Golden retriever lifetime study sheds light on obesity in dogs

A new study provides some clues about why golden retrievers are prone to obesity.

One of the world’s most popular dog breeds, the golden retriever, is also among the most likely to become obese. In fact, nearly 63% of golden retrievers are overweight, according to data collected by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. But there may be more to this problem than the propensity of dog owners to overload their goldens with treats.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Morris Animal Foundation, which is managing the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, a research program that’s tracking more than 3,000 dogs throughout their lifetimes.

Some of the top-line results of the first research paper to come out of the project on the topic of obesity are not surprising. For example, the amount of physical activity that the dogs get is directly related to their weight: 74% of dogs reported to be very active have healthy weights, versus just 54% of dogs that are sedentary. And the geographical location of the dogs doesn’t predict obesity at all. Calorie restriction combined with exercise is essential for weight loss, the foundation says, just as it is in people.

What may be surprising to dog owners is that the older the dog is when spayed or neutered, the less likely that animal is to become obese. Previous studies have come to different conclusions about the association between spaying, neutering and weight, the Morris Animal Foundation points out in its publication. But in this study, the odds of obesity were definitely higher in goldens that were spayed or neutered early: 41% of dogs who underwent the procedure under the age of 6 months are overweight, versus 30% of dogs who were older than one year. Only 20% of dogs left intact are overweight or obese.

Missy Simpson, an epidemiologist for Morris Animal Foundation’s Canine Lifetime Health Project, said in a blog item that dog owners can control their dogs’ weight by avoiding high-calorie and high-fat foods and treats and making sure their pets are getting plenty of exercise. The foundation also warns that there’s evidence dogs use food to reduce stress, just like people do, and that giving dogs novel foods on a regular basis may increase the risk of overeating.  

Obesity in pets is a growing concern around the world. Earlier this year, the global trade group HealthforAnimals reported that 43.8 million dogs and 55 million cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese, as are half of all dogs and cats in the U.K. The organization blamed people for the increasing “humanization” of pets: the tendency to overindulge them by giving them too many unhealthy foods and failing to provide exercise opportunities.

There is some early evidence that susceptibility to obesity may have genetic underpinnings, too. In May, scientists at the University of Cambridge reported that a variant in a gene called POMC may influence appetite and obesity in labs and flat-coated retrievers.

The Morris Animal Foundation noted that some of its findings warrant further investigation. The potential role of nutrition and genetics should be examined, the organization said, as should the number of estrus cycles in female golden retrievers and how it influences obesity risk. Overweight dogs face a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses, and the organization hopes to examine how the timing and duration of obesity affects the development of those diseases.

- read more from the Morris Animal Foundation
- access a copy of the study here

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