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Dog Obesity: Is Your Dog Fat? Causes And Weight Management

Margarita Boyd
Written by: Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
Obesity can affect dogs of any breed, size, and age. Accepting that obesity in dogs is a nutritional disorder, is the first step toward a better healthier canine's life. Read on how you can help your dog lose weight and you can prevent this dangerous condition in your dog today.

It might come as a surprise but 50 million dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. So, if your dog is carrying a little extra weight, fear not, he is not alone! The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) has estimated 55.8% of dogs in the US are fat according to it’s latest 2018 survey results.

Just like in humans, excessive fat in pets increases their risk of often-preventable health conditions and can shorten a dog’s life expectancy too.

Getting your dog to lose weight is not always easy, there is an intimidating variety of “diet” food out there, with lots of conflicting advice on offer too.

In this article, we will give you lots of information about canine obesity, help you figure out if your dog is overweight, and what you can do to start his weight loss plan.

What Is Obesity?

Put into simple terms obesity is an accumulation of excess body fat.

Total body weight is easier to measure than trying to measure body fat in dogs. Therefore, dogs are classified as overweight when their weight is 10-20% above ideal and classified as obese when their weight is more than 20% over their ideal body weight.

In humans, obesity is officially classified as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) which just confirms how serious it is.

Veterinarians and nutritionists are working to get obesity classified as a disease in pets too. There are lots of negative health consequences linked to excessive weight in pets.APOP surveys have found that obese pets tend to live shorter lives with more medical problems, than pets with a normal weight.

Is Your Dog Fat?

This is the most important question, and sometimes it is not easy to figure out the answer alone. The media often portray overweight dogs as normal or cute, so your judgment of pet obesity can be a little skewed. (1)

Many people often think dogs that are lean and fit are too thin because it has become so normal to see fatter dogs! There are a few different ways to help you decide if your pet is fat, including:

1. Visit Your Vet

The first place to start is by visiting your veterinarian. They will be able to carry out a few measurements to decide if your pooch is overweight and what his body condition score (BCS) is.

They can also check if there could be any underlying medical conditions causing your dog’s weight gain (more on that later) and give you some advice on how to get your dog to start losing weight.

2. Check Ideal Weight Range

Every dog breed will have an ideal weight range.

These ranges can be a good starting point to see what is “normal” for most dogs within that breed. Some dogs with a healthy weight for their breed and size might not fit into the range, so they won’t be accurate for every dog.

If your dog is above or below the guidelines for his breed, then it is a push that you should seek a veterinary assessment. If you have a mixed breed dog or a dog of unknown breed then the breed-specific weight ranges will be less helpful, but the body condition score assessment will be a better option.

3. Body Condition Score

Body condition score (BCS)is easy to use a scoring system from 1-9, developed by vets to help decide if a pet is a correct weight. On the scale, 1 is very thin, and 9 is very obese. The ideal weight is a score of 4 or 5. You don’t need any fancy equipment, and you don’t even need to put your dog on the scales. We all know what a struggle that can be! The BCS system concentrates on feeling and looking at your dog’s ribs, shape, and level of fat coverage on his body.

Can you feel your dog’s ribs? Does he have an obvious waist? If you answered no to those questions, then your dog is probably overweight.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has made some helpful charts and videos, so you can check if your dog is the correct weight.

Can You Feel Your Dog’s Ribs?

The amount of fat covering your dog’s ribs is one of the easiest ways to check if your dog is carrying some extra weight. This is the cornerstone of the Body Condition Score system that was discussed above.

Feeling your dog’s ribs is something that you can easily do at home. It shouldn’t be a one-off thing, it should be something which you do often. It can also be an easy way to check your dog’s progress if you have already started trying to get him to lose weight.

So, how do you check the fat covering on your dog’s ribs? In a dog with an ideal weight, the ribs can usually be felt from behind his shoulders along his abdomen (tummy). You can use your fingertips or the flat of your hand, and gently press down as you run your hand along your dog’s rib cage.

In an ideal weight, the ribs can be easily palpated without excess fat covering, but the ribs won’t be seen when looking at your dog from a distance. The dog will also have a waist behind the ribs when looking down from above.

In overweight dogs, the ribs may be difficult to palpate, or totally hidden under large fat deposits. The dog’s waist may be barely visible or absent when viewed from above, and the tummy may be distended with fat.

Why Is Your Dog Fat?

