There is a proven link between obesity in puppies and orthopedic disease in these dogs as they mature. A landmark study used 48 six-week-old Labrador-Retriever puppies placed in the homes of veterinarians. One puppy was allowed to develop with an obese body condition, and the other was kept in ideal shape. As the obese puppies turned into adults, 42% were stricken with arthritis by two years of age. Only 4% of their more healthy siblings had arthritis. By five years old, 52% of the obese puppies had developed arthritis compared to only 13% of their healthy brothers and sisters.
Arthritis in our adult dogs is multifactorial. Genetics has always been well respected for its role in this disease, but now there is evidence to suggest that we have been giving genetics too much credit. The one factor any new puppy owner has direct control over is the quantity of food poured into their bowl every day. The general rule of thumb since this study was published has been to feed your large breed dogs, which are more prone to arthritis, an adult dog food to slow their growth.
If your puppy is overweight, then you are pushing them nutritionally to grow faster. This means they will reach their genetically predetermined size earlier, and their bones will stop developing at a younger age (note: you cannot make dogs bigger by growing them faster—just more arthritic). If the same dog is grown slower, then it may have up to two months longer to reach its mature body size, and this puppy’s bones and joints have more time to form properly. The results are better hip, elbow, and knee joints. It makes sense, and now we have proof.
I think the new rule of thumb should be to feed your puppy the highest quality of food you can find—just not too much. Using puppy food is fine as long as you keep your growing dog thin. I want to easily “see” the ribs, and the vertebrae and flanks should be scalloped in. If there are fat deposits, then you are feeding your puppy more then they need. Don’t be surprised if your friends and neighbors tell you to feed your puppy more—a puppy in perfect shape is not the norm.
As I explained in my previous blog, there are two types of eaters: moderate and ravenous. If you are blessed with a moderate eater, then feed them dry kibble only, and let them eat on their own schedule. They will keep themselves in perfect shape. If you have a puppy like my Blue, which lives to eat, then you have a responsibility to pour just enough food in their bowl to meet the needs of their activity level. People always ask me, “How much should I feed?” The answer is, “Feed just enough to keep them in perfect shape.” Some dogs run hard at the dog park every day or jog several miles with their owners, and others are couch potatoes. There is no single answer for all dogs. In fact, the feeding guidelines on dog food bags are based on the highest activity level, so use them only to know the maximum amount of food to feed.
Good luck with being a great puppy parent! It’s hard to not give lots of treats, rich canned foods, and meat scraps to your puppy because it seems like they really love it. And they do love it… for a few seconds. Give both you and your new puppy what you both really want: the best chance at a happy, active future with less pain, chronic medications, and expensive surgeries. If you’re not sold on it yet, consider this: the healthier puppies in the study I mentioned at the beginning of this blog lived an average of two years longer than their obese brothers and sisters.