Updated: Nov 4, 2022
In 2018, statistics showed that 56% of dogs were overweight or obese when they visited their vet for an annual checkup1. We are now more sedentary than ever: living in condensed cities, making do in small apartments, and generally being far away from beautiful, lush green spaces.
Unfortunately, this means dog obesity rates have probably continued to climb.
Weight loss (and management) in dogs is essential to ensure our dogs live longer, healthier lives. Although your chubby dog is adorable, it is a fact overweight and obese body conditions reduce the quality of life and longevity of our precious pets 1,2,3,7!
What You Need to Know About Dog Obesity and Weight Loss in Dogs
First and foremost, before undertaking any weight loss plan, you should be checking with your veterinarian to be sure that your dog does not have any medical conditions or diseases that may be causing the weight gain (or preventing the weight loss).
Remember, your veterinarian and veterinary staff are your best tools to help you help your pet lose weight safely—and maintain an ideal body condition after they do.
So, why is it really that important to keep your dog at a healthy weight?
Simply put, overweight or obese dogs are in a constant state of unregulated inflammation2. Did you know that a dog carrying as little as five extra pounds (above their ideal weight) can be more at risk for a number of serious medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis? This is because excess fatty tissue acts as a source of inflammation in the body, and long-term chronic inflammation leads to some of the debilitating diseases mentioned before 1,2,3,7.
Being chronically overweight also puts your dog in more danger of developing other conditions like urinary tract infections, skin infections, high blood pressure, and heart and lung conditions 1,2,3,7. Not only will their overall health be impacted, but their day-to-day quality of life will take a hit as well since obese pets tend to be less playful and lay around more 1,3. Unfortunately, this can contribute to the cycle as less active pets just become more and more unhealthy and overweight.
What we’re trying to say here is that keeping a pet overweight shortens their lifespan and general quality of life—we know that every single pet parent we have talked to wants the exact opposite of this 6!
Weight Loss & Maintenance Is a Constant Challenge
Take a second and relate to your adorably chubby dog: If you’ve ever struggled with weight loss yourself, or have known someone who has struggles, then you understand it’s a difficult journey that never truly ends! It’s the same for your dog, except they need even more help from us to keep them on track.
Some of the Challenges That You and Your Dog May Face Include (But Are Not Limited To):
Challenge #1: Being Able to Recognize Your Dog Is Overweight
Many pet owners are unaware—don’t worry, we are always learning new information. Nor have many of us been taught the skills that veterinarians have to determine a Body Condition Score (BCS) on a dog. And honestly, most veterinarians find bringing up the topic of obesity difficult.
If it’s easier, think of it as working to decrease the disease of chronic inflammation in your pet's body, instead of focusing on the fact your pet may be a bit chunky. If we all focus on the well-being of our individual pets, then doing what is right for their quality of life, longevity and disease prevention should not be a difficult conversation. If your vet does not offer this information, ask!
Here Are Some Tips for When Going for a Vet Visit:
Your veterinarian should be doing a full BCS on your dog each time it comes in, and it should be noted in their medical records
Ask your vet what that body condition number score is
Although every vet is different, on a chart that scores body condition from 1 to 9, the ideal is 4-5 and overweight is anything above 6
6 = overweight, 7 = moderately overweight, 8 = severely overweight, 9 = obese
Ask your vet how to perform a BCS on your pet, AND do it regularly at home! WSAVA has a brilliant free chart available to print and keep at the ready to do your bi-monthly BCS!
Challenge #2: Realizing That Obesity and Disease Go Hand-In-Hand
Yes, pets that are chubby with a little extra chunk are very endearing; however, from a health and longevity perspective, being overweight is nothing to laugh at. As we mentioned below, many diseases and cancers have been linked to pet obesity.
If everyone truly realized how devastating obesity was to their pets, we can all agree that more of us would be focused on keeping our precious pets’ waistlines thinner. There is no argument: Maintaining an ideal body weight will keep our pets around (and healthy) for much longer!
Challenge #3: Promoting an Unhealthy Relationship With Food and Your Pet
Put your hands up if your dog occasionally receives any of the following…
Scrap from the table
Little extras from when your cooking
Droppings from licking the ground under a toddler or kids having meals
Popular chew sticks and dental treats (most of which are very high in calories!)
