If you are asking this question about your own dog, know that you are not alone. The most recent data shows that a staggering 54% or about 36 million dogs are struggling with being either overweight or obese. Of that 36 million dogs, 33% of them are obese (body condition scores 8 or above on a 9 point scale), and 77% are overweight. (body condition scores 6 to 7 on a 9 point scale). (Pet Obesity Survey Dec. 2018)
The sad part about our dogs being overweight is that it is the largest know risk factor for many different diseases, and can greatly influence overall lifespan.
When a dog is overweight or obese the excess fat cells actually change the body’s overall metabolism and cause the dog to be in a state of constant inflammation. This inflammation can cause disease – such as glucose intolerance – and can contribute or worsen other conditions like heart disease and respiratory conditions. There are also links between obesity and certain types of cancer such as mammary carcinoma in female dogs. We also know that overweight and obese dogs struggle with orthopedic issues just due to their increased body mass and putting that extra pressure on their joints.
But probably the most staggering research we have is that we know if a dog is kept at a lean and healthy body mass of their lifetime they will live 1-3 yrs longer than a dog who is just slightly overweight. Literally the best thing you can do as a dog owner to increase your dog’s lifespan is keep them at a healthy weight. (Kealy et al 2002, Salt 2018).
How do you know your dog is overweight?
There are two main ways to know if your dog is overweight or obese – one is by using a body condition scoring chart, and the second is by taking morphological measurements. Of these two options a body condition score is probably the easiest of the two to do. Basically what body condition scoring involves is looking at key areas of our dogs where fat storage occurs – such as the wait (between the last rib and the hips), along with ribs, and around the trailhead region (where the tail attaches to the body.
Dogs with an ideal body condition will have a distinct waist, with almost an hour-glass shape. Their stomach will tuck up into their spine. And when you rub your hands gently across their sides by their ribs their ribs will be easily felt but not seen while at rest.
If you rub your hands gently along your dogs ribs can you cannot feel them unless you press down – that is because there is a layer of fat on the outside of the ribs. If your dog is more of a sausage shape or an oval rather than an hour-glass that is because there is fat in the waist area. And on the more excessive side of the scale little fat-pads may appear near the base of the tail for additional fat storage.
Ruling Out Medical Causes of Weight Gain
When you realize that your dog is a bit (or a lot) overweight, it is very common to jump to the conclusion that your pup may have gotten a bit less activity lately, maybe a bit more treats than usual, or maybe the new dog food is a bit more dense than the last one you fed. And though these are all possibilities, it is also important to realize that sometimes weight gain does actually have a medical cause.
There are two main diseases we need to be concerned with when you see potentially unexplained weight gain – one is Hypothyroidism, and the other is Cushing’s Disease. Both of these diseases can be ruled at by doing blood work with your veterinarian. To check for Hypothyroidism your veterinarian may run a T4, T3 or Free T4 (depending on the lab they use it may be one, or a combo of these), and to check for Cushing’s Disease your veterinarian will need to do what is called an ACTH Stim Test and/or a LDDS – which is a timed blood test done over several hours. Both tests are not included in a typical CBC/Chem panel and are add-ons. Some veterinarians will routinely add on a T4 to their comprehensive blood work panel, but others may not include it.
In rare cases some dogs may see unexplained weight gain due to edema (or fluid retention under the skin or in the abdominal cavity) due to various other diseases or conditions – from GI disease to heart, kidney, liver or even certain cancers.
So if you notice your dog has put on some pounds recently, and you are fairly certain nothing has changed as far as food or activity or if you have started on a weight loss plan and your dog is not loosing weight how you expected – make an appointment to see your veterinarian. This way you can rule out these other causes. Because if your dog’s weight gain is related to a medical condition, traditional caloric restriction may not work in order to achieve weight loss.
Coming up with a Weight Loss Plan for your Dog
After you establish that your dog does need to lose a bit of weight, then the next thing we need to do is take a survey of what our dogs are currently eating, and calculate exactly how many calories they are ingesting on a regular basis. Though this at first might seem simple – it can actually be pretty difficult to do off the top of your head, especially if there are multiple people in the household feeding treats, doing training sessions, or if your dog is cared for other people – such as at a daycare, pet sitter or neighbor during the day.
If you are in this situation, doing a food log for a week is a really good place to start. Just grab a piece of paper and write down everything your dog eats – ask questions from care-givers as far as what they feed your dog – and if you have multiple adults feeding the dog in a household make a joint effort to log feedings. You might be surprised how many “extras” your dog is getting beyond their regular diet.
Personally, I have found that many dogs who are overweight or obese tend to get a majority of their calories outside of their normal complete and balanced diet.
