Weight Loss Diets for Dogs

One of the parts of setting your dog up with a successful weight loss plan is by choosing an appropriate food or foods for your dog! But like most things – the fact that there is a lot of demand for products to help with weight loss, we see a lot of marketing that is not exactly helpful with choosing the best diet (or treats!) for your dog.

Marketing Claims on Dog Food

First thing we are going to cover is some of the marketing and labeling terms: what they mean, which ones are actually helpful or meaningful, and which ones are not legally defined. This way you can better navigate some of the choices on the market, and pick a diet that is appropriate for your dog.

If you are not aware, AAFCO does have some legally defined terms that can be used on packaging for dog food to describe the caloric content within the food product, and indicate that an item is “low calorie” in general compared to other diets on the market. The problem is – other companies have created their own marketing terms that seem very similar to the ones defined by AAFCO but are actually not helpful for comparing across brands.

Legally Defined AAFCO Terms:

  • “Lite”
  • “Light”
  • “Low Calorie”
  • “Lean”

No more than 3100 kcal per kg of food for dry products (or around 275 kcal per cup)

No more than 2,500 kcal per kg of food for semi-moist (20-65%) products

No more than 900 kcal per kg of food for moist products (>65%)

NOT Legally Defined Terms:

  • “Weight Management”
  • “Reduced Calorie”
  • “Less Active”
  • “Reduced Activity”
  • “Weight Control”
  • “Healthy Weight”

Let’s give some examples:

Dog FoodCalories per Cup
Hill’s Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight Chicken Recipe Dry Dog Food291 kcal / cup
ORIJEN Fit & Trim Grain-Free Dry Dog Food402 kcal/cup
Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Healthy Weight Adult Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Dog Food326 kcal/cup
Fromm Gold Weight Management Dry Dog Food334 kcal/cup

Now as you can see the problem with the terms “weight management” is if you have a dog on another brand of food, and you switch to the “weight management” formula you would actually be increasing the calories fed to your dog, rather than decreasing the calories fed. This might unintentionally cause more weight gain over time.

This is also why when choosing a food we need to look at the caloric content of the food per serving rather than just the label claims on the package.

Diet Composition for Weight Loss

There are many different ways that a dog can achieve weight loss. The basics of weight loss are fairly simple – calories in, calories out – and simply feeding reduced calories will often result in weight loss. We discussed how much to feed your dog to achieve weight loss on this previous post. However, when we look at scientific studies we see certain general compositions of diets achieve weight loss results faster, and end with dogs with a healthier body composition than others. So let’s talk discuss how fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and different supplements can influence weight loss in dogs.

Dietary Fat

When we talk about fat within the diet for dogs the first thing we need to realize is that dietary fat is the most calorically dense of the three nutrients – coming in at 8.5/9 kcal per gram – in comparison to our other macronutrients of protein and carbohydrates – which are 3.5/4 kcal per gram. Thus when we are considering a diet for weight loss probably the easiest way to do so will be by reducing the fat content of the diet.

However it is also important to note that dogs require certain essential fatty acids within their diet (for the transport of fat-soluble vitamins, support organ function, etc) and other fatty acids like omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to aid in the weight loss process due to their anti-inflammatory effects. So what we want for a weight loss diet is caloric restriction while still meeting and exceeding all our dogs nutritional needs. Some dogs may also need or require more fat within their diet for palatability reasons – meaning that fat makes food taste better – and even though we are looking for weight loss, we do not want it to happen too quickly and we definitely do want our dogs to still enjoy their meals.

General recommendations for fat on a dry matter basis are between 6-14% fat, or 15 to 28% fat on a caloric basis for a weight loss diet.(Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 2010; Canine and Feline Nutrition 2011)

Dietary Protein

Though we do want lower fat diets for easier caloric restriction, we actually want diet containing higher amounts of lean protein for dogs during the weight loss process. Research has shown that increasing the protein while on a weight loss diet actually improves overall body composition and lean body mass, meaning weight loss for dogs on higher protein diets tended to be fat and not muscle tissue.

“In one study on overweight dogs where they were fed a restricted level of diets containing either 20%, 30% or 39% protein on a caloric basis, all of the dogs lost weight, but those that were fed the 39% protein diet had the greatest loss of body fat and the smallest loss of lean mass.” (Hannah 1999)

Other reported benefits of an increased protein diet in combination with higher fiber levels within a diet increased the overall satiety of dogs eating the foods. Meaning that the combination of protein and fiber made dogs feel more full than just eating a high protein or high fiber diet alone. (Weber 2007, Jackson 1997)

Depending on concurrent medical conditions recommended protein levels may vary, but higher amounts of protein (closer to 40% on a caloric basis, but no less than 25%) seem beneficial for dogs looking to achieve weight loss. (Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 2010; Canine and Feline Nutrition 2011)

Dietary Carbohydrates

Since weight-loss diets typically reduce the fat within the diet to make the food less calorically dense, they adjust for that loss by increasing in other areas. One of those areas that can be increased is the carbohydrates.

