Weight Loss for Obese Dogs
They say that the way to man's heart is through his stomach. Safe to say that old saying also applies to dogs—a little extra kibble at dinnertime or a tasty treat is an easy way to show your furry best friend how much you care. But go overboard, and you might end up with an overweight dog, or worse, an obese dog.
Having an overweight dog is more detrimental than having a lean dog.
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.
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 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:
- Identifying an Obese Dog
- Causes and Culprits
- Obese Dog Health Issues
- How to Help a Dog Lose Weight
Identifying an Obese Dog
If seems like an overweight or obese dog would be obvious to the owner. But that's not always true. Parents tend to underestimate how overweight their kids are, after all. 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:
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.
Fat Dog Breeds
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:
- Labrador Retrievers
- Golden Retrievers
- Cocker Spaniels
- Cairn Terriers
- Scottish Terriers
- Basset Hounds
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Mixed breeds
There are also breeds which have been documented as having lower metabolism compared to others, including Labs, Corgis, and Newfoundlands.
Identifying 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:
- Starting around 12 weeks, and definitely by 16 weeks, puppies should display similar definition to adult dogs. See the body condition score chart above and check out our complete guide to puppy nutrition for more information.
- Have your vet evaluate your puppy's weight and body condition at routine appointments.
- Make sure you're calculating the appropriate number of calories for your pup (use our handy calculator) and don't forget to account for all those treats.
Causes and Culprits
The prevention and treatment of excess weight and obesity in dogs comes down to diet.
If you're starting to think, my dog is getting fat and you're not sure why, there are number of possible reasons, from how he's exercised to his genetics to whether or not he's neutered. Let's start with an overview of the risk factors for dog obesity:
Age: As dogs get older, they're more likely to become overweight.
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.
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.
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.
Lack of exercise: It's just as important for dogs to get moving daily as it is for humans; and pets who get less exercise require fewer calories than active pets.
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, those ultimately affect metabolism, and how many calories a dog needs to eat in a day. But 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. Here are the sorts of things that can lead to too many calories:
- Inconsistent portioning or free-choice feeding. Precise measurements and consistency are critical to knowing how many calories you're serving. The size of the scoop or bowl matters: one that's too big for a small dog is bound to cause problems. Nutritionists recommend weighing food, especially for little ones. And avoid free-choice feeding. "Some dogs can do it for a while," says Shmalberg, "but if their metabolism changes, it's tough to monitor."
- Large meals. Feeding smaller, more frequent meals burns more calories. Some studies have suggested once-daily feeding (even controlled for calories) is a risk factor for excess weight.
- Following label recommendations. Guess what? There's no standardization of feeding recommendations on the bags of pet foods and the numbers vary significantly. It's best to calculate calories and then check the number of calories per cup, can, or package.
- Treats. The truth is, many dogs get a lot of their calories from treats. And from treat to treat, the calorie content can vary from a couple calories to more than a hundred. It's important to account for treats when figuring out your dog's daily calorie intake. Most vets recommend keeping treats to a minimum: about 10 to 20 percent of the total.
- Table scraps. Foods that you're eating, assuming they're healthy, can be a great source of nutrition for your dog. But just like treats, if they're not accounted for, they can add significant calories to your pup's diet. "Humans have a hard time scaling calories and food portions for their pets," says Shmalberg. "It's very different for you to eat part of restaurant meal when you're on a 2,000-calorie diet than it is for your chihuahua, who only needs 200 calories a day."
- Overfeeding because your dog is "very active." Most dogs and dog sports involve relatively brief periods of intense activity, in other words, not enough to increase calorie needs. A dog will only require more calories if they travel long distances when exercising, for example, going on a multi-mile hike or running next to you while biking. (Hunting dogs are also truly active, because they travel long distances).
Do exercise and boredom 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. That's why exercise isn't the only thing to adjust if you're trying to help your dog lose weight or prevent weight gain. You should exercise your dog for a number of reasons, but no matter what, 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?
Definitely keep your vet in the loop when starting a weight-loss plan. It's best to get their input on how much your dog should be losing and at what rate, and also find out how to make sure you're maintaining good muscle mass—you want your dog to lose fat, not muscle. Your vet can scan for medical causes that may be behind weight gain too:
- Hypothyroidism is a common cause of lowered metabolism in dogs, especially middle-aged dogs. You vet will check for it with a quick blood test.
