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Overweight and Dog Weight Loss Plan

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Obesity is one of the most common medical conditions in canines: Up to 60 percent of dogs are overweight, and about half of those are obese, which is defined as more than 30 percent above their ideal weight. As in humans, excess body fat in dogs can lead to a host of problems, from joint disease to a predisposition to metabolic disorders to a state of chronic inflammation. Not to mention that obese animals are less energetic than their trim counterparts—and tend to live shorter lives too.

"You CAN spoil a dog too much, and that's what we see in many cases of dog obesity," says Dr. Justin Shmalberg, one of Nom Nom's Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists. Dr. Shmalberg considers obesity in dogs akin to "preventable malnutrition." Thankfully, while it can be tough to get an overweight dog to lose weight, it's a challenge that's within reach for most owners if they follow simple guidelines. And it's important—dog weight loss has been associated with improvement in the quality of life, increased energy, and a reduction in some of the side effects of excess weight, like disease and chronic inflammation.

The most important thing to remember is, having an overweight dog and doing everything else right (high-quality food, healthy supplements, and so on) is likely more detrimental than having a lean dog—no matter what you feed him. That in mind, we've put together a full guide to doggy weight loss, covering what you need to know to keep your best friend healthy:

Body Condition Score Chart: Is Your Dog Obese or Overweight?

It seems like an overweight or obese dog would be obvious to the owner. But that's not always true. If you notice that your pup is looking a little on the pudgy side, that's usually the first clue. An overweight dog chart, or body condition score (BCS) chart, can help:

body condition score dog chart

On the 9-point scale, a score of 4 to 5 would be ideal for most breeds, while 3 can be normal in sighthounds (Greyhounds, Whippets, Salukis, etc.), as they're generally leaner. Dogs with a body condition score of 6 out of 9 are overweight, and 7 to 9+ are considered obese.

One thing to keep in mind is that your vet may not comment on your dog's body condition unless you ask. "Some studies suggest that vets can be reluctant to have the conversation with owners," says Shmalberg, "as many owners are resistant to this information, or in denial." At checkups, it pays to ask for both an honest assessment and an estimate of your dog's ideal body weight.

Dog Breeds Prone to Obesity

Many studies in different regions and countries have attempted to identify the breeds most at risk for becoming obese. Though there were some conflicting results, across all studies, these breeds rose to the top of the list:

There are also breeds that have been documented as having lower metabolism compared to others, including Labs, Corgis, and Newfoundlands.

How to Identify an Obese Puppy

Obese and overweight puppies are particularly sensitive to the effects of excess body fat. In fact, multiple studies suggest that overweight puppies are more prone to what vets call developmental orthopedic diseases, which develop during growth and cause issues in the normal structure of the bones and cartilage within joints. Orthopedic diseases could set up a puppy for a lifetime of impaired movement and/or arthritis.

Here are a few tips for keeping an eye on your puppy's weight:

Causes and Culprits of Obesity in Dogs

Weight gain in dogs may happen for several reasons from age, lack of exercise to overfeeding. Let's start with an overview of the risk factors for dog obesity:

1. Age: As dogs get older, they're more likely to become overweight.

2. Breed or genetics: Some breeds have lower energy needs or may be more genetically predisposed to higher weights. Accepted official breed standards may contribute to the obesity epidemic too; a European study found that nearly 1 out of 5 show dogs had a BCS over 5.

3. Neutering or spaying: Neutering or spaying can cause weight gain in both males and females. This is most likely related to the influence of sex hormones on appetite, exercise, and perhaps, most important, the loss of lean body mass following the procedure.

4. Overfeeding: Calorie-dense dry foods and commercial treats, in particular, are culprits. Also note, one large daily meal could lead to overfeeding. Go with more frequent meals—and remember that portion control is essential.

5. Lack of exercise: It's just as important for dogs to get moving daily as it is for humans. Dogs who get less exercise should eat fewer calories than active dogs.

6. Sex: Female dogs are more likely to be overweight than male dogs, and prevalence increases after spaying.

Even if a dog has risk factors for obesity, it simply means that their metabolism and number of calories are less than other breeds. The prevention and treatment of excess weight comes down to diet. It's on the owners to make sure they're feeding their dog the right amount of calories for her needs.

Is Your Dog Getting Too Many Calories?

Do exercise affect weight gain?

What most owners think of as regular exercise, like a trip around the block, doesn't really burn a ton of calories. Therefore, adding an extra bit of exercise most likely will not be effective enough to help your dog lose weight or prevent weight gain. Bottom line is that if you feed him excess calories, he's still likely to gain weight.