Don’t forget to log things like treats, table food, chews, supplements, and toppers! Anything that is ingested should be placed on this log. If you have multiple pets in the home and they share dishes, or if your dog is “free fed” try measuring how much food you place in the bowl at the beginning of the day, then how much is left – write down these number so you can calculate how much your dog is eating on a regular basis.
Now that you have your food log – it’s time to pull out that calculator!
What you will want to do is multiple the amount of kcal/serving by the amount you feed.
For example if your dog eats 2 cups of kibble per day, and that kibble is 400kcal/cup – your dog is eating 800 kcal of kibble per day. If you have an item that your dog eats once per week – like one 12” bully stick per week, then you would take the 264 kcals in a 12” bully stick and divide that by 7 days, to get about 38 kcals per day from the bully stick. If additionally, your dog gets about 5 training treats at 2 kcal per treat – your dog is getting about 10 kcals in training treats. You can then add all these numbers altogether: 800+38+20 = 858 calories per day.
It is important to note that calculating out the calories per day often gives us information as to where our possible “problem areas” are. If you notice that over 10% of your dog’s overall caloric needs are coming from treats/additions – this is an area we will want to adjust. This also gives us a good starting point for caloric restriction going forward.
How much to feed on a weight loss diet?
After we have established how much your dog is currently eating, the next step is adjusting the overall calories to fit your dog’s nutritional needs without extreme restriction. To do this we will be calculating our dog’s caloric needs. There are two different ways to do this, the first is by calculating the calories your dog needs at their ideal weight, and the second is calculating your dog’s current caloric needs, then feeding 80-60% of that value. Both should achieve weight loss, and both values will actually be very similar.
- Suggested Reading: “How Much Food Should I feed My Dog”
BASED ON IDEAL WEIGHT:
Leo is a currently 60 lbs, and is an 8/9 on a body condition score chart. Based on your dog’s body condition score Leo is about 30% overweight. If we multiply 60 lbs by 30% (0.30), then Leo’s estimated ideal weight is about 42 lbs.
weight in lb /2.2 = weight in kg
(Weight in kg ^ 0.75) x70 = 640 kcal is his RER at 42 lbs
Multiplied by the k-factor 1 to 1.2 for weight loss would give us 640-768 kcal per day.
BASED ON WEIGHT LOSS:
Alternatively, we can also calculate weight loss at 60-80% of Leo’s current caloric needs. Which is his RER at 60 lbs multiplied by his k-factor at obese of 1.2.
60/2.2 = weight in kg
( (Weight in kg ^ 0.75) x 70) x 1.2 = 1002
x60% (0.6) = 600 kcals per day.
x80% (0.8) = 800 kcal per day.
As you can see both calculations wind up within the same general recommendation of calories per day for weight loss. Depending on the dog you may need to feed a higher or lower amount of calories to achieve weight loss. It is generally accepted that you can lower the calories slowly over time (by about 10% per week)\, until you achieve about 1-2% of weight loss per week (similar to that of the recommendations of people).
The reason why you want slow and steady weight-loss rather than rapid weight loss is because with rapid weight loss you actually lose more lean body mass (muscle) and less fat. Which is not ideal as lean body mass long-term is more effective at maintaining weight because it burns more calories and is more thermogenic.
Setting Up Your Weight Loss Plan
Choosing an appropriate food for your weight loss plan is so important! You want to choose a food that is both lower in calories but nutrient dense – meaning that your dog will still receive all the nutrients they need to maintain their lean muscle mass while receiving less calories.
For full details on choosing the right food for weight loss you can check out this post on “Choosing an Ideal Diet for Weight Loss in Dogs”. But to summarize – ideally we want something higher protein, lower fat, containing complex carbohydrates – this will keep satisfy our dog’s hunger, allow them to build lean muscle, and most importantly – lose weight.
Whatever food you choose should compose 90-100% of your dog’s dietary calories.
In the example above where we calculated Leo’s ideal calories per day for weight loss of being 640 kcals. That means 576 of those calories will be coming from a complete and balanced diet, and another 64 of those calories can come from treats.
Treats / Chews / Dental Health / Supplements
I find that allowing treats and additions within a weight loss plan actually sets everyone up for better success. Often times our dogs who are used to getting little tid-bits from us throughout the day become extremely confused if we suddenly (without explanation) no longer offer any treats. These treats and additions have become almost part of a routine for them, so completely eliminating them can be a bit hard.
But we DO have some options.
Treat Option #1: You can offer multiple diets!
I know it seems a bit odd, but you can feed 50% of their diet as one complete and balanced diet for meals, and the other 50% can come from another type of diet completely. This diet can be stuffed into kongs, placed into enrichment items, and even recreated into small treats using silicone molds to use for training. Just portion everything out beforehand so you don’t overfeed, and you can feed 100% of a complete and balanced diet, while providing all the same treat opportunities as before.
