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We all want to try and keep our dogs as healthy and in the best shape possible. Keeping fit and slim is important for humans and animals alike and can help prolong life, and we’d all like as much time as we can get with our beautiful companions. But what are the easy ways to know if your dog is in good shape? Let’s take a trip from nose to tail and have a look.
Before we start, we need to discuss weight. Excess weight in dogs is a big problem these days. It’s thought that around 40-50% of dogs in Europe are overweight or obese, so it's something we need to be vigilant about.
Your vet has probably already discussed with you how easy it is for even the most diligently cared-for dog to put on weight. As well as the obvious potential causes – too much food, excessive snacking, too little exercise – there can be other contributing factors:
- As pets age, they tend to become less active and therefore need fewer calories to maintain their weight.
- Some breeds are more predisposed to weight gain than others, including Labrador Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels.
- The process of neutering or spaying alters the metabolism of dogs, making them prone to weight gain.
- Occasionally, weight gain is associated with specific medical conditions that require treatment.
Other signs to watch for include:
- A tight collar.
- Slow movement.
- Difficulty walking or running.
- Shortness of breath.
- Sleeping more than usual.
Regularly weighing your dog throughout its life is a great habit to get into. When they’re puppies, you can check that they’re growing at the right rate, and when they’re adults, you can spot really quickly if their weight goes up or down. Both weight gain and loss can be signs of disease, and the sooner you spot the trends, the sooner you can take action.
If you’re not sure if your dog is at an ideal weight, ask your vet or nurse to help you get started. Popping into the vet clinic for a monthly weigh-in is also a good way for your dog to build positive associations with the clinic and the vet team.
Nose-to-tail health tour
- Clean, healthy nose. While it’s a bit of a myth that noses should always be wet, they’re still useful indicators of health. Watch out for excess mucus or any kind of discharge or sneezing. Scaling or loss of colour are also signs that a trip to the vet might be needed.
- Gleaming teeth. Dental disease is really common in dogs so it’s important to keep an eye on their oral hygiene. Watch out for bad breath, brown or yellow build up on the teeth and red gums. It’s best if you can get into the habit of brushing, but if there is already tartar there, see your vet first and get them checked professionally and cleaned if necessary. Remember to always use toothpaste for dogs, not humans.
- Bright, shiny eyes. Your dog’s eyes should be open, clear, and free from gunk. All animals get a little bit of material in the corner of their eyes sometimes; it’s just a result of the protective mechanism of blinking out dust. However, if you notice squinting, red eyes, pawing at the eyes, or excessive discharge, get to the vet as soon as possible. You don’t want to take any chances with your dog’s vision.
- Clean ears. A little bit of wax is normal in all ears, but watch out if you have a dog with very long or hairy ears as they can be problematic. Excessive head shaking, scratching at the ears, or smelly, wax-filled, red ears are all cause for concern.
- Healthy coat and skin. Your dog’s coat should be shiny and in good condition. Watch out for itching, hair loss, and scabs, and check their fur a few times a week for signs of parasites like fleas. Nutrition and general health can make a big difference to coat condition, so if you feel your dog’s coat is dull or lacking, talk to your vet to discuss your dog’s nutrition and rule out an underlying health condition.
- Arthritis and joint problems are common in dogs, especially certain breeds and ageing dogs. Look out for lameness or limping. You might notice that your dog seems stiff when they first get up and it disappears as they start moving around. Also watch out for things like reluctance to get in the car or go upstairs. These can be the early signs of hip or back problems.
- Toilet habits. Knowing what is normal for your dog when it comes to wees and poos is really important. If you notice a change in colour, frequency, or consistency, you’ll be able to address it quickly.
- A waggy tail! Most of us know our dogs better than anyone else and you’ll probably know from their demeanour if they’re feeling under the weather or sad. But a nice waggy tail is usually a good sign of an interested, alert furry friend!
Some of the items on this list may seem obvious, but they can really help to make sure you’re observant to your dog’s habits, likes, and dislikes. Use them as a regular mental checklist and you’ll always be ahead of the game if anything goes wrong. And don’t forget to watch that waistline – that’s important too!
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA and Dr. Emma Milne BVSc FRCVS