Clearly dogs who exercise less appear predisposed to obesity, and obese and overweight dogs are less active. It's a classic "what comes first, the chicken or the egg?" situation. Activity monitors have documented that this is true even during the day, when their owners are away. "Whether this is cause or effect of obesity is not entirely clear," says Shmalberg. "However, some studies have suggested that single dogs—that is, no other dog in the household—are at increased risk. So some social interaction, whether with you or another dog, does likely impact metabolism."

Could a medical condition be causing excess weight?

If your dog is gaining or losing a lot of weight without any other changes to his diet or exercise, then it could be a medical condition impacting his weight.  Your vet can test for medical conditions that can lead to weight gain such as:

Overweight and Obese Dog Health Issues

No doubt about it, an overweight or obese dog is bound for health problems—these are the most researched and widely accepted:

There's some newer research on the horizon too. "There's interesting research on the ways obesity might affect how certain genes get expressed. Of course, certain genes may also be a factor predisposing to obesity," Shmalberg says. There's also emerging research on how excess weight may influence the microbiome, or bacteria in the gut, and vice versa. A recent study showed significant differences in bacterial populations in obese versus normal dogs.

An Obese Puppy Grows Up to Be an Obese Dog

An obese puppy may face even more detrimental effects. Extra weight can put a strain on a young dog's growing skeletal frame and impact growth hormones, which can lead to increased inflammation. "We also know that overweight puppies are more likely to suffer from developmental orthopedic disease, which is a complex of possible problems characterized by abnormal growth of bones and joint structures," says Shmalberg. "This can cause gait problems, limb deformities, bone, and joint pain, and set up a situation that predisposes the dog to early-onset arthritis."

And although research is still in progress, it's thought, too, that obesity at an early age has long-term effects on a dog's metabolism, so that she may be more likely to stay overweight as she ages and therefore be predisposed to all the health problems above. A lower metabolism during the critical period of puppyhood may also make it harder for the dog to lose weight down the road.

How to Help a Dog Lose Weight

The most critical factor in any dog weight-loss plan is diet—and both the type of food and the amount matter. Exercise is always encouraged, but exercise alone is usually insufficient for substantial weight loss. What's really important to remember is that weight loss needs to be a family or household affair. It takes dedication and commitment from every one of your dog's guardians to ensure he stays on track (and that stray treats don't slip into the mix). "A dog's failure to lose weight is usually related to an owner's failure to feed him the appropriate number of calories," says Shmalberg. If you're ready to learn how to put a dog on a diet, you've come to the right place. Here's how to help your dog lose weight, step by step.

Overweight Dog Diet Plan

Once your vet confirms that your furry friend needs to slim down, it's time to put your overweight dog diet plan into action. Here are 10 steps to get you there:

  1. Find your dog's ideal body weight. Consult your vet — then you'll have what you need to determine how many calories he should eat daily.

  2. Establish a weight-monitoring plan. Begin with an accurate read of your dog's starting weight, followed by a plan for regular weigh-ins. For big dogs, you may want to talk to your vet about coming in on a schedule (we recommend every two weeks). You can weigh smaller dogs at home on a regular scale: First weigh yourself, then weigh yourself while holding the dog, and subtract the first number from the second. These days, you can also buy fairly inexpensive pet scales, suitable for a range of dog sizes, online.

  3. Calculate your dog's initial daily calorie intake. This is usually calculated by your vet, but you can also use the equation 70 x (Ideal Body Weight in kg)^0.75. Remember to use her ideal body weight. An alternative approach for overweight dogs is to cut their daily calories by about one-third.

  4. Factor in treats. Treats count in your dog's daily calorie intake, so figure out a reasonable number of treats you'll offer per day, and total up their calorie content. Consider training treats that have just a few calories each. Subtract this number from the total daily calories (above), and then you'll know the exact final amount of calories your dog should get in food. Try rewarding good behavior with a toy, interaction, or some other enrichment that doesn't involve calories. And let all members of the household and guests know about your dog's diet to steer them away from offering treats or table scraps.

  5. Identify the right food and amount. In the section below, we cover the topic of choosing the right diet food for your dog. Pre-measured foods tailored to your dog's weight (like Nom Nom) are the best option. Weighing the food is the next most accurate, followed by precise measuring cups (a 1/4-cup scoop is much better than using the 1/4-cup line on a 2-cup scoop).

  6. Set a schedule. Feed your dog at least two meals per day; more frequent meals may burn even more calories.

  7. Recheck weight after two weeks on the diet. Ideally your dog will be losing between 0.5 to 2 percent of his starting body weight per week, or about 2 to 8 percent per month. Initially, he may lose weight at a faster rate because of a loss of water weight—so if you see he's lost more than 2 percent per week early on, there's no need to adjust.

  8. Adjust calories as needed. Monitor your dog's weight loss and increase or decrease her calorie intake to make sure you're hitting the target rate. If you have to decrease her intake, and she seems like she can't get full, try adding a little water or even very low-calorie veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, celery) to her food.

