Doggie Fat Camp? Veterinary medicine school has spa workouts to help an overweight dog

TULSA - Doctors tell their patients when it is time to lose weight.

Now, veterinarians are offering the same advice to their canine patients along with an option to jump-start the weight loss.

The Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine offers a fat camp to help overweight pets trim down. It's a place where veterinarians hear the same kinds of excuses that physicians hear from humans.

"She's just a big dog," one dog owner said of his overweight Labrador Retriever. "She's always been that size."

One problem, OSU veterinarians said, is owners simply cannot say "no" to big, brown eyes begging for treats.

"She can't possibly get enough of them and she's pretty good about begging," said dog owner Wendy Picking. "And one leads to another."
Picking's dog, Ziggy, is such a pro at begging she gained five pounds over Christmas. As a result, Ziggy is back for twice weekly workouts at OSU's version of a doggy day spa. Located in the small animal hospital, owners bring their portly pets here to trim down prior to surgery, after surgery or simply to shape up for good health.

It's not uncommon for the veterinarians to tell owners their beloved companion needs to lose 10, 20 or even 30 pounds.

Ziggy underwent two hip surgeries in recent years to treat hip dysplacia. Add post-surgical stiffness to advancing age and veterinarians say Ziggy is the perfect candidate for doggie fat camp. It is a treatment routine her owner says she absolutely loves.
"In the morning before my husband leaves he'll say, 'It's doggie spa day' and I'll think don't tell her that yet," Picking said. "Because she jumps up and runs down the hall for the front door."
When Ziggy arrives, OSU rehabilitation specialists begin her spa treatment with laser therapy.
"Twice a week, we do laser therapy on her hips to help with the inflammation that's in there and causes tightness and pain," said Laura Moorer, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner.
It's clear Ziggy knows the routine. She lies patiently on the floor while Moorer applies the laser wand to her hip joints. Yet, as soon as she hears Moorer say "OK, we're done," Ziggy leaps up and heads for the door. "She's so funny," Moorer laughs.

In the next treatment room, Moorer prepares a huge machine that looks like a large aquarium and Ziggy jumps right in. Within seconds, the tank is flooded with 92-degree water to the level of the dog's shoulders. It is a private, water aerobics class, for dogs, in therapeutic warm water. Due to the water's resistance, Moorer says a 15-minute workout is like an hour on land.
"Let's go Zig, good girl," Moorer says to encourage the dog as she starts the underwater treadmill. Moore told our sister station KJRH most dogs need a little help and encouragement on their first attempt at the water workout.
"Some dogs, I have to get in with them if they are very weak and older," Moorer said. "But (Ziggy) is a professional at it and doesn't need any help."  
As a rehab specialist, Moorer works with OSU veterinarians to ensure her patients are not in pain. With the help of lasers, ultrasound and physical therapy techniques she addresses each dog's physical ailments, helps strengthen and tone muscles, and improves flexibility. Then, the real workouts begin to burn calories.

"My main tool when getting weight off is the water treadmill," Moorer said. "Because there is just nothing else that makes them work as hard as walking in water. Ziggy usually looks at mom the whole time with a look that says 'hey, get me out' but then her tail is wagging the whole time."
Experts say too many treats and table scraps combined with too little exercise are often to blame for a portly pet's growing waistline.
Lara A. Sypniewski, DVM, Clinical Assistant Professor & Community Practice Veterinarian, said it is difficult for owners to hear their dog is fat. Sypniewski's examinations often include a demonstration of what owners should look for in their pets.
"I usually have the owners take a good feel down the midsection of the body and I'll hear them say 'You know what, I know ribs are there but I can feel an inch of fat between me and the ribs," Dr. Sypniewski said.  "Or, 'hey, I can feel my ribs really nicely but they're not sticking out so the dog is looking like they are emaciated or terribly underweight. And they actually realize 'oh, my gosh, my dog is overweight!'  Then we try to get them on board with actually losing weight."  

VIDEO - Click on the Dog body test video above to see what you need to look for with your dog. (On our app, go to the video section).

Here are some common signs of obesity in dogs:

-- Ribs covered in fat
-- Lack of waistline (when viewed from above)
-- Fat deposits over spin & tail
-- Abdomen distended  
-- No abdominal tuck (when viewed from side)

Go to to see a chart that describes if your dog is too thin, too heavy or ideal.

Obesity poses the same health dangers to dogs as their owners. OSU veterinarians say diabetes, arthritis, long-term poor health are all linked to obesity.
"Fat causes inflammation," Dr. Sypniewski warned. "It's been shown to lead to inflammation of the body, chronic inflammation leads to poor health. Such health problems mean overweight and obese dogs simply won't live as long and will need more care."
"Nobody wants to lose their dog," Dr. Sypniewski said. "So you can't drive that point home enough, that a thin dog has the potential to live much longer than an overweight dog."

Weight loss is critical when a dog needs surgery because an obese dog is at higher risk of complications from anesthesia and surgery. The veterinarians sometimes suggest a dog spends the week at the clinic so the staff can work with them several times a day. Then, the dog will go home on weekends to be with their family.

"I had a 147-pound Weimaraner that had torn his cruciate ligaments in both knees and I had to get 50 pounds off of him before they would do surgery," Moorer said. "And we did it. We got 50 pounds off in a month."

Since diet is critical, veterinary staff members analyze each dog's caloric needs. Owners are then advised on the healthiest options for meals and treats.

VIDEO - Click on the Best dog treats video above to see what's best for your dog. (On our app, go to the video section).
"We understand that food is love," said Dr. Sypniewski. "So we try to find treats that are healthy and low-fat so they can still feed their dogs but they're not giving them as many calories."
Dr. Sypniewski tells owners to add vegetables, such as green beans, because they are high in fiber and low in fat. No table scraps allowed. Plus, exercise should be increased which means learning to ignore how the pet subtly trains their owner.
"If the dog wants to end their walk sooner, the owner ends their walk sooner," Dr. Sypniewski said. "It's not as if the owner is pushing them to go further. If the dog says 'no' most people are going to say 'okay, we'll go home early.'  We'll stop this sooner rather than later. That is by far and away one of the biggest issues is the dog training the owner to 'Hey, let's be sedentary and hang out at home.' And unfortunately, most humans would prefer that, to be couch potatoes."
Some homeowners successfully manage to get their pets to eat less and exercise more. For those who can't, there is the option of attending the doggie fat camp at OSU in Stillwater.

Contact the Veterinary Health Sciences Center (

Some dogs will come once or twice a week. Others stay Monday through Friday so the staff can jump-start their weight loss program. Then, owners bring their pets home each weekend.

It is a trip that Wendy Picking makes twice a week, especially after she and her husband noticed a distinct decline in Ziggy's flexibility and willingness to play over the holidays when she stopped coming for her spa treatments.
Treatment at OSU's doggie fat camp vary in cost depending on what veterinarians and the rehab tech prescribe. On average, owners can expect to spend $20-$25 per treatment. The initial veterinary exam and office visit are a separate charge. All of this is a price dog owners like Picking are more than willing to pay for their dog's health and happiness.
"Twice a week for the rest of Ziggy's natural life, we are going to be doing doggie spa," said Picking. "I would pretty much do anything for this dog. It's so sad. She's the princess of the household.  She runs our lives."

Print this article Back to Top