Treat Option #2: You can offer low-calorie treats!
These are things like carrots, green beans, blueberries, apple slices, raspberries, kiwi, broccoli, canned pumpkin etc – keep it low calorie, colorful and fun!
A favorite of mine is 1 cup of blueberries, ½ cup spinach, 1 can sardines and two cups of water (or two cups of a homemade unseasoned broth of your choice). Blend it up, then poor it into molds and freeze for a fun summer treat
Another great option is frozen watermelon – cut it into strips, stuff them into a kong and freeze for a fun “pupscle”.
Be creative, and stay away from calorically dense foods like sweet potato, peanut butter, pure proteins (chicken, beef, salmon), and bananas – we are looking for little bites that are less than 3-4 calories a piece.
Chew / Enrichment Options: Kongs, Licki Matts, Puzzle-Toys Oh My!
There are so many different options as alternatives to chews on the market in order to provide that mental stimulation and enrichment.
The following links are amazon affiliate links, by using this links to purchase these items a small affiliate commission will be made.
Let’s talk supplements:
If your dog is on supplements currently that are calorically dense like fish oil, coconut oil, golden paste, etc Try to re-evaluate the need for these supplements, and see if there are other alternatives. This might be choosing a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement that comes as a powder that you can mix into a diet rather than the golden paste, or it might mean purchasing food (or creating a homemade diet) that already contains fish oil at the recommended dose you need for your dog’s allergies.
Including even a small amount of activity each day for your dog is not a bad idea – however – for those dogs who are struggling with concurrent disease – such as joint problems, heart conditions, or respiratory problems activity may be challenging. Finding the right fit for your dog to safely get exercise is important.
For dogs with arthritis a great option is swimming! There are now many different pools that are open to just dogs for just the purpose of non-impact muscle strengthening and rehab. Another wonderful option that falls into this same category is a water treadmill. The only caveat I will give to something like this is that many dogs need to be trained and socialized to these if they have not been exposed to them before. Having a trainer or canine rehabilitation expert in your corner can be really helpful during this process.
For dogs with heart or respiratory conditions indoor activities can be great options. Things like scavenger hunts, topple toys, playing “tag” or even simple low-impact obstacle courses in our homes are wonderful ways to get their bodies moving while keeping them indoors, out of the elements and easily allowing for frequent breaks if needed.
Remember we want movement to be fun and safe for our dogs! If you are unsure if an activity is appropriate for your dog on their weight-loss journey ask your veterinarian! They will be the best source of information on this topic and can guide you as to what is most appropriate for your dog.
Involve the Family & Caretakers
Don’t forget to involve the entire family and all your dogs caretakers! If you have kids, a significant other, other a pet sitter that feeds or helps care for your dog it’s important to get everyone on the same page. Give everyone a job and responsibility in the plan, and make sure that everyone understands what “Fido” is getting when, what options are available for treats, which ones aren’t, how many they can give, etc. You don’t want a situation where everyone has their own ideas as to who is feeding – and we accidentally get multiple meals, extra snacks, or inappropriate foods.
You are going to want to check-in with your veterinary team every two to three week to assess your dog’s progress. And remember we are looking for 1-2% weight loss per week. For a 30 lb dog that might be as little as 0.3lbs per week! So if little 30 lb Tio needs to be 21 lbs as an ideal weight it could easily take him over 6 months to get there, and that would be well within normal range.
Weight loss can be a hard road – and the hardest part isn’t actually related to food really at all, but instead related to chnges the behaviors and routines that we have established around the food we give our dogs. Remind yourself when you are struggling with getting your dog’s weight down, that beneficial this will be to your dog’s life, and remember that above all else, your dog wants your love and attention, not more treats.
If you would like more assistance with creating a homemade dog food recipe for a weight loss plan, or a custom weight loss plan for your dog, make sure to check out my dog food consultation services where I offer one on one services to help your choose the right food for your dog and their unique nutritional needs.
Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website. https://petobesityprevention.org/. Accessed May 1 2021
Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, Mantz SL, Biery DN, Greeley EH, Lust G, Segre M, Smith GK, Stowe HD. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002 May 1;220(9):1315-20. doi: 10.2460/javma.2002.220.1315. PMID: 11991408.
Salt C, Morris PJ, Wilson D, Lund E, German AJ. Association between lifespan and body condition in client-owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2018 December 11;33(1):89-99. doi: 10.1111/jvim.15367 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jvim.15367
Veterinary Practice News Website. “Beyond the Belly: The Health Consequences of Pet Obesity. https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/beyond-the-belly-the-health-consequences-of-pet-obesity/ Accessed May 1 2021
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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