By Sara May | NCCMT, NCCAP
A special needs animal is one whose physical or emotional disabilities require individualized approaches to care and handling that address their specific conditions. When people hear the phrase "special needs dog," certain images may come to mind - a dog who is blind or deaf, a dog who has fewer than four legs, or a dog who requires a cart for mobility. These animals undoubtedly have special needs. But, most people aren't aware that an overweight dog is also considered a special needs animal.
To many, a little extra cushion may seem harmless on a dog or cat, but even a few pounds can set an animal up for some potentially significant health problems:
- Joints - Extra weight puts stress on joints causing discomfort and early degeneration of joint tissues. When joints are stressed, the rest of the body compensates, which causes muscle stiffness and soreness.
- Organs - Internal organs are also stressed by too much body weight, especially the liver, heart, and respiratory system. As a result, overweight animals can have high blood pressure and difficulty breathing, leading to decreased stamina and exercise intolerance.
- Chronic conditions - Without the desire to be active, dogs tend to gain even more weight which leads to chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Animals who are less active are generally more susceptible to illness because their lymphatic system is unable to effectively do its job of helping the body fight off invasive bacteria, infections, and viruses.
- Quality of life - In essence, overweight dogs experience a decreased quality of life and a shorter life span.
Because of the health problems that go along with overweight and obesity, it's important for every pet parent with an overweight animal to develop a plan with their veterinarian that includes reasonable and gradual changes in diet and activity level. Veterinarians can help determine an animal's ideal weight goal and make recommendations that will help the animal lose weight safely.
Therapeutic massage should be another component in the overall weight loss plan for dogs. Massage acts as a passive form of exercise for animals who are reluctant or unable to move very much on their own. Massage increases circulation, provides a boost to the immune system, and improves quality of life by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system - the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation. A skilled therapist can also work on stiff, sore joints and compensating muscles to relieve discomfort and encourage the flow of fresh nutrients to those tissues. When an animal is helped to feel better, he is more likely to find pleasure in activity and exercise, which will make losing those extra pounds much easier.
More than 52% of pet dogs in the US are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (www.petobesityprevention.org). That's almost 44 million dogs! Helping our pets reach and maintain a healthy weight is essential for providing them with a good quality of life and plays a big role in preventing them become part of the ever-growing community of special needs animals.