Updated - Mar 13th, 2021
Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM.
Who doesn’t get the feels over pudgy little puppies or lovable floofs? We love cuddly, squishmallow dogs, but our ideas about a healthy weight for them can be misguided. What we pet parents consider healthy may not be a dog’s ideal weight. Sometimes we need help to distinguish between cuddly and overweight.Vets will tell you that pet parents are reluctant or even in denial about their dog’s body condition.
According to The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs are overweight. Studies have also proven that of those dogs considered obese, 93% of their pet parents thought their dogs were a normal weight. Other studies have concluded that as we humans become more “fluffy”, so do our dogs – all for the same reasons!
If the calories we take in exceed the calories we burn, we gain weight. This can come from medical reasons, overeating, or not enough physical activity. Dogs face the same problem. As we, as a society, have moved into more sedentary lifestyles – especially during the pandemic—our dogs have as well, causing both to struggle with weight issues.
We can feel our own extra pounds, but can we tell when our dogs carry that extra weight? Let’s look at how you can tell if your dog is overweight and the health risks involved.
Overweight dogs – what studies have proven
The same study found that 42% of pet parents did not know what a dog’s healthy weight looked like. We seem to prefer a thicker, softer feel to our dogs. Pudge makes them look healthy and happy to us and increases our cuddle meter. But for our dogs, extra pounds can have weighty consequences.
Some dog breeds are more prone to obesity (which is defined as 30% over ideal weight). These breeds are predisposed to weight problems, but all dogs can suffer from obesity for a variety of reasons not related to their breeds.
Causes of obesity in dogs are:
- Age – dogs become less active as they age
- Breed or genetics
- Spaying or neutering
- Overfeeding – inconsistent amounts or free-choice feeding
- Lack of exercise
- Sex – spayed female dogs are prone to weight issues
Overweight or obese dogs can have serious health issues. Let’s look at some of those health risks.
Health risks for overweight and obese dogs
- Reduced lifespan: Studies have shown dogs that are lean can live 15% longer than overweight dogs. So a dog with a 12-year lifespan, at an ideal weight, could extend their life by 1.8 years (under good circumstances) more than an overweight dog.
- Osteoarthritis: Joint problems are prevalent with large dog breeds. Excess weight adds an increased burden to the joints. If an overweight dog loses weight, there is increased mobility and less weight on the joints, both of which reduce pain.
- Respiratory diseases: Brachycephalic dogs (flat-faced dogs like pugs, bulldogs, pekinese) can develop Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS), an uncomfortable breathing condition that needs supportive veterinary care. Obesity can exacerbate this condition.
- Dogs diagnosed with a collapsed trachea can experience worsening symptoms from excess weight. Their symptoms can improve when they lose the extra pounds.
- Overweight dogs may recover slower from surgery.
- Metabolic effects: When there are increased levels of fat in your dog’s blood, it affects blood sugar levels. This can be a problem for a diabetic dog. However, studies have shown that obesity does not cause type 2 Diabetes mellitus in dogs like it can be for humans or cats, however, being overweight can increase issues for those dogs with the disease.
- Heat intolerance: Dogs who are overweight are more likely to suffer from heat illnesses. Fat cells provide increased insulation in a dog’s body. Even mild exercise creates extra heat inside your dog’s body making outside influences like high temperatures worse.
- Skin disease: Overweight dogs may develop fungus or yeast in the folds of their skin. They also have less healthy skin and coats than normal-weight dogs.
- Decreased activity: An overweight dog may not care to go on brisk walks or run around the yard as readily as it did prior to the weight.
- Puppies that are obese or overweight can have long term metabolic effects, making it harder for them to lose weight as an adult. They are also at risk for developmental orthopedic diseases that cause structural weaknesses in their bones and cartilage as they grow. These weaknesses set them up for impaired movement and arthritis at later ages. At 8 weeks, puppies should have round little tummies and waddle a bit; but at 12-16 weeks, they should score the same on the Body Condition Score chart as adults.
- Obesity is associated with increased risk of some cancers, including mast cell tumors, breast cancer, and bladder cancer.
So we know the health risks of obesity now, but how can you tell if your dog is overweight?
Let’s look at an important tool used to calculate our pet’s body condition: The Body Condition Score.
Body Condition Scoring: Is your dog overweight?
The body condition score is the tool veterinarians use to determine if your dog is underweight or overweight. It measures fat at a few locations on your dog’s body and gives the result a score.
A score of one indicates your dog is severely underweight. A score of five indicates obesity. Some vets use a nine-point scale, some use a five-point scale – it depends on what they prefer or what scale they were trained on. The best example of the Body Condition Score charts representing both scales can be found here by American Animal Hospital Association (aaha.org).