It can be difficult to hear your dog is fat, and it can be even more difficult to hear that it could be your fault. Don’t take it personally, just use it as the reason to get your dog back on track again. If your dog is fat there could be many underlying reasons why he has piled on the pounds. (2)

Let’s take a look at the most common causes of canine obesity:

  • Lack of knowledge and awareness: obesity is becoming so common in dogs and humans, that we don’t always recognize that a pet is fat.
  • Poor compliance with a dog’s diet: It can be difficult to stick to certain portion sizes or exercise programs.
  • Feeding high calories foods, treats and table scraps too often.
  • Overfeeding your dog: not measuring the food or giving unlimited food.
  • Excessive treats as rewards during training.
  • Excessive treats for emotional reasons, to show love to your pet.
  • Not enough exercise for the dog.
  • Genetic reason: there are some genetic susceptibilities for weight gain in some breeds.
  • Underlying health condition e.g.hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease.

Now that we have seen the possible causes of obesity in dogs, let’s take a closer look at the health problems it can lead to.

What Health Problems Can Obesity Cause?

Unfortunately, dogs carrying extra weight are at risk of developing lots more health problems than dogs with a normal weight.

Apart from health problems, obesity can also make dogs lazier, decrease their quality of life, make them less likely to play and interact with their owners, and therefore affect the owner-pet bond.

Additionally, obesity can decrease your dog’s life expectancy by as much as two years, and is linked to many forms of cancer!

A Nationwide survey of 630, 000 insured pets found that the most common obesity-related conditions in dogs include:

  1. Arthritis
  2. Bladder/Urinary Tract Disease
  3. Liver Disease
  4. Low Thyroid Hormone
  5. Torn Knee Ligaments
  6. Diabetes
  7. Diseased Disc in the Spine
  8. Chronic Kidney Disease
  9. Heart Failure
  10. High Blood Pressure
  11. It is quite a scary list of things that your dog will be at a higher risk of suffering from if he is overweight. Most importantly it should be a wake-up call to try your best to get your dog to lose weight if he is carrying a few extra pounds.

    How To Get Your Dog To Lose Weight?

    1. Visit Your Vet

    Regular vet check-ups are important to help keep your dog healthy. If you think your dog is overweight the first step is to book an appointment with your vet. They can give your dog a full physical examination to check if there may be any underlying health problems causing or linked to obesity.

    They will also be able to accurately weigh your dog, carry out a body condition score (BCS) exam, and give you an ideal weight to aim towards. Finally, they can help decide the best way to get your pet to lose weight and offer regular weight check-ups.

    2. Control Food Portions

    Once your dog starts on his weight loss journey it is a good idea to calculate what his average daily calorie requirements are, then you can start weighing out exact portions of his food- and sticking to this amount!

    Your vet or a canine nutritionist can help with this. The WSAVA has produced a helpful resource showing the calorie needs for an average healthy adult dog in an ideal body condition.

    The Pet Nutrition Alliance also has a great “calorie calculator for dogs”, which can be used as a weight management tool. (3)

    3. Get Active

    Exercise should be regular and fun for you and your dog. Talk to your vet to figure out how much exercise is recommended for your dog according to his breed, weight, and age. A Pug will require much less daily exercise than a Labrador! Start increasing exercise slowly. Add in extra playtime or short walks around the block. You could get more adventurous if your dog is up for it and try agility or swimming with your dog.

    4. Avoid Treats And Table Scraps

    Dog treats and table scraps can be packed with hidden calories. Try to cut them out of your dog’s diet altogether, and replace them with more playtime, cuddles, petting or grooming (if he likes that!).

    5. Change The Food

    Not all dogs will need a change in diet-If you and your vet are happy with your dog’s current diet, then stick with that, just remember to measure out the exact amount for his daily calorie requirements! However, many obese dogs would benefit from a better diet.

    Is your dog food suitable for your overweight dog? Is it too high in calories or too low in protein? Maybe it doesn’t leave your dog feeling full and that is why he craves treats and begs for table scraps?

    If your dog food doesn’t offer your dog a high quality, balanced and complete diet then it is time to change it. There are some veterinary prescription diets that are proven to help your dog lose weight including Hills Metabolic or Royal Canin Obesity Management.

    Dog Obesity – Conclusion

    Hopefully, now you are armed with lots of helpful information on how to check if your dog is overweight and what steps to take to start his weight loss journey.

    Canine obesity is a big problem, with more and more dogs suffering from this condition every year. It can shorten your dog’s life and put him at a higher risk of suffering from lots of often-preventable diseases.

    That being said, make sure that you follow the guidelines listed above for keeping your canine fit and happy, and above everything else – healthy.