Recent studies suggest that up to 59% of dogs are overweight, with 20% of those considered obese. If your dog falls into either of these categories, you shouldn’t wait to do something about it.
Overweight dogs are more likely to suffer from many diseases and don’t live nearly as long as their skinnier counterparts. Luckily, the road to a thinner—and healthier—pet is just a few steps away.
In this article, we dive deep into dog obesity to uncover the causes and risks of dog weight gain. We’ll also tell you how to determine if your dog is obese and walk you through four simple steps you can take to help them lose weight.
What is Obesity in Dogs?
While there is no set parameter for obesity in pets, most vets follow the same definition used to characterize obesity in humans. That is, if a dog is 30% over their ideal dog body mass index (BMI), they are considered obese.
But the truth is, any excess weight your dog is carrying can be detrimental to their health. So, whether your dog is “just a little chunky” or struggling with severe weight gain, it’s in their best interest to help them lose weight.
How to Tell if Your Dog is Overweight
There are three easy methods to determine if your dog is overweight.
1. The Visual Test
The visual test works best for dogs with shorter coats.
First, stand to the side of your dog and look at their stomach line. You should see a noticeable rise between their ribcage and where their stomach disappears behind their hips.
If their stomach line is flat or if the stomach hangs lower than the ribs, they are likely overweight.
Next, stand over or in front of your dog's head and look down on them from above. The stomach lines from the ribs to their hips should be concave, much like an hourglass. If these lines are flat or if they round out over the belly, your dog is likely too heavy.
2. Rib Palpation
Another way to determine if your dog is carrying a little extra weight is to feel their ribs. This test is easier to perform on fluffy dogs than the visual test outlined above.
Stand over your dog and run your hands down their ribcage. Push gently as you go. You should be able to feel the bumps of their ribs without pressing too hard.
If you really have to dig in or you can’t feel the ribs at all, this indicates there is a substantial layer of fat over the rib cage. Typically, this is a sign your dog is carrying too much weight.
3. Dog Body Mass Index Calculation
Another way to find out how your dog is doing in terms of weight is to use a dog BMI calculator.
These tools are plentiful on the internet, but we like this one for its simplicity and range of breed options: Dog BMI Calculator.
Simply choose your dog’s breed (or breed that best represents their body shape and size). Then input their weight and height to the shoulders. The calculator will tell you if your dog is too skinny, normal, or overweight.
Of course, these are just estimates based on typical breed standards. But if the calculator and one of the other tests above say your dog is overweight, then it’s probably true.
Dog Health Risks Linked to Obesity
Just as in humans, obesity in dogs is linked to a number of health risks. Some of the most notable include:
- Heart disease
- Diabetes mellitus
- Joint degradation
- Spinal problems
- Bladder stones
- Kidney problems
- Urinary tract disease
- Liver disease
- Many types of cancer
- Laryngeal paralysis
- Fungal infection
- Shorter life span
According to studies, obesity can shorten a dog’s life by up to three years. This is especially true in small breeds. But across the board, being overweight is strongly associated with a shorter life and a higher incidence of disease.
Being overweight isn’t just hard on your dog, either. It's also likely to cost you as an owner. Some estimate caring for an overweight dog increases veterinary costs by as much as $2,000 per year.
Luckily, reducing their weight is enough to reduce their risk for most of these problems (and lower your vet bills). One study found that just a 6% decrease in BMI resulted in improved lameness in obese dogs.
Dogs at a healthy weight suffer less pain and have more energy than their chubby counterparts. In all estimations, these dogs live happier lives. This is reason enough to get your pet on a dog weight loss plan.
What Causes Excess Weight in Dogs?
Before you start working to get your dog back in shape, it’s important to understand what caused their weight gain in the first place.
Common causes of dog obesity can be broken down into three categories: environmental, physiological, and medical.
Environmental causes of weight gain tend to be the easiest to address. These are typically the things the owner is doing that contribute to the pet’s weight gain. After all, you, not your dog, are in control of how much and what they eat.
Some of the most common environmental factors that contribute to dog obesity are:
- Feeding Amount – Most dogs are fed more than they should be.
- Food Quality – Poor quality food is more likely to lead to weight gain than high-quality, biologically appropriate food.
- Treats – Quality and amount are also important when feeding your dog treats, chews, and bones.
- Table Scraps – Table scraps can make a great addition to your dog’s diet, but only when they are biologically appropriate and considered in overall calorie consumption.
- Exercise – What is consumed must be burned off. If your dog isn’t getting enough exercise, they’ll start packing on the pounds.
The vast majority of dog owners don’t know their dogs are overweight. And most of them are at fault for these extra pounds.
Feeding too much is often the problem. The serving suggestions on dog food bags are typically calculated based on the calorie needs of intact males. The average neutered pet needs far less food than this. Instead of feeding what the bag says, talk to your vet about how much your dog really needs.
The vast majority of overweight dogs are “free fed.” That is, their bowl is filled every morning and they are allowed to graze at will. While you might expect a dog to only eat as much food as their body needs, this is rarely the case. Many breeds were bred for a heartier appetite because they needed to be on the heavy side to perform their original function (I’m looking at you labradors!). And most dogs, regardless of breed, will eat to stave off boredom.
