Obesity in Dogs

Obesity is a huge problem among companion animals, especially golden retrievers. Excessive weight gain has become the most common preventable disease seen in dogs throughout the United States. As of 2020, the number of dogs in the U.S. that are overweight or obese (56%) surpassed the number of dogs at an appropriate weight (44%), and this stunning statistic continues to rise each year. Obesity is a major concern in dogs because it can increase their risk of getting a variety of serious medical conditions: diabetes mellitusjoint damage (cruciate ligament disease) and arthritiskidney and pancreatic disease, cardiovascular issues, bladder, and urinary tract disease, skin problems, and cancer. Obesity leads to inflammation within the body and can impair their immune response. Fortunately, losing weight can help these patients reduce that risk and even reverse some of the effects of these conditions.

On average, obese animals have a shorter lifespan than lean animals. One study of labrador retrievers showed a decreased lifespan in overweight dogs (11.2 years) compared to lean, energy-restricted control dogs (13 years).

obesity in dogs

Weight gain in our four-legged companions can occur for a variety of reasons. Some diseases can lead to an increased risk of obesity in dogs (such as hypothyroidism), which is why it is always important to consult your veterinarian so they can examine your dog before recommending any dietary changes. In an otherwise healthy dog, weight gain is often due to an imbalance between the number of calories they are eating and the amount of calories that they are burning in their daily activity. This means obesity is one of the few conditions that plague our pets that we as owners can have some control over.

To ensure that our dogs are maintaining a healthy weight, we need to focus on choosing an appropriate amount of a quality food, promoting exercise, monitoring weight changes, monitoring treats, and adjusting the amount of food that they receive based on those changes. Whether you are trying to get your overweight dog back down to a healthy weight or prevent your dog from becoming overweight in the first place, here are some simple steps that you can follow to help you and your dog meet your goals.

obesity in dogs

When it comes to helping a dog lose weight, the first step is determining what their ideal body weight should be. Consult your veterinarian, as they can assess your dog’s body condition score (BCS) on a 9 point scale to help you understand your starting point. Your veterinarian can then use this BCS to establish an ideal weight for your dog and give you a reference point to track weight loss goals and progress. Dogs are considered overweight if they weigh 10-20% more than their ideal weight and obese if they are over 20% above it.

A BCS of 4-5 is considered ideal, so anything greater than 5 is overweight and anything less than 4 is underweight. Every 1-point increase or decrease from the ideal BCS score (4-5) is about 10-15% of their weight. For example, if your dog has a BCS of 6, they need to lose 10-15% of their body weight, whereas a dog with a BCS of 9 would need to lose 40-60% of their body weight. With this ideal weight in mind as the overall goal, you can set smaller weight loss goals for your dog of losing 1-2% of their body weight per week. It is important that dogs do not lose weight too quickly, as this could mean that they are missing out on essential nutrients, which could lead to other health problems.

The following is a chart that veterinarians use to assess body condition scoring in dogs.

obesity in dogs
Numerous diets are formulated for weight loss in dogs. Most weight loss diets restrict fat and calories. Some diets increase fiber and protein to help improve satiety.  Dietary protein of 25-30% dry matter and dietary fat of 5-15% dry matter are recommended.  Most weight loss diets are also fortified with essential nutrients relative to calories so that when energy is restricted, vitamins and minerals are not. Restricting caloric intake while using a maintenance diet for weight loss carries risk for nutrient deficiency.

Regardless of the diet selected for weight loss, it is imperative to account for any table scraps or treats when calculating daily caloric needs for weight loss. In one study of 61 owners and their dogs, 59% of dogs were fed table scraps, which accounted for 21% of their daily caloric intake.

Increasing energy expenditure by increasing physical activity is an integral component of most weight loss programs. Using puzzle feeders, playing fetch or catch, leash walks, and swimming are just some of the many ways to introduce exercise to dogs. Physical training programs have been shown to be effective for overweight dogs and are offered by some physical therapy and rehabilitation programs. However, one study reported that dietary caloric restriction was more effective than increasing physical activity for controlled weight loss. Thus, increasing physical activity alone is unlikely to promote sufficient weight loss. Dietary changes are needed as well.

Preventing obesity is very important for the overall health of companion animals. Numerous steps can be taken to prevent it and its complicating factors.

After dogs are spayed or neutered, decreased basal metabolic rate; decreased activity; and increased food intake all contribute to increased risk for obesity. One study cited that a 30% reduction in daily caloric intake after surgery was needed to avoid excessive weight gain.

Accurately measuring/calculating daily caloric intake is necessary to prevent obesity. Use standard measuring cups or a kitchen food scale to control the amount of food offered. Use of smaller bowls and specific measuring cups may also help control portions.  Free feeding is not recommended.

Once you have your goal weight, your veterinarian will also help you determine your dog’s current food intake; this includes the type of food they eat, the amount they receive, how often they are fed (2-3 times per day, free feeding, etc.), and the number of treats or extra food they are given. Feeding your pet’s daily ration over 2-3 isolated meals throughout the day is a great strategy to make it easier to monitor their intake.

Also, eliminating treats, especially human food, is another easy way to cut out unnecessary calories. Try to keep treats to ≤10% of daily total calories and consider using lower calorie treats instead.  We know treats can be important for training and bonding, so you can use some of their daily ration of dog food as treats throughout the day if this is something that you do not want to give up.  Many veterinarians will also recommend switching to a therapeutic weight loss diet that is designed to ensure that your dog still gets all the nutrients that they need but with fewer calories.

In addition to regulating their food intake, making some lifestyle changes to increase your dog’s daily activity is another important step in the weight loss journey, as it will help them burn some extra calories. Simple activities like short walks, play dates, romps in the dog park, and throwing fetch in the backyard a few times a day can be extremely beneficial for meeting your dog’s weight loss goals and keeping the weight off in the future. Regular exercise promotes maintenance of lean muscle mass while expending energy. Once your dog has returned to their ideal body weight, it is important to maintain some of these lifestyle changes so they can maintain that weight that you both have worked so hard to obtain.

Although it may seem somewhat minor due to the large number of dogs that are affected, obesity is a serious disease that can lead to a lot of other major health problems in our four-legged friends. Fortunately, as owners, we can make some simple dietary and lifestyle changes to help our dogs maintain a healthy weight that will increase not only the length but also the quality of their life. Some of these changes can be difficult for both you and your dog to adjust to, but if you stick to your plan and work with your veterinarian, it will certainly be worth it.

Linda Lewiston, DVM
With Amanda McWreath, Veterinary Student Class of 2023

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