  9. Ramp up activity. Encourage slow and steady increases in exercise throughout the weight-loss plan.

  10. Monitor progress post-diet. When your dog reaches his target weight, don't increase calories too soon or too dramatically—doing so could lead to rebound weight gain. "A dog's metabolism may never normalize to pre-overweight levels, so you always will need to be a little careful with calories," says Shmalberg. For dogs that do need a few more calories to maintain their trim figure, it's typically about 10 to 15 percent more than what they were fed during the weight-loss plan.

Best Dog Food for Weight-Loss 

There isn’t one particular food type or brand that is better than others when it comes to helping your dog lose weight. However, there are factors in dog food that will help set your dog up for better weight loss success:

Dietary protein: If your dog is overweight, you want her to lose fat while preserving muscle mass. Protein is critical to the maintenance and growth of skeletal muscle, which is key for mobility. Studies have found that increased dietary protein may help preserve muscle tissue in dogs on weight-loss plans. "Protein also requires more energy to break down in the dog's body than fat or carbs, so protein calories may be more beneficial for weight loss too," says Shmalberg. As for how much protein, clinical studies suggest that 75 grams per 1,000 calories of food is the minimal amount needed to preserve lean body mass—but even more may be beneficial. Check out our calorie calculator to learn more.

More essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids: The whole purpose of a weight-loss dog food is that you can restrict the number of calories. But, you don't want to restrict the essential nutrients your pet needs. A food with elevated amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids ensures your pet gets what he needs even when he's eating less overall.

Extra fiber and/or water: We all know that pets used to getting a certain amount of food won't be super impressed when that amount suddenly gets cut by a third. A food with high fiber or water content allows you to give your dog a greater volume of food without changing the calories, says Shmalberg. For fiber, look for foods that incorporate fiber-rich veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and green beans. You can also try adding low-calorie, high-fiber veggies to existing meals. Getting more water into meals is easy: choose canned or fresh foods (kibble usually has less than 10 percent water, while canned or fresh is generally more than 70 percent). Or soak kibble in water for a few minutes before feeding.

Easy to portion: Having a food pre-weighed in the exact amounts, like Nom Nom, takes out all of the guesswork (we tailor individual portions to each dog's needs). If that isn't an option, weighing food, while it can be a pain, is the most accurate way to measure calories. Otherwise, uniformly shaped food is best for maintaining consistent calories by volume, e.g. if you're using a measuring cup.

Palatable: During a diet, you want your dog to still be interested in eating. One of the biggest challenges with some weight-loss foods is palatability, likely because of the extra fiber or because it contains less fat. Canned or fresh food may be the best way to go because it has more discernible taste and smell than kibble, which dogs typically respond to.

Natural supplements: There's some evidence that certain natural supplements, either in the food or given separately, may be helpful, says Shmalberg. These include L-carnitine, which helps mitochondria in cells use fat for energy; fish oil, which contains EPA and DHA, two fatty acids which help regulate hormones linked to obesity; and herbal supplements like green tea extract and cinnamon, which may help to combat some of the effects of obesity on insulin resistance and reduced metabolism. Consult your vet for advice on dosage.

Exercise Programs for Obese Dogs

While a dog exercise program is important, remember that most of the calories in any weight loss plan need to be shed by reducing the amount of food. "It's unlikely your dog can tolerate enough exercise to lose weight without also reducing calories," says Shmalberg. Exercise must be designed with the specifics of your dog in mind—many overweight pets, especially those that are middle-aged to senior, may have arthritis or other conditions which limit stamina. Walking is the best exercise for most dogs because it shouldn't overstress the cardiovascular system, and it has low impact on joints. (In fact, walking can be beneficial in arthritic dogs as it helps to maintain muscle mass and distribute joint fluid, which keeps joints lubricated).

Here's how to design a dog exercise plan:

Diet Pills for Dogs

So, is there such a thing as a diet pill for dogs or an appetite suppressant for dogs? In short, no. According Shmalberg, there's no longer any medication available to help pets lose weight. Several years ago, a drug known as Slentrol (or dirlotapide) was on the market—it appeared to help dogs feel full by increasing the concentration of a particular hormone, and also seemed to prevent fat from being absorbed. On Slentrol, dogs lost weight at rates similar to what they would on a diet, but without cutting back food. But after side effects surfaced in some cases—vomiting, diarrhea, and changes in liver values—the drug was discontinued by the manufacturer, and no replacement exists.

Weight-Loss Surgery for Dogs

Like dog diet pills, weight-loss surgeries don't really exist for overweight dogs. "Calorie restriction is generally so effective and completely under the control of owners," says Shmalberg, "so there isn't any surgical fix offered right now. Bariatric surgeries like those done in people have been used in research—but it'll probably be some time, if ever, before they become viable options."

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