The Complete Guide to Weight Loss for Dogs

The Complete Guide to Weight Loss for Dogs

The Complete Guide to Weight Loss for Dogs

Be honest: have you ever looked at your beloved canine companion and thought to yourself, “Rover sure has been packing on the pounds…” If you have, first of all, it’s great that you’ve noticed. Most pet parents don’t pay enough attention to their dog’s weight. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 9 out of 10 owners of overweight pets mistakenly identify their pets’ weight as normal.

Secondly, if you’ve ever wondered if your pup is getting a little round in the middle, statistics show that there’s a good chance that they are, indeed, overweight. Obesity is one of the most common medical conditions in canines. In fact, pet obesity affects more than half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. Let that one sink in for a minute… According to APOP, 54% of U.S. dogs and 59% of U.S. cats are overweight. That means that an astounding 41.9 million dogs and 50.5 million cats are currently overweight in the U.S.

While some pet parents may think chubby puppies are the norm and can be tolerated, the truth is that your dog being overweight is a very big deal. As in humans, excess body fat in dogs makes them prime targets for a slew of often unnecessary and preventable health issues, from joint disease to a predisposition to metabolic disorders to a state of chronic inflammation. Not to mention that overweight animals are less energetic than their trim counterparts, and sadly, tend to live shorter lives. According to a Purina Lifespan Study, you can pretty much plan on an overweight pet living 2 years less than they would otherwise.

In short, an overweight dog has a lower quality of life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thankfully, getting a dog (even one that seriously loves to eat) is a challenge that’s within reach for most owners if they follow simple guidelines. And it’s important — a dog that gets to its ideal weight will have more energy, less health issues like joint disease and chronic inflammation, and improved quality of life. Basically, they’ll be happier and healthier.

So, where to begin? TopDog Health has put together everything you need to know to get your furry friend to their ideal weight.

Identifying an Overweight Dog

As we mentioned, the fact that their dog is overweight or obese is not always obvious to the pet parent. If you notice that your pup is looking a little on the pudgy side, that’s usually your first clue that your dog could stand to shed a few pounds.

If you suspect your dog is overweight, the next step is to take them to your veterinarian for a weight check. An interesting thing to know is that at your pet’s regular check-ups, your veterinarian may not comment on your dog’s weight unless you ask. Some studies suggest that veterinarians know many owners of overweight pets may be resistant to or in denial about this information, and so they’re reluctant to bring it up. This means it’s often up to you to ask for both an honest assessment and an estimate of your dog’s ideal body weight.

With that said, here are 3 markers you can use right now to tell if your dog is indeed over their ideal weight:

  1. Feel the ribs: There should be only a slight covering of fat over top of the ribs (and we mean slight).
  2. Look at the waist: You should be able to identify your dog’s waist.
  3. Check the abdominal tuck: For this you need to look at your dog from the side, and notice that just behind the ribs, the abdomen should go up at an angle. If the belly is straight or flat without a rise, then they are carrying too much weight in their abdomen.

If you’re still unsure, here are a few more questions you can ask yourself:

  • Are their ribs difficult to detect beneath their fat? Placing your hands on the sides of their chest, you should be able to easily feel their ribs.
  • Is their stomach sagging? Just as in humans, this is a pretty clear indication your pet has packed on too many pounds.
  • Is their back broad and flat? This is another sign they’re too wide on the sides.
  • Are they hourglass shaped? Both dogs and cats should have a nice taper at their waist, between their abdomen and where their hips go into the socket. If they’re overweight, they’ll be oval shaped rather than hourglass.

Again, your veterinarian will be able to tell you without a doubt whether or not your dog is over their ideal weight. Once you’ve determined that they need to shed a few pounds, the next step is to understand risk factors that may be contributing to their excess weight gain.

Risk Factors for Weight Gain

For the vast majority of overweight dogs, the cause of their excess weight comes down to diet – they’re simply taking in too many calories. With that said, there are also several factors that play into whether or not your dog is more at risk for obesity, from genetics to the amount of exercise they get, even whether or not they’re spayed or neutered.

Let’s take a look at some of the common risk factors for canine obesity:

  • Overfeeding

    Giving your dog a too-large portion of calorie-dense kibble and too many processed treats quickly leads to excess weight gain.

