In the United States alone, up to 55% of dogs over the age of one year are overweight. Medically-speaking, overweight means weighing more than 10-19% of the recommended body weight for your dog’s frame size and muscle structure. For perspective, a dog that should weigh 50 pounds but weighs 55-59.5 pounds and a dog that should weigh 10 pounds but weighs 11-11.9 pounds are both considered medically overweight.
If your dog weighs 20% or more than he should, he is considered medically obese. Thus, a dog that should weigh 50 pounds but weighs 60 pounds or more and a dog that should weigh 10 pounds but weighs 12 pounds or more are both considered medically obese.
Causes of Weight Problems in Dogs
While excess weight can refer to heavy muscling, in general when talking about dogs, overweight means too much body fat. This is often caused by too many calories and not enough activity. Too many calories can be due to overfeeding, overeating, too many treats, and/or eating “human” food. Activity means exercise, and often much more is required for pets to stay fit than most owners realize. Just as we humans need a certain amount of physical activity in a week, so do dogs!
Medical issues can also cause increased weight in dogs. The thyroid gland, which affects metabolism, is a frequent culprit for weight problems in older dogs. When the thyroid gland doesn’t work properly, a condition called hypothyroidism may occur, which can cause a dog to become overweight. Cushing’s disease, or hyperadrenocorticism (try to say that three times fast!), is a disorder associated with too much cortisol in the bloodstream, which can also lead to weight problems. Medications such as steroids or certain anti-seizure medications can also result in weight gain. Even arthritis, a painful joint condition, can lead to excess weight if a dog is too uncomfortable to exercise normally.
How to Tell if Your Dog is Overweight
When determining if your dog is overweight there are several methods that can be used. These range from bone definition, waist silhouette, and an abdomen check.
Feel your dog’s rib bones, which can be felt behind his front legs along the sides of his body when he is in a standing position. You should be able to feel each individual rib bone easily by gently rubbing your dog’s sides. Use your own knuckles for reference – if your dog’s ribs feel like the top of your knuckles when you hold your hand out flat, he is probably at a good weight. If your dog’s ribs feel like the inside/underside of your flattened palm, he is likely overweight. Incidentally, if your dog’s ribs feel like your knuckles when you’ve made a fist, he might be underweight.
Another method is to look at your dog’s waist. This can be done by looking at him from above while he is in a standing position. His waist is the area of his body just in front of his back legs. Normally, a dog’s waist will taper or dip inward before the back legs attach to the body. If your dog doesn’t appear to have a waist, he is likely overweight.
A third method is to look at his abdomen (i.e., stomach area), which can best be done by looking at his side when he is standing. His abdomen is the area behind the rib cage but before the back legs attach. It should be less wide or less deep than the rib cage/chest area. If this isn’t obvious on your pet, he may be overweight.
If you suspect your dog is overweight, take him to your veterinarian for a physical examination. Your vet will have more training and tools at his or her disposal to help assess your pet’s weight. He or she will also be able to tell you how much weight your pet should lose. Your vet can then help determine if a medical condition is causing the excess weight.
Excess weight in dogs can lead to many health issues over time. Heart disease, gastrointestinal or digestion problems, and breathing issues are more common in overweight dogs. Arthritis and joint diseases can be worsened by excess weight. Some scientific studies have also shown that being overweight can lead to a shorter lifespan than dogs with healthy weights.
When attempting weight loss, most veterinarians recommend shooting for about 1-2.5% of current body weight loss per week. So an 11 pound dog should lose 0.1-0.2 pounds the first week and a 55 pound dog should lose about 0.5-1 pound that first week.
Cut back on treats and avoid giving any table food. Many treats can lead to significant weight gain and should be given sparingly. If you are training your dog and need food-reinforcement look into healthier treat options to help your pup stay on track.
Some owners partake in a free feeding style; however, scheduled feeding has proved to lead to healthier weights in pets. Consider feeding at certain times of the day as opposed to just keeping food in the bowl. Measure the amount of food you are feeding your dog with a measuring cup – most dog food bags will have a reference for how much to feed based on weight. Feed your dog the amount of food that is recommended for his healthy/ideal weight, not his current weight. You may need to gradually decrease the amount of food he is being fed.
Prescription diets formulated for weight loss are also very helpful. Many of these diets are lower in carbohydrates and fat and higher in fiber and protein, which promotes a “full” feeling while providing fewer calories. Some of these diets include “nutrigenomics,” which use nutrients and bioactive molecules to alter gene expression and aid in weight loss. Ask your vet if he or she recommends trying a prescription diet.
Increase your pet’s activity. Depending on how much activity he has already been getting, try to get him moving 20-30 minutes more, at least 3 times a week. Walks, playing fetch, and swimming are great activities. Start slow if your pet is not used to vigorous activity. Discuss activity options with your veterinarian to ensure your pet is healthy enough. Canine physical therapy can also be helpful in dogs with significant weight issues or if medical conditions such as joint disease prevent normal activity.
Check in Frequently
Keep an eye on your pet’s weight as you go along. Your dog’s ideal weight will vary depending on size, breed, and more. Too much or too little weight loss may warrant a recheck with your vet to ensure all is well. Always call the vet if you have any questions or concerns during the weight loss process.