How to help your dog lose weight and improve their quality of life

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Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD
by Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD

Our focus at Loyal is to extend lifespan and healthspan in dogs and give people and their dogs more good quality time together. Much of our work involves research into therapies that we hope will be available in the future. However, as a veterinarian, I always want to draw attention to actions dog owners can take right now to improve health and quality of life and to extend lifespan for their dogs. One of the most important of these is helping our dogs achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

We can learn a lot from studying aging in companion dogs because they are very much like humans, both in their biology and in their environment and lifestyle. Like us, our dogs evolved in conditions of scarcity, where food was hard to find and required a lot of physical work to obtain. With bodies adapted to those conditions, our dogs are increasingly burdened with health problems caused by an overabundance of food and a lack of physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle and easy access to high-quality food has led to growing rates of obesity in dogs.

Studies from around the world indicate that between 20% and 70% of dogs are overweight or obese, and this number appears to be growing. There are some risk factors for obesity in dogs that we, as individual dog owners, cannot change, such as breed and genetics. However, the most important cause of unhealthy weight in dogs by far is simply being overfed, and that is within our power to change.

Food may be the most tangible and important way we show our dogs we love them. Nearly all dogs are enthusiastic about feeding time, and it is rewarding to see the pleasure they get from the meals and treats we provide. Many dog owners also feel a lot of pressure to find the one perfect food for their dog, and few debates get as heated as what the best type of food is to give our canine friends. However, there are lots of ways to show love to our dogs besides feeding, and lots of equally healthy food options available. Often the most important thing we can do to make our dogs happy and healthy is to focus on feeding a healthy quantity of whatever food we offer.

Often the most important thing we can do to make our dogs happy and healthy is to focus on feeding a healthy quantity of whatever food we offer.

How do you know if your dog is at a healthy weight? 

The other vet I share an office with once had a Labrador retriever desk calendar. For every day of the year, there was a new picture of an adorable, happy dog. Unfortunately, the majority of those dogs were significantly overweight. The standard image many of us carry in our heads of what a healthy, happy dog should look like is often actually of an overweight dog. I routinely have to reassure my clients when they are questioned by others about the wellbeing of their perfectly health dogs, who are seen as looking “too thin.” A big component of improving our dogs’ health is developing a more accurate, healthier image of what they should look like. 

Fortunately, there are well-established, scientifically validated tools for this. The Body Condition Score is a standard way of gauging whether a dog is at a healthy weight regardless of size, breed, or body type.  Using this scoring guide, it is easy for vets and dog owners to determine if weight loss or weight gain might benefit an individual dog. 

Nutrition: Body Condition Scoring

The consequences of obesity in dogs

Obesity has many effects throughout the body, and it is a risk factor for most age-related diseases. Arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, and many other health problems experienced by older dogs are more common in dogs who are overweight. Obesity is linked to a lower quality of life, both directly and through the effects of such specific diseases that are more likely in overweight dogs. There is even research showing that regardless of breed or size, overweight dogs have shorter lives than dogs with a healthy body condition score.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true: dogs who achieve and maintain a healthy weight are healthier and can have longer lives with better quality of life. This is something we can help our dogs to achieve through very simple changes in how we care for them.

How to manage your dog’s weight

The best way, by far, to have a dog with a health weight is not to let them become overweight in the first place. Puppies are not born overweight, of course, and most are able to maintain a healthy body condition even if slightly overfed when they active and growing. However, most puppies will want more food than they need, and they are adorably skilled at getting it from us! As they reach adulthood, keeping that healthy body condition gets more difficult. Knowing what a healthy body condition looks like for your dog can help you stay strong and give them only the calories they need.

It is especially important to avoid overfeeding in large breed puppies, who are at greater risk for bone and joint problems than smaller breeds. Feeding these puppies a large-breed puppy food, formulated with fewer calories and lower calcium levels, is a proven tool for reducing the risk of such health problems, and of obesity, later in life.

Once your dog is an adult, if they have put on a few too many pounds, weight reduction is not complicated, but it can be challenging. Despite all the talk about different diets and ingredients and the inevitable search for tricks and shortcuts, weight reduction truly does boil down to less food and more activity. How that can best be achieved, of course, will vary somewhat for every dog. 

It is especially important to avoid overfeeding in large breed puppies, who are at greater risk for bone and joint problems than smaller breeds.