  • Lack of exercise

    In the typical 9 to 5 household, many dogs simply don’t get much exercise during the week. And these dogs tend to get fed many more calories than they’re expending. Older dogs, as well as dogs with degenerative diseases like arthritis, tend to be less active and need fewer calories as well.

  • Breed

    Certain breeds of dogs are more prone to being overweight than others, including Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Dalmatians, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Shetland Sheepdogs, certain mixed breeds, and the ever-popular (and ever-hungry) Labrador Retriever.

  • Age

    Just like humans, the risk of overweight increases as your dog gets older.

  • Spaying/Neutering

    Neutered or spayed dogs of both sexes are twice as likely to be overweight as intact dogs. This is likely linked to the role of sex hormones in appetite, exercise, and the loss of lean body mass following the surgery.

  • Medical conditions

    While it’s not the typical reason behind canine weight gain, it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian scan for medical conditions that can contribute to excess weight, including:

    • Hypothyroidism can cause lowered metabolism in dogs. Your veterinarian can check for it with a quick blood test.
    • Cushing’s syndrome causes dogs to produce too much cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”), which leads to increased appetite, decreased muscle mass, and increased fat stores.
    • Arthritis, injury, or other painful conditions can cause your dog’s activity level to lower, which means they’re burning less calories and packing on more weight.

If your dog has one or several of these risk factors, it ultimately means that their metabolism is affected, as well as how many calories they need to eat in a 24-hour span. For example, if your dog is getting into their golden years, their metabolism (and likely activity level) is slowing down, which means you should be giving them less food than you did when they were younger. It’s up to you, the pet parent, to make sure you’re feeding your pup the right amount of calories for their needs.

Are You Overfeeding Your Dog?

When it comes to determining if your dog is getting too many calories for their needs, awareness on your part is key. Once you become more conscious of the dietary choices and eating habits you’re currently creating for your dog, you can begin to make small yet significant changes to help get them to their ideal weight.

Let’s begin by going over some of the common practices that lead to dogs getting too many calories:

  • Feeding based on label recommendations

    Are you one of those well-meaning pet parents who portions out their dog’s food based on what it says on the back of their kibble bag? We’re here to tell you: don’t trust the bag. You may be shocked to learn that there’s absolutely no standardization of feeding recommendations on the bags of pet foods and the numbers vary significantly. What’s more, most feeding guides are formulated for adult, un-spayed or un-neutered active dogs. That means if you have an older, spayed or neutered lap dog who lolls around most of the day, you’re likely feeding 20% to 30% too much if you follow the food label’s recommendations. It’s best to calculate calories and then check the number of calories per cup, can, or package.

  • Too many treats

    It may surprise you to learn that we recommend to never stop giving your dog treats, even if they’re overweight. This ritual is so important to the relationship you have with your pup, eliminating it would do more overall harm than good. That said, we do recommend breaking the treat in half or into smaller pieces (trust us, your dog won’t know the difference). You can also swap out high calorie, sugary manufactured treats for healthier options, like crunchy baby carrots, slices of cucumber, or even ice cubes in the summer months. Whatever treats you give them, keep in mind that it’s important to account for treats when figuring out your dog’s ideal daily calorie intake.

  • Too many table scraps

    If you’re giving your dog the occasional healthy bite from your plate, this can be a great source of nutrition for your pup. But when you overdo it with unhealthy human foods, excess weight can result. Just like treats, it’s important to account for any extra tidbits they’re getting from the table when calculating your dog’s ideal calorie intake.

  • Not measuring meals

    In the battle against canine obesity, the measuring cup is your ally. So many pet parents are in the habit of simply filling their dog’s bowl or “guesstimating” how much they should be feeding. The key is to calculate how many calories your dog needs, determine how much food you should be providing at each meal – and then measure it out.

  • Giving large meals

    Does your dog get one or two big meals per day? Some studies suggest that smaller, more frequent meals can burn more calories and help keep the weight off.

  • Overfeeding because your dog has a “high activity level”

    In truth, most dogs whose owners live the 9 to 5 lifestyle won’t need more calories because of their activity level. Short bursts of intense activity (think a game of fetch or a frisbee session) aren’t enough to increase a dog’s calorie needs. Only dogs that travel long distances when exercising (going on miles-long hikes or runs, for instance) will require more calories to make up for the ones they burn.