No need to feel bad—we all give treats to our precious pets because we love them, probably more than they love the treats. However, for all of our good intentions, partaking in these actions too much can lead to dangerous weight gain.
Even if we are feeding healthier options like raw bones, it’s important to remember these also contribute to caloric intake. To mitigate an unhealthy relationship with food, you should be reducing what they are fed for dinner, or not feeding dinner at all but counting that bone as a meal replacement. This simple deed can make a huge difference!
The key takeaway here is that everything our pet eats contributes to caloric intake, and if we then go on and feed them full portions of their regular meal, in addition to these tasty extras, the weight gain cycle is bound to begin.
Food does not equal love. Killing them with kindness is quite literally a true statement when it comes to pets and obesity.
Tips for Healthier Treating:
By all means, give them those treats and special "good boy" goodies! However, be calorie conscious when doing so, and give them a tiny bit less during dinner time that day.
If you have been doing a lot of treat training, try to select healthier treats, and don't be afraid to skip their dinner or feed 1/4 to 1/2 of it if they have had a particularly successful training day. It is ok for an otherwise healthy overweight, or ideal weight dog to miss a meal—despite what their opinion on it may be.
There are countless ways that you can show how much you love your pet that does not involve food:
Playing with toys
Setting up obstacle courses
Hide and seek, is a great hike
A long "sniff-ari" walk
A swim in the river
A massage or just a really good cuddle
Find out what motivates your dog, and what they genuinely love, and offer that next time you are tempted to pass them that bit of steak from your plate, especially if they are overweight!
Challenge #4: Begging Behaviour
Your dog is absolutely adorable, so we definitely understand why when your dog begs it will pull at your heartstrings, while probably also being slightly frustrating. However, remember that begging for food does not equal a hungry dog!
Many behaviours are learned, and if begging worked before, then what smart dog wouldn't try it again, and again… and again? They are, after all, amazing at training us humans! You know when you smell that amazing smell of freshly baked bread, and even if you’re not hungry, you might feel like you need a piece? Just imagine what that is like with our dogs' extremely superior sense of smell!
Since begging is a learned behaviour, then teaching an alternative can also be learned. Of course this will take lots of patience, consistency and time, but just like that toddler asking for candy before dinner, you know that not giving in is best for them.
Tips if You’re Dealing With a Professional Beggar:
Put them in a separate room with you’re preparing for or eating—you can eventually make this a certain area (think crate or mat)
Coordinate your dog’s mealtime with your own so that you can all eat in peace, especially if they eat in a separate area
Challenge #5: Believing Exercise Is the Magic Fix All!
While exercise certainly helps with weight loss, and is encouraged, calorie restriction is by far the best way to achieve weight loss. You can lose weight by cutting calories alone and not increasing exercise. That means lazier, less mobile dogs shouldn’t get a pass to be obese!
While building more lean muscle will help with burning calories, increasing exercise alone is often not enough to achieve successful and sustained weight loss—it may even be harmful or very difficult for some dogs 1,3. If your dog is overweight and you suddenly ramp things up to playing fetch for endless hours, the chance of a physical injury is very high.
Remember, your overweight dog may be super excited about the increased playtime, but running, chasing, stopping, and turning at high speed puts excessive pressure on joints, ligaments, and tendons. This is why you should introduce the increased activity gradually and within your dog’s personal tolerance level.
Know your dog's limitations, choose an exercise that you will both enjoy, and start it slowly. If that means just 2-3 minutes of sustained swimming, that is fine! Slowly increase this amount weekly and get to a point where your pup is getting a good pant on for about 30 minutes each day. No matter what exercise you choose, aim for your dog to break a light sweat with a slightly increased respiratory rate and go at whatever speed you think is appropriate for your specific dog!
Challenge #6: Knowing the Proper Daily Feeding Amounts for Your Dog
This is where your veterinarian’s expertise comes in. They can calculate how many calories your dog should be consuming daily to achieve weight loss. They should be providing you with an exact calorie number in a narrow range in grams or ounces. Keep in mind that they should not give a partial number of cups because this varies dramatically depending on what you are feeding and even what protein you are feeding within the same company's product!
From here, you can do a little simple math to figure out the exact amount that will provide said calories with your chosen food. Invest in a sensitive kitchen scale, it is the only way that you can have accurate measurements, no matter what you are feeding, as calories are listed per kilogram on pet food packaging.
