Canine Weight Loss and Management of Obesity

Little fat pug sitting on sidewalk in summer park
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Canine obesity is one of the fastest growing health problems seen in dogs today. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, pet obesity increased in 2017 in the United States, affecting 60% of cats and 56% of dogs. That's approximately 50 million dogs and 56 million cats!

As with humans, overweight pets are at risk for a variety of health issues. Weight loss and maintenance are key in preventing these health problems or helping to treat them if they have already begun. Learn how to manage your dog's weight, start a weight loss plan for your dog, and prevent weight gain in the first place.

Causes of Canine Obesity

There are many reasons a dog can become overweight. The obvious culprits are improper diet and lack of sufficient exercise. A dog recovering from an illness or injury is usually required to remain sedentary and is therefore at risk for weight gain. It is also important to know that weight gain may actually be a symptom of some hormonal disorders, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing's syndrome. Finally, genetic predisposition is a big factor. Certain dog breeds are simply more prone to obesity than others, such as Karelian Bear Dogs, English Bulldogs, Beagles, Dachshunds, Pugs, Dalmatians and Cocker Spaniels - just to name just a few.

Health Risks of Obesity in Dogs

Canine obesity is dangerous because it can lead to a great number of health problems. It may also adversely affect an existing health issue. The following diseases and disorders may be caused or exacerbated by obesity:

  • Cardiac disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Orthopedic injuries (such as cruciate ligament rupture or patellar luxation)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Various forms of cancer

How To Tell if Your Dog is Overweight

You can often see the telltale signs of obesity in a dog, but sometimes it sneaks up on you. Gradual weight gain is not as noticeable when you see your dog on a daily basis. A friend or family member who is not often around your dog may notice a weight change. Other warning signs are exercise intolerance and apparent laziness. These could indicate a weight problem or other health issue. In any event, it is best to visit your vet if anything seems amiss. Also, be sure your dog goes to the vet for a wellness exam every 6-12 months. This is the best way for your vet to detect changes before there is a serious problem.

There are some basic things you can do at home to evaluate your dog's weight. Contact your vet if you suspect a problem.

  1. Running your hands along your dog's ribcage, you should be able to palpate the ribs covered by a thin layer of fat. Inability to feel the ribs is a sign of an overweight dog.
  2. Looking at your dog from the side, you should be able to see the upward tuck of the abdomen. An overweight dog will have very little or no tuck.
  3. Viewing your dog from above, there should be a moderate narrowing at the waist just past the ribcage. A straight or bulging line from the ribcage to the hips indicates an overweight dog. 

How To Manage Your Dog's Weight

If your dog needs to lose weight, or you just want to maintain his healthy weight, work with your vet to develop a weight management program. That program will consist mainly of a structured diet and an exercise plan. In addition, your vet will help you set up goals and schedule times for quick check-ups to monitor your dog's progress.

It will be helpful to weigh your dog on a regular basis. Do this ideally every week or two. If you do not have the right scale at home, you can just stop by your vet's office for this. Many vet clinics have a scale in the lobby, so you can just run in and check the weight, free of charge.

For most dogs, the traditional diet-and-exercise plan does the trick. However, some dogs may have trouble losing weight for specific health reasons. Before starting a weight loss plan for your dog, be sure to see your vet. You might even find out that there is an underlying problem contributing to your dog's obesity.

Diet Changes for Canine Weight Loss

Dieting for dogs is clearly not a matter of willpower for the dog. Owners, however, may need to use willpower to resist those begging eyes. Remember, food is not love. As a reward to your dog, try offering personal attention and toys.

Feed your dog a bunch of table scraps and human "junk food," and you might as well be asking for weight gain. Dog food and treats that are high in calories may also pack on the pounds, depending on the dog. Your vet can help you choose the right food for your dog. In some cases, vets will prescribe a special diet that is not available "over the counter." However, there are also many commercial diets that might work.

Even healthy food and treats will lead to weight gain if given in excess. Allowing your dog to "free feed" by leaving a full bowl out all day is not a good idea, especially in a multiple dog household. Establish two or three set mealtimes per day. Use a measured scoop to give only the recommended amount of food. Feeding instructions on bags are generalized and may not be appropriate for your dog, so ask your vet to help you determine the right amount. If your dog needs a reduction in food amount, you can try adding some unsalted canned green beans to his food to make up the difference. Many dogs love them and will feel more satisfied after the meal.

Dog treats should be significantly decreased for an overweight dog. Treats should never make up more than 10% of a dog's diet, and that percentage should be decreased for weight loss. You will also need to change the type of treat you feed. No cheese, hot dog pieces or fatty commercial dog treats. Shop for dog treats that are low in calories. Better yet, try small pieces of carrots and apples as treats. Many dogs really love them.

Exercise for Canine Weight Loss

Obviously, your dog is going to need more exercise to lose weight. If you do not already walk your dog daily for a specific period of time, start now. Schedule times to play fetch or tug-of-war. If you have an exercise schedule, increase the frequency and difficulty if possible. This will be good for you, too. The most important thing is to make a commitment to a plan and stick with it. Your dog is at your mercy.

Most dogs just want to interact with their owners, especially in the form of exercise. They also tend to enjoy training in the form of games. One great way to boost your dog's weight loss plan is to get involved with a dog sport. One option (of many) is a sport called agility. When you and your dog get involved in a dog sport, you can work with experts who want your dog to succeed but will not push him. In addition to losing weight, your dog will have a new skill and plenty of mental stimulation.

Many dogs will be happy to be getting more exercise and attention, and they will joyfully await their scheduled exercise sessions. However, dogs that are extremely overweight and out-of-shape may pose a challenge. Some dogs will simply stop in the middle of a walk, refusing to continue. This is probably because they are winded and/or in pain. To be safe, stay close to home and keep a slower pace. These dogs benefit from several short walks a day rather than one or two long ones. Don't push your dog too hard or it may lead to injury or exhaustion.

Some dogs cannot exercise as needed due to an illness or injury brought on or worsened by the obesity. Consult your vet for recommendations. You may find that physical therapy with a canine rehabilitation practitioner helps.

Remember that canine weight loss can take time. Be patient and consistent. Most of all, try to stay positive. You and your dog can do this!

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.