Now that you’re aware of the practices that may be contributing to your dog getting too many calories, let’s take a good hard look at the effects this has on your canine companion’s health and happiness.

Health Issues in Overweight Dogs

There’s no denying that an overweight dog is at serious risk for a slew of health problems. Here are some of the most common health issues in overweight dogs:

  • Heart disease and increased blood pressure

    Sadly, increased blood pressure (aka hypertension) is something new to dogs in the last 30 or so years since pet obesity rates have been rising. Just like in humans, the hearts of overweight dogs need to work harder to pump additional blood to excess tissues, and this can lead to congestive heart failure and death.

  • Damage to joints, bones, and ligaments

    Studies suggest that 25% of overweight dogs develop serious joint complications, such as osteoarthritis or hip or elbow dysplasia. When your dog’s joints and bones are required to carry excess weight, they usually start to become damaged. Extra tension on joints can also lead to the damage of certain ligaments (such as the cruciate ligament in the knee, which renders your dog’s knee and leg useless and usually requires surgery to repair). Studies also show that obese dogs develop earlier and more severe arthritis than their lean counterparts. This is likely due in part to the excess strain on their overloaded joints, but also as a result of the chronic inflammation in the body that results from obesity.

  • Slower recovery after surgery

    Overweight animals typically have a more difficult time recovering from major surgeries, like repair of a damaged cruciate ligament in the knee (which, as we mentioned, overweight dogs are also more at risk for).

  • Difficulty breathing

    In overweight dogs, the lungs are not able to function properly. Excess fat in the chest restricts the expansion of the lungs, while extra fat in the abdomen pushes against the diaphragm. What’s worse is these poorly-functioning lungs have higher demands than in lean dogs, trying to supply oxygen to a higher quantity of tissue.

  • Increased risk of cancer

    Studies suggest that obese dogs tend to have an increased risk of developing some – but not all – types of cancers.

  • Increased skin and coat problems

    In dogs carrying excess weight, the skin may fold in on itself to create pockets, which are ideal for the accumulation of oils and a breeding ground for infections.

  • Heat intolerance

    Overweight dogs have a harder time cooling down and are far more likely to die from heatstroke than leaner dogs.

  • Decreased life span

    According to a Purina Lifespan Study, overweight pets live on average 2 years less than they would if they were at a healthy weight.

It’s clear that an overweight dog’s overall well-being, ability to play, and even ability to breathe are compromised. Their very quality of life is affected as well – how happy would you be if you constantly hot, in pain, short of breath, or simply uncomfortable? And how sad would you be if your beloved dog were to pass away earlier than they needed to?

Thankfully, the risk for all these health issues goes down once you get your dog to a healthy weight. What follows is everything you need to know to help your pet shed the weight and get back on the path to health and happiness.

Creating a Doggy Diet Plan

The most critical factor in any dog weight loss plan is diet – specifically, the amount of food they’re given. While the type of food also matters (of course, feeding high-quality food is important), the quantity is really what’s key. For instance, if you give your dog high-quality food, supplements, etc. but they’re still overweight, this is likely more detrimental than having a lean dog who eats low-quality food and takes no supplements. What’s more, have you ever heard the saying, “Build muscle at the gym, lose weight in the kitchen”? This applies for your pup as well. Exercise is always a plus but exercise alone is not usually enough to bring about significant weight loss.

So, with all this in mind, here’s your step-by-step plan to get your dog lose weight:

1. Determine your dog’s ideal body weight

The best way to go about this is to consult your veterinarian. While a quick internet search will give you a general idea of the ideal weight for your dog’s breed, your veterinarian will be able to take into account several contributing factors that are individual to your dog, such as age, activity level, existing health conditions, etc. Once you know their ideal weight, you’ll have what you need to determine how many calories they should be eating in daily.

2. Create a plan for regular weigh-ins

While you’re at the veterinarian’s office, be sure to get an accurate read of your dog’s starting weight, then make a plan to monitor it regularly. For bigger dogs, this may mean coming in to your veterinarian’s office for regular weigh-ins (about every 2 weeks) or purchasing a pet scale to use at home. For smaller dogs, you can use your regular bathroom scale: first weigh yourself, then weight yourself holding your pup, and subtract the first number from the second to get your dog’s weight.

