog, Sausage. The first step is to acknowledge that she's got a problem. I've seen dogs so bloated they could barely waddle into my office, yet their owners seemed shocked when I suggest their pup is a porker. Look at Sausage. Does she have a visible, hourglass waist? Or does she look like, say, a sausage, complete with pot belly and love handles? Owner denial is a big factor. Lay your hands on Sausage's rib cage. Press gently. Can you feel her ribs? No? Then she's overweight.

Why is she fat? Well, what kind of dog is she? Certain breeds are predisposed to obesity. Golden retrievers, Labs, dachshunds, beagles, cocker spaniels, and others. In people (and in rats) scientists have found specific genes associated with obesity. So, in part, we have our parents to thank for our physiques. Other contributing factors include gender and age. Female dogs are more prone to overweight than males, as are older dogs, and those that are neutered.

Eat less, move more

So Sausage is a fat, middle-aged, spayed female golden retriever? You have your work cut out for you, but it doesn't mean weight loss is impossible. Once we rule out metabolic abnormalities, like an underactive thyroid gland, and take predisposing factors into consideration, the primary causes of obesity are overeating and inactivity . . . or as I like to say "calories in versus calories out." Sausage needs to eat less and exercise more. We've talked about this ad nauseam. Use a lower calorie food. Measure her portions. Limit treats. Go for walks. You know all this. So why can't we get her weight down?

Owners report three major challenges. 1) Sausage begs and they can't say no; 2) other people feed the dog; and 3) they have no time to exercise her. Let's take these one at a time.

Begging. Sausage has you well trained. Recognizing that giving treats is part of the human-animal bond, we still have to ask you to use some self-control. Substitute healthy, low-cal treats like green beans, carrots, rice cakes for those high fat ones. Don't kill her with kindness.

Other people feed the dog. This is right up there with "the dog ate my homework." Keep Sausage home so she doesn't graze at the neighbors. Have a family meeting so everyone is clear on the menu. Unless Sausage knows how to use the can opener or is filling her bowl herself, this is a pretty lame excuse.

Exercise. Regular activity is key for both losing weight and keeping it off. If you are serious about assisting Sausage, you just have to find a way to make the time. For what it's worth, it will be good for you too. If you have physical reasons why you can't be Sausage's personal trainer, hire a dog walker, or throw the tennis ball in the back yard. If Sausage has medical issues like arthritis or cardiac disease, discuss a modified exercise plan with your veterinarian.

Now what about those diet pills? Here's the problem. The biggest part of the battle of the bulge is not the initial weight loss. It's the maintenance. Hence I am somewhat skeptical about the usefulness of such diet aids. However, it is true that the first step is getting down to goal weight. Once Sausage is slender, her activity levels may naturally increase. She will feel better and have more energy. If a medication like Slentrol can get her started, it may be worth trying, but it's up to you to enforce the life style changes necessary for a permanent solution.

Pfizer has some slick literature, complete with Before and After pictures of formerly pudgy pooches. Sporting the typical "individual results will vary" disclaimer, their brochure is chock full of statistics, but you have to read carefully. The product was not successful in all cases. In one study, two dogs even gained a little. But for the most part, dogs lost... and they lost a significant amount, with a mean weight loss of 11.8 percent after four months. Will these dogs still be wearing their bikinis two years from now? We'll have to wait and see.

Slentrol is given initially for two weeks. After that, Sausage gets rechecked monthly by your veterinarian and her dose adjusted. Once she reaches goal weight, the company advises continuing Slentrol for three more months while a healthy maintenance pattern is established. Up to a quarter of dogs may show side effects including transient vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Slentrol cannot be used in cats or people. Don't be tempted to try it on yourself or you'll be in for some unpleasant results.

There is no magic fat-busting pill, no quick and easy fix. The traditional approach of eating less and exercising more is still your best bet. But if you've tried again and again without success, discuss the option of Slentrol with your veterinarian. If it helps Sausage slim down, the improved quality of life that goes along with her new figure may help you retrain Sausage and yourself to long-term healthier habits. In the meantime, make whatever small changes you can today. Me, I'm going for a walk. Every little bit helps.