In North America, obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention reports that more than 50% of dogs are overweight.
What is obesity?
Obesity is an accumulation of excess body fat. As extra body fat causes an increase in body weight, weight can be used to determine whether a dog is overweight or obese and is easier than measuring body fat. Using body weight as a guide, dogs are considered overweight when they weigh 10-20% above their ideal body weight. They are considered obese when they weigh more than 20% above their ideal body weight.
What are the risks posed by obesity?
Obesity shortens a dog’s life and makes them more likely to develop disease. It was always accepted that heavy dogs lived a shorter lifespan than lean dogs, usually by 6-12 months. But a large lifetime study of Labrador Retrievers has found that being even moderately overweight can reduce a dog's life expectancy by nearly two years compared to their leaner counterparts. This is a sobering statistic.
"...a large lifetime study of Labrador Retrievers has found that being even moderately overweight can reduce a dog's life expectancy by nearly two years compared to their leaner counterparts."
Previously, fat was considered relatively inactive tissue, simply storing excess energy calories and adding to body mass. However, scientific evidence now reveals that fat tissue is biologically active. It secretes inflammatory hormones and creates oxidative stress on the body’s tissue, which contributes to many diseases. Thinking of obesity as a chronic, low-level inflammatory condition is a new approach.
Obese dogs develop an increased risk for cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis and faster degeneration of affected joints, urinary bladder stones, and anesthetic complications. On the other hand, obesity may be an indicator of diseases, such as hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland) or Cushing’s disease (overactive adrenal glands).
How can I tell if my dog is obese?
The very first step in dealing with an overweight or obese dog is to recognize and acknowledge that there is a problem. Unfortunately, we are inundated with images in the media of overweight dogs, making it challenging to understand what normal looks like. Your veterinarian and veterinary health care team can assist with an assessment.
Rib coverage is not only an important measurement to help you identify if your dog is overweight, but it is also easy for you to do at home, on your own. If you hold your hand palm down and feel your knuckles with the flats of the fingers on the opposite hand, this is how your dog’s ribs should feel just behind the shoulder blades. It is also a good measure of weight loss progress between formal weigh-ins.
Your veterinary health care team will provide an estimated ideal body weight to use as a target. Still, it is essential that they also do regular body condition assessments to ensure progress is being made toward normal body weight and body condition. Most veterinary practices use a body condition scoring system on a scale of either 1-5 (where 3 is ideal) or 1-9 (where 5 is ideal).
How do I adjust my dog’s meals to help him lose weight?
Once you have identified that your dog is overweight or obese, it is important to adjust feedings specifically for weight loss using a specific diet, a specific portion, and a specific meal frequency. There are veterinary formulated diets that help with healthy and safe weight reduction in dogs, such as Hills® Prescription Diet® Metabolic, Royal Canin® Satiety Support Weight Management, and Purina Overweight Management®. It is NOT appropriate to simply reduce the volume of their current food. This will cause malnourishment over time.
Feeding a diet with a lower overall calorie density that maintains an appropriate nutrient balance is essential. Your veterinary health care team can help you determine which nutritional products are best for your dog. Once the new food has been selected and the new portions are determined, it is critical that you be consistent with feeding–portions and meal frequency–and resist the temptation to provide extra snacks. Treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake.
Regular monthly weigh-ins are important for successful canine weight loss and keep everyone accountable. It is essential to verify weight loss, to ensure that weight loss is neither too rapid nor too slow and to determine when enough weight has been lost.
For further tips on reducing your dog’s weight, see the handout “Creating a Weight Reduction Plan for Dogs” and "Walking Your Dog for Weight Loss".
What happens when we reach our weight loss goal?
Once an ideal body weight and condition have been achieved, it is important to maintain that weight. Once again, your veterinary health care team can help you find appropriate food and portions for weight maintenance.
Portion control is critical at this stage to prevent regaining weight. After so much hard work, a relapse into obesity would be disappointing. Yo-yo weight loss and gain are no healthier for dogs than for humans. The benefits of normalizing body weight and condition make the effort well worth it.