The areas of evaluation are the hips, waist, and ribs. Let’s look at the ribs since they’re the most common way for pet parents to use body condition scoring.
Palpate your dog’s ribs. If you can easily feel them with flat fingers, your dog is in the ideal weight range (3-5). If you have to use the tips of your fingers but can still find the ribs, it’s probably in the overweight range (5-7). If you have to work at feeling them, or can’t feel them at all, your dog is in the obese range (8-9).
Another way to check your dog’s ribs is to check how they feel against the bones in your hands.
- Feel your knuckles with a balled fist, if it matches your dog’s ribs, your dog is probably underweight.
- Run your fingers across the area just below your knuckles (the bones in the back of your hand), if your dog feels like that part of your hand, that’s considered an ideal weight range.
- Turn your hand over and open it up. Run your fingers across the top of your palm just under the fingers (the inside of your knuckles). If that matches how your dog’s ribs feel, your dog is overweight or possibly obese.
Your vet will be happy to check your dog’s BCS and advise you on any dietary changes that need to be made. Using the body condition scoring methods is a great way to check your dog’s weight at home in between vet visits.
Can Medical issues cause weight gain in dogs?
There are some medical conditions that can cause a dog to lose or gain weight. Those are:
- Cushing’s Disease: This happens when the adrenal glands release too much cortisol. This is a hormone that regulates stress responses, weight control, and blood sugar regulation.
- Hypothyroidism: This happens if your dog’s thyroid gland is not secreting enough hormone. The result is metabolic slowdown, which can cause weight gain.
- Osteoarthritis: This is also called Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) and is common among large breeds and older dogs. The joints get inflamed as the cartilage deteriorates, causing pain. As the degeneration progresses, the range of motion in limbs and your dog’s activity level decrease in response to the pain.
If you suspect your dog is gaining weight unexpectedly, we advise a visit with the vet to rule out any medical issues.
How can I help my dog lose weight?
If you suspect your dog is overweight, or even obese, and there are no underlying medical conditions, the rule of weight loss is the same for dogs as for humans: reduce calorie intake and increase calorie burn with exercise.
In order for your dog to tap into stored excess fat for energy use, they need to consume fewer calories than they require for not only exercise, but also the energy the body requires to function for digestion, making hormones, cellular repair, brain function, and the heart to beat.
There are five steps to weight loss; let’s look at them now.
The weight loss journey: five steps to your dog’s health
Step 1: Finding your dog’s ideal weight and caloric needs
First, you need to determine your dog’s ideal weight to determine their daily caloric needs. There are many ways to do that and your veterinarian is an excellent resource for this information since they know your dog’s health needs.
After you’ve determined the ideal weight, you can look up the daily caloric needs here. Once you have those two calculations, you’re ready to start your dog on their weight loss journey!
Step 2: Food
Looking at food consumption is key. How much food are you feeding and how often?
- Pick up that bowl! If your dog is being fed free-choice, meaning the food is always out, pick that bowl up! Dogs will eat when they’re bored, just like people. Switching feeding time to twice daily can keep your furry friend from overeating.
- Feed twice a day. A dog’s stomach empties every 5-8 hours, leaving it empty until the next feeding. When you feed your dog only once per day you may feed too much at one sitting and your pup can get too hungry in between meals, causing them to beg for food or get into the trash looking for something to eat. With smaller, more frequent meals, your dog can work off the calories and energy more efficiently.
- Measure your dog’s food. Overfeeding is easy – too easy. If you’re feeding a small dog kibble, 10 extra kibbles per day can add up to one pound of extra weight per year! It’s very easy to overestimate the amount of food you’re giving your dog. If you scoop the food out with a coffee cup, it’s probably too much. Using a correct size measuring cup (1 cup for 1 cup) will ensure you don’t overfeed your dog. Even more accurate measuring can be provided by purchasing a small gram scale and weighing your dog’s food. (ask your veterinarian for assistance in determining how much food to feed in grams vs. cups.)
Adding a high fiber, low-calorie veggie like green beans or cucumber into your dog’s food can help add a feeling of fullness longer after their meal.
Overfeeding is easy – too easy. If you’re feeding a small dog kibble, 10 extra kibbles per day can add up to one pound of extra weight per year.
Weight loss food
A good weight loss food is one that has low fat, low calories, high-quality meat protein, a high protein-to-calorie ratio to promote loss of body fat while maintaining muscles, and natural fiber to help dogs feel fuller and have good gastrointestinal health. Additional qualities to look for include high levels of antioxidants and l-carnitine, which promotes fat loss.