But based on data looking at dogs who are overweight or obese, we know that they are more prone to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance – meaning that highly digestible simple carbohydrates like refined grains would not be a good choice. Instead, complex carbohydrates are used because these are broken down slowly and keep blood glucose levels more stable.

However, there is a delicate balance that needs to be achieved because research has shown us that high fiber diets (those above 10% crude fiber) can cause decreases in the digestion and absorption of nutrients such as essential fatty acids, calcium, zinc, and iron. (Vhouny 1985) This means that if a diet is both low fat, or if the diet contains other borderline nutrients and is also high fiber, long-term feeding with reduced calories for weight loss could cause nutrient deficiencies.(Fahey 1990)

High fiber diets can decrease nutrients within food by 2 to 8%.

Small Animal Clnical Nutrition pg 514

Current recommendations for fiber within weight loss diets are a bit controversial as research has not consistently shown increased satiety with the addition of fiber. Some studies have shown fiber up to 15% did not improve satiety of dogs (Butterwick et al, 1994), whereas other research has shown increased satiety with fiber of closer to 20% (Jewell and Toll, 1996).

Examples of Complex Carbohydrates Include:

  • Brown Rice, Barley, Buckwheat, Oats, Sorghum, Corn

Examples of High (indigestible) Fiber Complex Carbohydrates:

  • Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Carrots, Peas, Lentils, Black Beans, Pinto Beans, Chickpeas
There is no carbohydrate requirement for weight loss - however carbohydrates can be utilized to allow for lower fat content of food, and provide fiber within the diet. Depending on the source recommendations of fiber range from 4 to 20% on a dry matter basis for weight loss. (Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 2010; Canine and Feline Nutrition 2011)

Type of Diet

Now that we have an idea of what composition of diet is ideal for weight loss, we should probably discuss what type of diet is ideal for weight loss. The truth is you can achieve weight loss on ANY type of diet, however certain types do make it easier. Feeding a high moisture diet – be that canned or fresh food – adds volume to the amount fed just because the diet contains more water. Most canned or fresh food diets are at least 65% moisture, in comparison to most dry food diets are between 10-12% moisture.

High moisture diets can be especially useful for smaller breed dogs where they may eat only 1/4 cup of dry food for the entire day but may be able to eat an entire can of dog food for a day. Thus if you do have a dog that seems to be struggling to lose weight on a traditional kibble diet, or if when losing at the total food fed for the dog you feed like it’s “such a tiny amount”- trying out a fresh food or canned diet may be a better option.

Prescription Diets

HILL’S METABOLIC

ROYAL CANINE SATIETY SUPPORT

PURINE OM

JUST FOOD FOR DOGS METABOLIC

Homemade Dog Food Recipe

Beyond considering manufactured premade diet options – we can also look towards fresh homemade food diets that still meet these recommendations for weight loss. The nice thing we can get with homemade fresh food diets, along with canned and premade fresh food diets is the increased volume fed of fresh food diets can provide more satisfaction to feeding for dog owners. Since foods are over 65% moisture, the volume fed is much larger.

Another aspect of fresh homemade diets is that if your dog does have multiple concurrent conditions such as allergies, or pancreatitis – a homemade diet can allow you to adjust the ingredients to fit your dog’s unique nutritional needs while still achieving weight loss.

If you do have a dog that does a lot of training – a homemade diet can offer flexibility for training – instead of using single ingredient protein treats for training purposes, a portion of the homemade diet can be offered during treating – either pressed into silicone molds, rolled into meatballs, or just offering the meat separately during training.

Treats / Additions During Weight Loss

Probably one of the hardest parts of the weight loss journey for most owners (and dogs) is the changing of their routine, and switching out or omitting food items that they are used to giving to their dogs on a daily basis.

First repeat after me food is not love, food is not how I show affection to my dog, my dog loves me more than food. I know the guilt of having to go to work, or not being able to provide your dog the undivided attention you want to can be hard. But remember – your dog is asking for you, not food. Instead of giving food in place of love and attention, offer engaging activities that can mentally stimulate them while you are otherwise engaged.

Here are a couple quick tips to help you navigate some common problem areas you might run into or struggle with.

Alternatives for Chewing:

Kong stuffed with your dog’s regular diet (can be canned, soaked kibble or fresh food)

Kong stuffed smeared on the inside with low calorie fruits/vegetables: things like no added sugar baby food, canned pumpkin or stuffed with low calorie treats like watermelon.

Enrichment Alternatives:

Kong Wobbler – place your dog’s regular kibble inside, and have them entertained for over 30 minutes slowly pushing, tapping, or pulling the wobbler to get the food out.

Find it Games – place your dog’s regular food inside or under a series of objects hidden in your home or backyard. Start small & simple – with open containers that are simple to find – and work your way up to more complex hiding positions.

