how to tell if your dog is overweight and how to help them lose weight

Obesity among dogs is a big problem: both in the US and Australia approximately 1/3 of dogs are overweight and the number climbs even higher for some breeds and types. Clearly, obesity is not great for their health – its linked significantly with osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease, cancer, shorter life spans and lower quality of life.

The good news is that helping an overweight dog lose weight is achievable (as long as you can overcome their feed-me puppy dog eyes) and can even help improve your weight too.

Below we discuss how dogs become overweight, how to tell if your dog is overweight and how to get them back to a happy, healthy condition.

how do dogs become overweight?

At a surface level the majority of obesity cases among dogs are down to the simple combination of bad diet and not enough exercise. There has been a notable shift in dogs’ health in the last 50 years as commercial diets have reduced in quality and modern lifestyles have left less time and space for exercise. All of which has led to what some call an obesity crisis.

As with humans the causes of obesity can be much more varied than these two simple causes. Medical conditions, genetic dispositions among breeds and low metabolism can all contribute to obesity. Its important to consider these factors when dealing with persistent obesity as determining the cause helps determine the best solution.

poor diets

There are two issues at play when it comes to diets.

Volume of calories – everyone who’s ever been on a diet is used to counting calories meticulously and its a similar story with dogs. Often overweight or obese dogs are simply fed too much food with too many calories. This can sometimes be due to owners simply not knowing how much food is suitable for their dog or that the feeding guides they are following do not take into factors which should alter recommended calorie intake (e.g. if dogs are old or inactive). Often it can come from owners indulging their dogs with additional treats or scraps from the table on top of their meals or even from dogs managing to find their own food sources without their owners realising.

Quality and composition of food – its important to note that weight gain is not simply about calorie intake but also the quality and composition of the food. The source of calories (protein, carbs, fat), the type of fat (polyunsaturated, unsaturated) and even how the food is prepared (heavily processed or fresh) all impact on weight gain. A lot of dog foods on the market contain high levels of carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats, all heavily cooked. This form of food is not as easily metabolised by dogs as diets high in protein and saturated fat.

not enough exercise

Regular exercise is extremely important for dogs (much less for cats) but sadly dogs generally are getting less exercise than they used to for a few reasons:

Less space at homehousing prices continue to rise while the size of dwellings gets smaller. The number of dogs growing up in apartments or without access to a back yard is increasing which means at home, where they spend the majority of the day, they get less opportunity to roam and play

Less opportunity to exercise – the length and quality of dogs’ exercise outside the home is also decreasing from a triple threat – dog owners are generally working longer hours and so have less free time for dog walks, large quality parks for dogs in some cities are being cut back on by financially-strapped councils, and lastly dog owners themselves are less fit and physically able than they used to be. All this means that dogs are getting less good quality exercise time.

Lower ability to exercise – overweight dogs generally get less exercise in part because of their condition. Simply carrying the extra weight limits a dogs ability to exercise as do associated health problems that come with obesity like respiratory and joint issues. There are also a number of categories of dogs that are less able to exercise (see the ‘Dogs at risk’ section below) including increasingly popular breeds like pugs and bulldogs.

Two examples of breeds prone to obesity: labrador retrievers, who require high exercise and tend to have large appetites, and pugs, who have musculoskeletal and respiratory issues which restrict exercise.

dogs at risk of being overweight and obese

There are types of dogs that are at greater risk of obesity than others. We’ve highlighted some common groups below.

Breeds – unfortunately bad breeding practices that prioritise appearance and sometimes function over a dogs’ well being have created health issues among some breeds. Musculoskeletal problems which restrict a dogs movement (as with dashchunds) or make them more prone to injury (like hip dysplasia in newfoundlands) and respiratory problems (as with pugs) can stop dogs from getting enough exercise. Similarly there are lots of dogs bred for hunting and work like beagles and rottweilers which require a lot of exercise and tend to gulp down a lot of food – often their owners simply don’t have enough time to give them the exercise they need.

Breeds that commonly experience obesity are Basset Hounds, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Bulldogs, some Terriers, Labrador retrievers and Pugs.

Medical conditions – dogs with hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland),  Cushing’s Disease (when a dog produces too much cortisol) and arthritis are some of the medical conditions which often lead to obesity. If your dog has further symptoms of these conditions ask a vet for further tests. Some medications like Phenobarbital can also encourage weight gain.

Other categories of dogs ‘at risk’ – dogs that have been neutered or splayed tend to have lower metabolisms so are more prone to obesity. Similarly older dogs, as with humans, also have lower metabolic rates so also tend to become overweight.

how to tell if your dog is overweight or obese

Its not always easy to tell if your dog is overweight or not – some owners assume different breeds should have different levels of fat but its generally not the case – a healthy bulldog or pug for example should have skin folds but not be fat. There are two main ways to tell if your dog is overweight

Check their weight against the normal range for their breed – the American Kennel Club has a reasonably comprehensive list of ‘normal’ body weight ranges for adult dogs for different breeds. However, its not always easy to weigh your dog – the simplest way to do it is to weigh yourself, then pick up your dog and weigh yourself again, then simply work out the difference. Dogs are defined as overweight when their weight is 15% above their expected weight and are obese when their weight is 30% higher than expected.