Some weight loss foods are made with high carbohydrates used as fillers. These make the foods lower in calories and add fiber to help your dog feel full longer, but it may not mean all your dog’s nutritional needs are being met. A high-quality weight loss food works very well to support the increase in exercise your dog will be enjoying.
Transitioning to the new food
When you’ve chosen the food your dog will eat, a gradual transition to the new food is essential. If you move your dog from one food to another too quickly, you risk serious digestive upsets, including pancreatitis that can be deadly.
To properly transition from one food to the other, follow this guideline:
|Transition Days*||Old Food||New Food|
Step 3: Treats
I saw a term used for treats as “calorie grenades.” It’s a cute term but too many treats can quickly add up to obesity, especially if you offer too many, or use high fat, high-calorie commercial treats.
Treats should only be 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake. That means that 90% of your dog’s daily calories should come from a nutritionally balanced diet. This may mean kibble, wet food, home-cooked food, or raw food (commercial or otherwise) that you’ve prepared for the dog that isn’t table scraps.
There are many fruits and vegetables your dog will love just as much as commercial dog treats and will contribute to their overall health. They provide fewer calories, letting you offer more treats (still only 10% of your dog’s daily food) as your dog gets used to fewer rewards during their weight loss journey. Safe vegetables include cucumber, carrots and fruit (in moderation), green beans, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower. Vegetables can be served raw, roasted, or steamed: hold the sauce, please.
Step 4: Ramp up the play!
A good exercise plan is a huge success builder for your dog’s weight loss. Your healthy dog should get a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a day. If a walk is in your routine, make sure it’s brisk enough to burn some calories. The American Kennel Club has some great ideas for both indoor and outdoor exercises for your dog here, however, a quick go-to is always a brisk walk or a rousing game of fetch!
My lab is very active and requires lots of exercise. During the winter months, it was dark when I got home from work, but her energy needs weren’t met. I quickly discovered that a laser pointer worked well outside at night! I would let her chase the red dot along the fence line until it tired her. She’s older now, but still gets excited when she sees the laser pointer.
Step 5: Get regular weight checks
Checking your dog’s weight regularly keeps you on the right track with their calories and activity levels. If your dog is losing weight too fast or not losing weight at all, you can adjust the weight loss program accordingly with weight checks every week or two.
If your dog is large, it may help to go to the vet for the weigh-in. If you have a small dog, just weigh them at home by picking them up and weighing both of you, then subtract your weight from the total.
Frequent weight checks allow you to make any adjustments needed quickly. Your veterinarian can advise you of any adjustments you may need to make your dog’s diet and weight loss journey successful.
How quickly can my dog lose weight?
Dogs have different bodies and digestive systems than we humans do. They’re also much smaller!
- If a human, weighing 150 lbs. had to lose 20% of their weight, that would be 30 lbs.
- For a 100 lb dog, that’s 20 lbs (assuming their ideal weight is 80 lbs.).
- For a 10 lb. dog, that’s 2 lbs.
Big difference! And the rate they lose weight is just as different.
Dogs should only lose 1-2% of the weight per week.
- A 100 lb. dog should lose 1- 2 lbs. per week.
- A 20 lb. dog should lose .2 – .4 lbs. per week.
- A 10 lb. dog should lose .1 lb. per week.
Your dog’s weight loss journey will need patience and consistency. Healthy, overweight dogs should be able to reach their weight loss goals within 3-6 months of starting a weight loss journey.
Weekly or every two weeks weight checks are the best way to monitor your dog’s weight loss and adjust the diet and exercise accordingly.
The weight journey involves everyone
Your dog’s weight journey should involve everyone who interacts with them regularly. Explaining the process and providing healthy treats and limits will ensure your dog’s journey is successful.
Find your dog’s body condition score, or do the hand-rib comparison. Once you determine your dog needs to be on a weight loss plan, check with your vet before you start.
As detailed above, here are the five steps to help your dog lose weight:
- Determine your dog’s ideal weight and daily caloric needs
- Choose a quality, high protein weight loss dog food and calculate your dog’s serving size – there is increased accuracy in measuring food by weighing it on a gram scale vs. using measuring cups
- Swap out high calorie, high fat treats with healthy fruits and veggies
- Ramp up the play with at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day
- Get weekly or every two weeks weight checks to adjust your dog’s weight loss appropriately.
As your dog reaches their weight goals, recalculate the calories needed for maintenance of those weight goals. Your vet will advise you on a proper weight maintenance plan, but once you have some great habits built into your and your dog’s routine, the maintenance will be a piece of cake!
Following these guidelines and involving everyone in your dog’s weight-loss diet will not only turn your squishmallows into lean cuddle machines, but will also extend their lifespans and quality of life too!