Here are my top five strategies for successfully reducing your dog’s calorie intake and weight:

1. Measure the food

When scooping dry kibble into a bowl, it is very easy to feed more than we think and for the amount to gradually creep up over time. For many kinds of fresh or home-cooked foods, which may vary in calorie density from batch to batch, it is even harder to know how much we are actually feeding. Since reducing calorie intake is key to weight loss, we need to know exactly how much we are feeding, so a measuring cup or kitchen scale is crucial.

2. Check body condition and weight regularly

Once you and your vet have decided your dog needs to lose weight, you should be checking their weight and body condition regularly, about once a week. Weight loss rarely needs to be rapid, so slow and steady is fine, but often our dogs may lose a bit at first and then plateau, and we won’t notice unless we are monitoring their progress.

It is also important to weigh them on an accurate scale, and ideally the same one every time. Home scales made for humans usually aren’t reliable, so it may be best to take your dog into the vet’s office for regular weight checks. This also has the advantage of getting the numbers into their medical record and of having a vet visit that is easy and not scary for your dog, which may reduce their anxiety about seeing the doctor.

3. Reduce food intact gradually

When starting a weight loss program, I tell my clients to reduce the amount they are feeding by about 25% at first. If the dog is losing even a little bit of weight consistently each month, that may be enough. Often, though, they may not lose any weight at first because they actually need even less food than we think. It is often stunning to dog owners how little food their pups need to be a healthy weight. So if your dog hasn’t lost any in the first month, don’t give up. Just drop the amount another 25% and keep going (I promise, they won’t starve and they will still love you!).

4. Be creative about treats

I would never tell my clients not to give their dogs treats. Food treats are often important for training, and they are almost always part of the bond between us and our dogs. The key is to find low-calorie, healthy treats your dog likes. Bits of vegetables, such as carrots or green beans, may be welcomed by many dogs. Pickier pups may prefer a bit of lean cooked meat or a commercial low-calorie treat. It can take some trial and error to find things your dog likes that don’t interfere with weight management, but in terms of calories everything counts, so it’s worth the effort.

If you’re lucky to have a dog who likes toys, you can use toy drive as an alternative to food treats. Toy drive is the motivation to play with an object like a ball, disc, or rope toy, which can be incorporated as rewards during training sessions. Interest in toys is also something that can be built up in dogs, by teaching them games like tug-of-war or building up excitement around chasing thrown objects.

5. Get off the couch

I haven’t talked much about exercise and weight loss because it’s a bit more complicated than it might seem. While I strongly recommend more physical activity for most of my canine patients, exercise alone is almost never enough to achieve weight loss, and it is far less important for this than cutting back on the food. 

Like us, our dogs have incredibly efficient bodies that have evolved to do the most with the least energy. It is far easier to take in calories than to burn them off. As an average-sized, relatively fit man, I would need to run or do moderate intensity aerobics for about an hour to burn the equivalent calories as a slice of pizza. Even a healthy snack like an apple would take about 7 minutes of running or a 30-minute walk to burn off. Taking a walk with us is great enrichment for our dogs, but it won’t keep them a healthy weight if we don’t also cut back on the calories.

That said, there is some evidence that increased activity can help with weight loss and reduce the risk of developing obesity in dogs. Exercise can improve cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength, and it almost certainly has health benefits for our canine friends. Shared activity can also strengthen our bond with our dogs and take the place of some of the food-centered interactions that may interfere with weight management. So as long as your dog is healthy and your vet says it’s ok, you can improve their health and yours by taking a walk, throwing a ball, or engaging in some kind of physical exercise you both enjoy.

Other resources to support dog’s weight-management goals

There are many resources available to help with achieving and maintaining a healthy weight in your dogs. The most important, of course, is your veterinarian, who can help you put together a weight-management plan individually designed for your dogs’ needs. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has an evidence-based guideline for your veterinarian to help them design individualized weight management programs as well as an extensive collection of resources for vets and pet owners. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention is a non-profit that offers useful information for dog owners to help with weight management.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of questionable information for dog owners on the internet. Be skeptical of any sources that recommend exotic or extreme diets or that promise simple, easy answers to weight management without cutting back on calories. It does take work and persistence, but you can help your dog achieve and maintain a healthy weight and love them a longer and healthier life.

Preet GS. Turkar S. Gupta S. Kumar S. Dog obesity: Epidemiology, risk factors, diagnosis and management: A review paper. Pharm Innov. 2021:10(5):698-705. 

Yam PS. Butowski CF. Chitty JL. et al. Impact of canine overweight and obesity on health-related quality of life. Prev Vet Med. 2016: 127:64-69.

Cline MG. Murphy M. Obesity in the dog and cat. 1st edition. CRC Press. 2019

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