Chanz trudged into Riverbend a few months ago. His back legs were trembling, he had lumps on his back, and he seemed to be breathing hard. His owner was especially concerned because her previous dog had died of cancer, and she wanted to figure out what was going on sooner this time. They lived in an apartment complex, where Chanz got treats from his many admirers, and these admirers had been commenting that he was slowing down.
Chanz was a handsome white fluffy dog, 13 years old, with a history of a heart murmur. He was also overweight. First we did a careful exam on him. His legs were shaking as he stood, and he yelped when I pressed on his lower back. The lumps on his back were the same on both sides – likely fat pads, or increased muscling because of his back pain. He had some skin irritation and had significant insulation on his ribs.
Because of the heart murmur and his owner’s concern for cancer, we decided to run some lab tests and take radiographs (x-rays). The lab tests were essentially normal. The radiographs gave us more information — some arthritis in his back and lungs clear of cancer — but they also showed that he carried as much insulation inside the ribs as outside. He was quite overweight.
This gave me a chance to discuss what obesity really means. Extra fat in the body, human or dog, is not just weight; it actually acts as an endocrine (hormone producing) organ, which increases inflammation in the body. So arthritis, which may start from imperfect joints, gets worse and more painful the more fat there is in the body. And as we know from human studies, overweight people have a higher risk of cancer, because cancer is also an inflammatory disease. Additionally, the fat was taking up space in Chanz’s chest, not allowing his lungs to fully expand, making him breathe harder and with more effort. The excess weight was increasing wear on his joints.
The good news is these changes are reversible. Reassured he likely did not have cancer, we started him on a new prescription weight loss diet, called metabolic diet, which has fatty acids and special ingredients that change an overweight dog’s metabolism to that of a lean dog. It makes dogs feel full, so they are not as prone to begging. We decided Chanz would eat this food only for the next three weeks. No treats from his fans!
As for the arthritis in Chanz’s back, we started a few pain medications, on the theory that lower doses of multiple medications are less likely to cause side effects but are likely to address the pain through multiple pathways, making him more comfortable.
Three weeks later, he had lost a pound, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but since he started at 24 pounds, that was 5% of his body weight. He was moving with a spring in his step and taking the pain medications well. He liked the food and was not begging.
At the next recheck, he was even happier and had lost another pound. At this point, we started tapering the medications down, one at a time, to see if the weight loss had made him more comfortable. After another month, he was down to 21 pounds and jumping on the bench in our exam room. He was no longer out of breath, and his admirers in the apartment complex, although disappointed not to give him treats, were commenting on how happy he looked.
It’s now six months later, and Chanz is off all pain medications. His back is still sore if I press on it, but his legs are strong. He is still at 21 pounds and still on the prescription diet, although he is allowed to get an occasional treat from his fans. He is prancing into our exam room and standing on his back legs for treats. What a wonderful job his owner is doing!