- Cushing's syndrome is the name of the condition in which a dog produces too much cortisol (the "stress hormone"). It can lead to increased appetite, loss of muscle mass, and increased fat stores and weight gain.
- Osteoarthritis and other painful conditions may cause a dog's activity level to dip, which often leads to weight gain.
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:
- Reduced lifespan: A study of related Labradors showed that obese dogs lived 1.8 years less than their lean counterparts.
- Osteoarthritis: In that same study, obese dogs displayed earlier and more severe arthritis than lean dogs. The condition may stem in part from the extra load a heavier body puts on joints, but it's now thought it's also, and more significantly, a result of the inflammatory state obesity causes in the body.
- Slower recovery after surgery: Weight loss in overweight animals appears to help them recover faster from major surgeries, like repair of the cranial cruciate ligament (similar to the human ACL).
- Worsened respiratory disease: Conditions like tracheal collapse, common in many small breeds, is aggravated by the effects of excess fat. Same goes for brachycephalic syndrome, the respiratory difficulty that occurs in some short-faced dogs like pugs.
- Metabolic effects: Excess fat appears to cause changes in insulin sensitivity (which affects blood sugar levels) and in the levels of fats within the blood. Interestingly, however, diabetes doesn't to be a side effect of obesity in dogs, unlike in both humans and cats.
- Heat intolerance: Overweight dogs are far more likely to die from heatstroke than dogs of a healthy weight.
- Skin disease: Nonallergic skin diseases have been documented at higher rates in dogs with excess weight.
- Cancer: Some—but not all—types of cancers appear to be more common in overweight or obese dogs.
- Decreased activity: Research looking at activity monitors has shown that overweight dogs move far less frequently than their lean peers. This only compounds the problem.
- Poor quality of life: Quality-of-life scoring by owners clearly shows a difference in the overall wellness of lean dogs versus overweight dogs, and suggests that lean dogs are both healthier and happier.
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 vet confirms that your four-legged 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Identify the right food and amount of it. In the section below, we cover the topic of choosing the right diet food for your dog. Premeasured foods tailored to your dog's weight (like NomNomNow) 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).
- Set a schedule. Feed your dog at least two meals per day; more frequent meals may burn even more calories.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ramp up activity. Encourage slow and steady increases in exercise throughout the weight-loss plan.
- 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.
Special Weight-Loss Dog Food
Once your vet vet confirms that your four-legged 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:
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 calculator here 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 NomNomNow, 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:
- If your dog is already getting controlled exercise (walking, playing, etc.), increase her activity by about 25 percent. If your dog is relatively inactive, start with the American Animal Hospital Association's recommended five-minute walks three times daily.
- Aim for your dog to get about an hour of exercise per day, as long as he can tolerate it. The amount of calories your dog burns during this period is related to the distance you travel. Dogs consume about 0.75 calories per pound per mile during walks.
- Exercise your dog during cooler times of day (morning, evening) or, if it's very hot, in climate-controlled areas. This is especially important for dogs with short noses.
- Always bring water; travel or collapsible bowls are a good idea. But leave the sports drinks at home—dogs get rid of heat by panting, not sweating, so they don't lose the electrolytes like humans do.
- Stick close to home until you know how your dog will do, and have a plan B in case your dog can't make it back.
- Avoid inclines and declines in the terrain, which put more strain on the legs, until you're further into the exercise plan. Hills can, after your pet is used to exercise, help to burn more calories and build muscle.
- Keep your dog's nails trimmed. When they're too long, they can change the position of the toes and make walking more difficult.
- Make the experience enjoyable. Your overweight dog may not be excited by exercise in the beginning and it's likely to be quite tiring. Encouragement, toys, and time with you can all be used as rewards. You can give low-calorie treats, but remember to account for these in the overall calorie plan. Even better, in lieu of treats, use part of your dog's daily food to reward her during exercise. Just don't overdo it: feeding too much right before or during exercise could cause issues.
- Change up the type of activity as your dog progresses. Try fetch, hill work, hiking, or jogging.
- Swimming is a good low-impact exercise for dogs, but if they're not proven swimmers, they need to start with a life vest. Underwater treadmills (found at rehabilitation facilities) are often used to encourage weight loss in dogs being treated for orthopedic conditions.
It's unlikely your dog can tolerate enough exercise to lose weight without also reducing calories.
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 to 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."
Solutions to Common Dog Weight-Loss Problems
Trying to help your best friend shed a few pounds, but bumping into roadblocks? Here's what to do.