Check their Body Condition Score – this method is used by vets to take into account muscle mass and body fat to give a better indication of whether a dog is overweight. You simply need to get your dog to stand, look at their body shape from the side and above and feel their chest and ribs, then compare it to the chart below – click on the image for the full guide. A healthy dog should have a noticeable tuck in at the waist when viewed from above and the side and you should be able to feel their individual ribs relatively easy whilst being partially visible.

Click to view the full Body Condition Score guide

how to help your dog lose weight and excess fat

The first step to tackling obesity is finding the cause (as above), if you’re feeding them more than the amount of dog food recommended on the pack or treating them a lot then reducing their food is obviously the key, if you suspect they’re not getting enough exercise, particularly if they’re an active breed, then finding a suitable exercise plan could be the answer and if you suspect their might be another cause, like a medical condition, then seek a vet’s advice.

Either way, make a plan to address their weight, stick to it and monitor the impact as they go – if its not working after a few weeks, adapt the plan and continue. Often the biggest hurdle to improving their weight will be changing your habits as their pet parent. Its not always easy to feed less (especially when they make those puppydogfeedme eyes) so check out our inspiration section below for tips.

get their diet right

The first step in helping your dog lose weight is in addressing their diet.

finding a healthy, balanced dog food – look for a dog food that is high in protein, low in fat, low in carbs and easily digestible. Our Balanced Life air dried raw dog food for example is composed of and gently air-dried to maximise nutritional value and make the ingredients easily digestible. Find out more about what makes our food so healthy.

help them switch gradually –  as with humans, switching your dog to a healthier diet can take time. A sudden switch to a new diet can be a little shocking for the dog’s taste buds as well as its stomach. That’s why we recommend the seven day switch, mixing in a little more air dried raw to their existing food day-by-day.​ Find out more here

feed the appropriate amount

Once you’ve found a healthy, balanced food you need to make sure your feeding the right amount for your dog.

Feed to their target weight – all dog foods will have a feeding guide with a recommended daily allowance for your dog’s weight. Its important to feed your dog to their target weight and not to the weight they currently are if they’re overweight. You can use a list of appropriate weights of dogs for different breeds to determine their target weight. All dogs are different and you may need to feed more or less depending on their age, activity levels, and any other mitigating factors (see dogs at risk). Online feeding calculators like this one can help you adjust the amount you feed based on some of these factors. 

Minimise treats – occasional treats can help manage the adjustment to a lower calorie intake and incentivise exercise so you don’t need to cut them out altogether. Look for natural, healthy treats, raw bones or occupier treats and cut out the table scraps and whenever feeding treats you need to deduct those calories from the amount of food you give at the following mealtime

Fasting – dogs from an evolutionary standpoint are scavenging feeders and their bodies are used to missing meals or even going days without food. Occasional fasting, once a week or fortnight, will help them reach their target weight faster and can help boost their immunity and gut health

get plenty of exercise

Getting plenty of exercise can be the toughest part of a weight loss plan. The key is to find an arrangement that works with your lifestyle and is something you can both enjoy. Interestingly helping your dog exercise is likely to help keep you healthier too:

Walkies – the basis of an exercise plan for dogs is a regular, daily walk and some breeds like border collies will even need walking twice a day. Find an off-leash park close to you then work out the best time of day for a walk that works with your routine – note walking your dog on the leash won’t help much – they burn very few calories. Throwing a ball, stick or frisbee will help them get more exercise and provide mental stimulation, although be careful of any potential injuries particularly with senior dogs. Consider joining a dog club or meet up group to find dog walking buddies.

Keep them active at home – if you’ve a backyard make sure they have plenty of access to roam and play and look to purchase toys that help keep them active and entertained, even when you’re not home. Food puzzles and KONGs can also be great toys to provide exercise while feeding.

Find ways to integrate your dog into your life more – adding ways to exercise beyond a daily walk can also help your dog burn off calories. Going to the shops or a cafe? Walk there with your dog? Visiting a beach? Find a dog-friendly one and take the pooch. You can even take your dog to yoga nowadays!

get inspired

As with any weight loss plan it can sometimes be hard to stick to it. Keep yourself motivated by following a healthy (scroll below for ways to follow us), sharing your plan with a friendly dog owner or even joining a dog club or meet up group. You could even get the professionals involved by talking to your vet or a pet nutritionist, and even employing the services of a dog walker to help with exercise.

Lastly get inspired by these impressive slimmers here, here and here.

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