Box, Paper, Toilet Paper Rolls – if your dog is a shredder (but not an eater) or paper and cardboard this is a super fun game! Place the food item inside a box, and cover with paper, or place boxes inside of other boxes, OR use toilet paper tubes, fold them at the ends and place treats inside! These offer engaging activities where your dog has to shred, open, and problem-solve to get their food!

Alternatives for Dental Health:

Many dental health products on the market are very calorie dense, especially those that are chews – a 6” bully stick is almost 170 calories, a large whimzee or dentastix is similar. Which can be really difficult to incorporate for most dogs on a diet. So what is a good alternative.

First, consider stuffing food into a plastic chew toy like a kong – though this probably will not provide that same dental benefit as a VOHC sealed product, it can be engaging and provide your dog with entertainment.

Second, consider other ways to help your dog with their dental health: things like water additives OR low-calorie dental treats.

  • TEEF: a probiotic based water additive
  • Healthy Mouth: a fruit enzyme water additive
  • PRODEN Plaque-Off Powder: contains a type of kelp clinically proven to reduce plaque buildup

Third, consider brushing your dog’s teeth. I know this can seem like a hassle but once you add this task on to other tasks you do on a daily basis it will seem less significant.

Training Treats

ALWAYS include a portion of the diet as training treats, but give yourself a treat budget and use those high value treats appropriately! Make the treat given equal the task performed, then way you aren’t use a high calorie treat for your dog sitting inside with no distractions. Instead save that high value treat for that really important recall, the high distraction environment, or that new task.

I find that dividing up treats into “high value” and “low value” helpful. Offer things like bell peppers, carrots, raspberries, watermelon, or apple in small pieces as your low value treat, and have this be about half your treat calorie “budget” for the day. Next have tiny pieces of high value treats for those really important tasks – this might mean you will need to cut up treats into small pieces – so purchasing a good pair of kitchen shears might be a really good investment.

For example if I have a dog that is 60 lb dog who’s ideal weight has been calculated at 42lbs, his daily caloric recommendation for weight loss is about 640 kcal per day. Of that 10% can be treats/additions. So 576 kcal will come from the complete and balanced diet, and 64 kcals will be coming from treats.

What I would recommend is take half the 64 kcals and offer it as fresh, low calorie, low value fruits/vegetables, and the other half can be high value, single protein treats.

What this might look like is you feed 8 baby carrots cut into 4 pieces (so 24 treats) = 32 calories, then you might offer 16 of the Pure Bite Freeze-dried chicken training treats = 32 calories, at 2 kcal each. If all the training you are doing requires a high value treat, you will just have less treats overall to work with.

An alternative to something like this is using your dog’s regular meals as part of their training – kibble can be an alternative low-value training treat. And with homemade meals you can actually take a portion of the meat from the meal and offer it as a high value training treat. This may take some pre-planning, but it can definitely yield long-term rewards.

Weight loss of one of those times where using your dog’s regular diet in creative ways for training and enrichment is so important, since we are already feeding a reduced amount of calories in order to achieve weight loss, nutrient deficiencies are more likely to occur. The larger proportion of your dog’s complete and balanced diet that you can offer as part of their daily activities rather than other “additions” the better.

How Much to Feed your Dog For Weight Loss

Calculating how much to feed your dog can be done in two different ways, one is based off your dog’s ideal weight and the other is based off your dog’s current weight. Both of these options are effective as producing weight loss in a majority of dogs, however often adjustments will need to be made after the first calculation based on the individual dog’s metabolism and needs. Ideally we want to feed our dogs enough food to achieve a steady weight loss of about 1-2% of their body weight per week. For more information about setting your dog up for a weight loss plan, calculating caloric needs and considerations prior to starting on this journey, check out: “Is My Dog Fat” where I discuss this in detail.

Acheiving weigh loss for your dog is a long and hard road – often times dogs are on weight loss diets for 6 months to 1 year – to having a good plan and choosing the right food to fit your dog’s individual needs. Remember that food should not be used in place of your love or attention, instead look to stimulate your dog using other enrichement tasks if you are unable to provide that attention in the moment. You can do this, and your pup will thank you for it by giving you an extra 1-2 years of love and affection.

RESOURCES

Hannah S: Role of dietary protein in weight management, Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet 21:32-33, 1999

Weber et al: A high protein high fiber diet designed for weight loss improves satiety in dogs, J Vet Internal Medicine 21:1203-1208, 2007.

Jackson JR et al. Effects of dietary fiber content on satiety in dogs. Veterinary CLinical Nutrition 4:130-134, 1997

Vhouny GV et al Dietary fiber and absorption of nutrients (review) Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 180:432-446, 1985

Fahey et al. Dietary fiber for dogs. Part I. Effects of graded levels of dietary beet pulp on nutrient intake, digestibility, metabolized every and digesta mean retention time. Journal Animal Sciences. 68:4229-4235, 1990.

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