Not only should your vet give you calorie intake and record your dog’s weight, but they should also be doing a numerical Muscle Condition Score (MCS) on your dog. This will determine if they have adequate lean muscle hidden under that fat and allow you to monitor that your dog isn’t losing muscle on their weight loss journey. This should be in addition to recording a numerical weight and numerical BCS in their medical record.
Using all these tools combined, talk to your vet about an estimate for the target weight you and your dog can strive for. Keep in mind this is an estimate—a first goal if you will—as the ideal numerical weight may change along the way depending on several factors. Your dog’s weight will need to be monitored closely with the BCS in order to achieve success. Depending on how overweight your dog is, you may even have a modest initial target weight that is still outside of their ideal weight, but breaking things down to more achievable, manageable goals is always better for success!
Get an accurate portion estimate for your dog with the
Red Dog Blue Kat FREE Feeding Guide or use our box for a rough estimate!
Challenge #7: Properly Measuring a Successful (Or Not So Successful) Weight Loss Journey
As we mentioned previously, you will need to learn how to do a BCS at home if you want your dog to successfully lose weight—this should be done every 2-4 weeks and recorded! Keep a weight loss journal for your dog to keep things on track, and for accountability.
This may get a little technical, but we’ll try to explain everything in detail and make the numbers make sense!
The first thing is to understand that an ideal BCS is 4 or 5, and every point above or below this represents 10-15% away from ideal. So, if your pet is 20kg (44lbs), and has a BCS of 6, then it needs to lose 2-3 kg (4.5-6.5lbs) to get to an ideal BCS.
Successful weight loss in a dog can be measured at 1-2% of body weight per month, but can even be done safely between 3-5+% depending on the amount of weight to lose and the physical condition of the dog 1,3. Too much too fast could be dangerous, indicate a medical problem or that you are not feeding enough food—and too little could mean that we need to recalculate the caloric intake.
If you’re not seeing results, simply reducing more and more blindly is not recommended, as dogs do have minimum requirements that may not be met when you feed them a very small portion of food.
As your dog loses weight, there will be a visual change in its body shape. You may also see activity levels going up, or find them wanting to engage and play more, or jumping in the car when they used to need some assistance. These are all great indicators that things are going in the right direction, take note of these successes!! But you must stay accountable, and do those weigh-ins and BCS as prescribed!
Rechecks and monitoring are crucial for any weight loss plan. What works for one dog, may not work for others, and with vast variations in metabolism, genetics, activity levels, ability to increase exercise, and/or medical/health concerns, some may need multiple modifications to the plan along the way.
Challenge #8: Losing the Weight and Then Going Back to “Life as Usual”
This is dangerous! All of the hard work you and your dog just did could be seriously undermined—remember "life as usual" is what led to your dog being overweight!
It’s important to understand that it’s about changing your dog's lifestyle… for good. Luckily, as long as you work hard at building good habits, they will be easier to maintain after the initial challenge. Weighing out food, adjusting calorie intake as needed, and scheduling exercise times will be second nature by the time your dog has shed the pounds. Making sure you stick to the positive behaviours you developed will play a pivotal role in maintaining the ideal weight for life.
In fact, dogs that have a propensity towards obesity often continue to have lower caloric needs even after they lose weight! You should keep this in mind when changing foods, or introducing a new tasty treat even after the ideal weight is achieved 1,7.
We understand that getting your dog to lose weight can definitely be challenging, and it can take time, patience, and possibly some trial and error and re-grouping. However, in the end you will be rewarded with the gift of extending your furry friend's life, preventing disease, reducing inflammation in their body, and overall providing them with an improved quality of life.
If you relate to any of the challenges we mentioned above, don’t worry—you and your dog are not alone! There are many, many pet parents who are in similar situations with chubby companions who are very adorable, but need help being healthier! We all want our pets to live longer, healthier, and happier lives, so if you have a pet that is overweight or obese, get them checked out by your veterinarian to rule out any medical concerns that would complicate a weight loss plan.
Looking for more guidance on what diet is beneficial for obese or overweight pets? We’ll be back with another weight loss blog (part 2) that outlines how your dog can lose weight and become healthier by eating a raw food diet!