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Does My Dog Need a Diet?

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Any breed of dog can suffer from obesity

Any breed of dog can suffer from obesity

Is My Dog Fat?

Canine obesity is on the rise. Statistics from the last decade have revealed that a growing number of pets are dangerously overweight, yet many owners are oblivious to the health risks posed by their dog carrying a few extra pounds.

In 2010, a study looking into the prevalence of obesity in dogs in the UK concluded that 59% of pet dogs could be classified as either overweight or obese. A smaller study was conducted between June 2016 and October 2017 and focused on people attending family pet shows. People were asked if they would be happy for their dog's body condition to be assessed by a team of experienced vet nurses.

They examined 1,100 adult dogs (over 24 months of age) and 516 juvenile dogs (under 24 months of age). Sixty-five percent of the adult dogs examined were overweight, while 9% were obese. In juvenile dogs, 37% were overweight and 3% were obese. What was most worrying was that the trend for weight gain increased with the age of the puppies—21% of puppies under 6 months were overweight, but this increased to 52% in juveniles aged between 18 and 24 months. A similar trend has been seen in the US, with 40–45% of dogs considered overweight and 25–30% being obese.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association is so concerned by this trend that it has officially classified canine obesity as a disease, and wants to see more done by vets to encourage healthy body weight in pets.

Older dogs are more prone to putting on weight

Older dogs are more prone to putting on weight

How Does Being Overweight Impact My Dog's Health?

Some negative health implications of a dog being overweight are obvious and some are slightly more controversial. Joint health and mobility are prime concerns in dogs that are carrying extra weight, and this is especially the case in dogs that have a joint problem (such as hip dysplasia), an issue with the spine, or the start of arthritis.

Just as in people, keeping a dog lean and fit will take the pressure off the joints and sometimes reduce the need for anti-inflammatory and painkilling medications. Breeds prone to back problems (such as Dachshunds) should never be allowed to gain extra weight as this can put excess strain on the spine and increase the risk of issues arising.

In 1995, a study was done to investigate whether a dog being overweight increased its risk of developing certain diseases and health problems. The study looked at 21,754 dogs, of which 34.1% were deemed overweight or obese. Diseases that were significantly more prevalent among overweight animals included diabetes, hypothyroidism, and pancreatitis, with obese dogs having a noticeably higher risk than dogs with normal body weight.

Mobility issues, such as general lameness and cruciate ligament damage also increased. However, heart disease was not shown to be significantly worse in overweight dogs.

More controversial is the link between a shortened life span and obesity in dogs. A retrospective study of dogs that lived between 1995 and 2015 used medical records to determine the age the dog died and whether it was overweight or not. Twelve breeds were looked at and there seemed to be a greater likelihood of a dog dying earlier if it was obese, but there were problems with the study.

The breed and date of birth of a dog were dependent on the information provided by the owner and were not double-checked. The initial body condition scores were based on an old system with only three categories (thin, normal, heavy). Today there are nine categories. Also, one of the methods used for matching heavy and normal dogs to compare lifespan could produce statistical errors.

The conclusion of this research showed that, depending on breed, the lifespan of a dog could be significantly shorter in an overweight pet. Obese German Shepherds, for instance, usually lived five months less than their normal-weight contemporaries. But in Yorkshire Terriers the difference could be as much as two and a half years. Though work still needs to be done to explain why obesity might reduce lifespan, there does appear to be a link between dogs dying earlier and being overweight.

Sight hounds are one of the few breeds where an ideal weight means you can see the last two ribs

Sight hounds are one of the few breeds where an ideal weight means you can see the last two ribs

How Do I Know if My Dog Is Overweight?

Judging if a pet is overweight can be a tricky matter. Obesity tends to be obvious, but when a dog is just a little chunky then it can go unnoticed, especially if the breed is of a squat or solid nature anyway. While weight guides that state an average for a breed can be helpful, they can also be inaccurate. Dogs that carry a lot of muscle might weigh heavy for their breed average but are not actually overweight, while a small example of a breed could weigh correctly but in fact be fat.

Rather than use weight, a better system is to look at the dog's body condition. A healthy weight dog should have a clear indent at its waist (where the ribs end) and should have a tucked tummy. Running your hands along the dog's sides, you should be able to feel the ribs without pressing hard. If the ribs are visible, then a dog is underweight, if you have to push hard to feel the ribs, or can't find them at all, then a dog is overweight.

Overweight dogs may still have a slight waist but will lack the tummy tuck, that is why all three factors need to be taken into account to determine the body condition of the dog. Another test is to see if there is fat at the top of the tail, as this is where it tends to be deposited. If you can feel a fatty lump here, that is a sign your dog is carrying more weight than it should be.

There are a few variations to this assessment due to breed type. In greyhounds, lurchers and whippets, it should be possible to see the last two ribs, not just feel them. In some breeds with short bodies, the tummy tuck will be less noticeable than in leggier breeds.

A muscular, correct weight beagle.

A muscular, correct weight beagle.

How Can I Help My Dog Lose Weight?

The simplest answer to losing weight is to cut down the amount our pets eat, but that can be challenging when our dogs start to beg for more. A dog that is used to big meals may find smaller quantities unsatisfying and may even begin to steal food to compensate.

To help our dogs lose weight, but still feel like they are getting a good meal, here are some ideas:

Switch to Low-Fat Food

Many food brands offer a low-fat version of their foods, whether this is tinned, kibble, or raw. If your dog does not need to lose a lot of weight, try switching to a low-fat version of their usual diet and see if that does the trick. But remember, just because it is low fat does not mean they get to eat more of it.

Top Up With Veggies

When putting a dog on a diet, the rough guide is to cut their food down by a third (always check with your overseeing veterinarian). To stop them from feeling hungry, you can add vegetables to their meal. Pumpkin is a popular diet choice for dogs, as it is low fat, filling, and relatively low in carbohydrates. It should be cooked before feeding. Other diet foods include green beans and grated courgette (zucchini). Most veggies can be added to a dog's food bowl to help them lose weight, but avoid potatoes and corn. Potatoes are high in carbs and can increase weight, while dogs cannot digest corn.

Switch to Healthy Treats

If you are used to giving your dog a bedtime biscuit or afternoon treat, try switching to something low fat, such as a carrot. On hot days many dogs will enjoy a piece of watermelon as an afternoon snack. If you do lots of training with your dog, instead of using high-fat cheese and sausage as treats, change to using low-fat ham or chicken. Some dogs will even accept chopped carrots or cucumbers. Cooked beef or lamb heart and liver are also low fat and very tasty but don't use pig's heart or liver, as this is naturally higher in fat.

Increase Exercise

Dogs that are overweight tend to become inactive, as they can find it harder to move. That inactivity makes them more likely to gain weight. Most dogs benefit from an hour of exercise every day, even if they are seniors. If they can't manage an hour in one walk, it can be split across two or three shorter walks. Exercise burns calories, but if your dog has become a real couch potato don't suddenly start hour-long hikes, they need to build up their tolerance for exercise gradually. Increase their amount of exercise by five minutes a week, making sure they get out every day, and you should see the weight drop off faster.

Rule Out Medical Issues

Some health issues that can cause a dog to put on weight, these can include water retention, hypothyroidism, Cushing's Disease, and diabetes. Some medications will also cause weight gain. Your pet will usually display other symptoms of these diseases, but if you are struggling to get your pet to lose weight it might be worth having your vet check them over.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.