Reviewed and updated for accuracy on October 21, 2019 by Dr. Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD
According to a 2018 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 55.8% of today’s pet dogs are overweight.
But making a few simple changes to your dog’s diet and lifestyle with your vet’s help can allow him to shed some pounds and live a healthier life. Your veterinarian will be able to make sure your pet is healthy enough and there won’t be any complications.
Here’s how you can help your overweight dog live a healthier lifestyle.
To determine if your dog is overweight, check their ribs: “You should be able to feel their ribs without an excessive amount of fat on them,” says Dr. Karyn Collier, DVM, chief medical officer at Saint Francis Veterinary Center for Animal Physical Therapy in Woolwich Township, New Jersey. “You should be able to count them.”
Looking from above, the flank—the area between the ribs and the pelvis—should be indented, and your pet’s chest should be wider than the flank.
If you are standing to the side of your pet, their chest should tuck up as it goes into the abdomen. For dogs with thick, long fur, you’ll likely need to feel these areas rather than rely on appearance alone, because fur can hide a dog’s body shape.
“If you have a hard time finding the ribs and you really have to press, the dog is getting heavy,” says Dr. Collier. “If you’re starting to lose the indentation on the waist and the tuck up to the abdomen, the dog is overweight.”
You may also want to watch how your dog manages regular exercise. “If you notice he pants heavily on walks that he used to be able to make,” Dr. Collier explains, “he may be getting too heavy.”
Any changes in your dog’s physical appearance, energy levels or physical capabilities should be discussed with your veterinarian. They can perform a full physical evaluation to help you understand your dog’s current fitness levels.
At your dog’s annual checkup, ask your veterinarian to tell you your dog’s body condition score so you know whether he needs to lose any weight.
The body condition scoring system was developed as a way to measure body fat. Depending on which scale is used, scores for dogs can range from 1-5 or 1-9.
For the 5-point scale, a 3 is ideal, 4 is overweight and 5 is obese.
On the 9-point scale, a pet with a healthy body weight will score a 4 or 5. Scores of 6-9 indicate that a dog is either overweight or obese and needs to lose weight.
While overeating is a common cause of weight gain in dogs, your vet will want to rule out any underlying diseases that can potentially cause or contribute to weight gain.
Remember to read the feeding instructions for your dog’s food, and make sure your dog is eating an appropriate food for her life stage.
The food’s label will specify whether it is formulated for gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance or all life stages.
For example, puppies generally have a higher nutritional requirement compared to adults, and should be transitioned from a puppy to adult maintenance diet once they stop growing.
You will also want to make sure that the type of food is correct—an indoor, low-energy pup should not be on a high-performance dog food reserved for highly active or working dogs.
Work with your veterinarian to ensure that the type of food is appropriate for your dog’s energy level.
The next step in getting your dog’s weight under control is to take an objective look at how much your dog eats.
Dr. Collier is a proponent of measured feeding. “Some dogs eat no matter how much food you put in the bowl, so it’s important to measure since you can’t always depend on the dog to stop,” she says.
Your dog’s food label will include information on the diet’s calorie, protein, fat and carbohydrate contents. The label will also indicate the recommended amount you should feed your dog per day based on his weight.
Keep in mind that the measurements listed on the bag are just general guidelines. Because certain factors, such as breed, body type and activity level, play a role in your dog’s dietary needs, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian to see how much your dog should be eating.
If you haven’t been measuring your dog’s food and he is starting to feel overweight, consult with your veterinarian to calculate the number of calories your dog should consume per day. Then stick to that number by correctly portioning your dog’s meals.
If your dog needs to lose weight, remember that every treat and snack contributes to his daily calorie intake.
Dogs can get into a habit of expecting treats if they are always rewarded with food. “If you’ve been using a treat, go to a smaller one or just give them a piece of a biscuit instead of a whole one,” Dr. Collier suggests.
Many manufacturers also offer low-calorie treats as a way to reward your dog without adding on pounds.
But remember, treats aren’t essential for dogs.
For many pets, the pleasure is getting the reward, not eating it. Using nonfood rewards like verbal praise, a head scratch or a belly rub is often enough, especially if you use these forms of praise from an early age.
Avoid giving your dog snacks from the dinner table as well. All those small bites add up, Dr. Collier says.
Also, many human foods are rich in salt, sugar and fat, and some foods contain ingredients that may be dangerous for pets.
Be particularly mindful if you have small children who drop a lot of food.
Talk with your veterinarian about gradually increasing your dog’s exercise.
Walks are a great form of exercise, as long as your dog is healthy enough and free from other diseases, such as osteoarthritis or heart disease.
You’ll know when your dog is tired, says Dr. Collier, because he’ll lag behind you.
Take note of the distance he walks and gradually add a little more each day. You should eventually aim for at least 30 minutes, says Dr. Collier, “and you want a good pace so the owner should feel their heart rate go up too.”
Your dog shouldn’t have lots of time to stop and sniff things on an exercise walk, although you can always do a pleasure walk later.
Researchers are working to determine appropriate nutritional formulas for dogs that are prone to weight gain. Switching to a diet specifically formulated for weight loss or weight management may be worth trying, says Dr. Collier.
However, she stresses the importance of addressing your dog’s exercise and diet in general first, and proceeding with your veterinarian’s guidance.
Your dog's veterinarian can not only provide dietary tips and food recommendations, but can also ensure that your dog is free from underlying diseases and is healthy enough for exercise.
By: Amanda Baltazar