Even if your dog seems uninterested in food when you put it down, it is still important to limit how much you offer. And any table scraps or treats you give should be considered in the total amount of food they get each day.
Exercise is important for your dog’s physical and mental health. It can also help hasten weight loss. But increasing exercise is second to regulating the amount of food you feed.
Physiological factors, such as age, breed, and genetics, also play a large role in dog weight management.
Older dogs are far more likely to be overweight than young dogs. Most vets agree that after 5 years of age, a dog’s risk of becoming obese goes up dramatically. This risk increases every year. This is because older dogs are less likely to be active enough to burn the energy they consume. What we know of dog metabolism also tells us that older dogs can sustain themselves on less food.
A dog’s breed also plays into how quickly they’ll gain weight. Greyhounds, for instance, rarely become overweight. Labradors, as we mentioned above, are at a heightened risk for obesity. This is because they were bred to retrieve fishing nets in icy water. Here, an extra layer of fat was a benefit. Similarly, huskies were bred to sustain themselves off very little food because there wasn’t much to spare in Siberia at the time. For this reason, they require fewer calories to maintain a normal weight.
Even within the same breed, neutered and spayed dogs have a lower caloric need than intact animals. How much any of this will affect a dog’s weight is determined by genes that can vary between individuals.
There are many medical conditions known to affect dog weight. Some of the most likely to cause obesity include:
Many common medications can also make your dog gain weight. Phenobarbital is the best example of this. But steroids and glucocorticoids are also implicated in fat retention.
If you believe your dog’s obesity is due to a medical condition or their medications, talk to your vet. Addressing this is the first step needed to find success with a weight management plan.
How to Treat and Prevent Dog Obesity
Identifying that your dog needs to lose weight is the first step in helping them regain their health. From here, you’ll need to put them on a regimented diet of quality, protein-packed food, increase their exercise, and help them maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
1. Feed an Appropriate Amount of Food
Your dog needs to consume enough calories each day to maintain their metabolism and power them through any activities they do. Any calories eaten in excess of this will be turned into fat and stored in the body. If your dog is overeating every day, it won’t take long for that little extra fat to become a big problem.
By properly measuring and controlling how many calories your dog consumes in a day, you can help them maintain a healthy weight. Dogs that need to lose weight will need less food than those that simply need to maintain their weight. Work with your vet to find out how much to feed your dog to reach your goals.
2. Feed a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet
Protein fulfills many jobs in the canine body. It is the preferred source of energy and any excess is typically used to repair muscle, fulfill cellular needs, and support DNA replication. Starches are less utilized by the canine body. Anything that isn’t immediately turned into energy will be converted to glycogen or stored as fat. When a dog gets an excess of starch, they end up with an excess of fat.
Many studies have shown that using a high-protein diet to help dogs lose weight provides more consistent results. Additionally, dogs on these weight-loss diets better maintain lean muscle mass during the process. This means that high-protein, low-starch diets help dogs lose weight without losing healthy muscle.
For optimal weight, we recommend a raw meat diet. Not only does this type of biologically appropriate diet help with weight loss, but it also helps better maintain a normal weight than wet or dry dog food. These commercial foods are packed with starchy fillers, sugar, and other unhealthy additives. Many of these ingredients have been implicated in dog weight gain.
Raw diets, on the other hand, are low in carbohydrates and packed with fresh meat and nutrient-dense vegetables proven to support better health. These days, there are many different types of raw dog foods to fit any budget or preference.
3. Increase Activity
Exercise may not be the most important part of weight loss for dogs, but it is still necessary to help them reach their weight goals quickly.
Keeping your dog active helps them burn more calories each day. For overweight dogs on a restricted calorie diet, this translates to more fat burned. Dogs that get adequate activity are also less likely to engage in boredom eating (or begging). Exercise can also help your dog maintain healthy muscle mass during their weight loss routine.
4. Maintain a Healthy Gut Biome
While the connection between weight gain and gut biome makeup in dogs is still not clear, there are a few things we know. For one, many of the beneficial bacteria that make up the biome feed on starch that would otherwise be utilized by the body. When the biome consumes starch ingredients, there are fewer calories available for your dog to absorb.
Healthy biomes are also better able to extract vitamins and minerals from food. Overweight dogs often have to be on a calorie-restricted diet. Maintaining a healthy biome can help them get all the nutrients they need from smaller portions.
Maintaining a healthy gut also supports the immune system and the metabolic system. Deficiencies in these areas are associated with weight gain and poor health. Adding a probiotic to your dog’s routine and providing healthy prebiotics in their meals can go a long way to protecting their health and supporting a proper weight.
Healthier Weight, Healthier Dog
Going from bloated beagle to healthy hound will take some work. But it's well worth it.
By carefully measuring your dog’s food and feeding them only high-quality, protein-rich options, you can help them lose weight and keep it off. Supplementing their diet with health-supporting probiotics and plenty of exercise will help hasten the weight-loss process.
Keeping your dog slim and fit reduces their chances for many diseases, helps them feel better, and literally adds years to their life.
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Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.