3. Calculate your dog’s ideal daily calorie intake

This can be easily calculated by your veterinarian, but you can also use this equation for the average household dog that gets exercised (walked around the block or playing out in the yard) once or twice per day. The calculation is: Your dog’s ideal body weight (in lbs.) x 10-15 kcal = average total kcal requirement per day. An alternative approach is to simply cut your overweight dog’s daily calorie intake by about one-third.

4. Factor in treats and table scraps

Before you do this, make a plan going forward for how you’re going to give treats. We recommend healthy, non-processed treats (think crunchy veggies or one-ingredient dog treats like blueberry bites or lean protein stick) and minimal feeding from the table of healthy people food only. Once you have an idea of the type and amount of treats and table scraps your dog will be getting, total up their daily estimated calorie content. Next, subtract this number from their total daily calorie intake (above), and you know the final amount of calories your dog should get in food during their meals.

5. Determine the correct amount of food per day

Once you know the amount of calories in food your dog should be getting daily, the next step is to identify how much actual dog food this equals. While choosing a high-quality dog food, check the packaging to determine how many kcals (aka calories) are in each serving, which you can then use to determine how much food they need daily. Weighing the food (with a kitchen scale) is the ideal way to stick to this measurement, and measuring it out is the next most accurate. If you measure the food, keep in mind that a smaller measuring cup is more accurate (for example, a 1/4-cup scoop is better than using the 1/4-cup line on a 2-cup scoop).

6. Set a feeding schedule

Next, determine how many times per day you’re going to feed your dog. At least two meals per day is ideal (avoid one large meal if at all possible), and more frequent meals may even burn more calories.

7. Recheck weight every 2 weeks

Ideally your dog will be losing between 1 to 4 percent of their starting body weight every 2 weeks (or about 0.5 to 2 percent per week, and 2 to 8 percent per month). Keep in mind that it’s normal for them to lose weight faster initially at the beginning of their diet, as they may be quickly dropping water weight.

8. Adjust calorie intake as needed

As you monitor your pup’s weight loss, it’s important to be flexible and increase or decrease their calorie intake to keep hitting your target weight loss percentage rate. If you have to decrease their food intake so much that they can’t seem to get full, try adding water to their kibble, feeding wet food (which contains more water than kibble), or even adding low-calorie veggies (carrots, broccoli, cucumbers) to their meals to help them fill up without packing on pounds.

9. Start an exercise regimen

While we mentioned that exercise alone isn’t enough for your pup to drop some serious pounds, it’s a wonderful complement to their weight loss plan. Overall, an exercised dog is a healthier, happier, and even more well-behaved dog (a tired dog, by default, has less energy to misbehave). If your dog isn’t used to activity, be sure to go slow and steady at first to avoid injury or overexertion.

10. Continue to monitor progress

It’s important to remember that once your dog hits their target weight, their calorie intake still needs to be monitored. Don’t fall off the bandwagon – sustained healthy weight requires a constant effort. If you find your dog needs a few more calories than they were taking in while dieting to stay within a healthy range, it’s typically about 10 to 15 percent more than what they were fed during the weight loss plan.

While it may take some effort on your part to determine the details of this plan for your individual dog, once you get the ball rolling, establishing healthy eating habits for your dog gets easier and easier. If you stick to it, you’ll soon see the reward of your pup having higher energy, less discomfort, and a sunnier disposition overall.

Creating a Doggy Exercise Routine

As we mentioned, the key ingredient in any canine weight loss plan is to reduce the amount of calories they’re taking in. But that doesn’t mean that exercise isn’t important. Consistent exercise that’s designed with your dog’s needs and limitations in mind is a wonderful way to boost their energy levels and overall well-being.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating an exercise plan for your pup:

  • If your dog is already getting regular exercise (daily walks, playing in the yard, etc.), increase their activity level by about 25 percent. If your dog is relatively inactive, start with the American Animal Hospital Association’s recommendation of 5-minute walks 3 times daily.
  • For overweight dogs, walking is typically the best exercise to start with as it doesn’t over-stress their cardiovascular system or put too much pressure on their joints. If you have an arthritic dog, it’s important to keep all exercise low-impact as well. Read more about exercising arthritic dogs here.
  • As overweight dogs are more susceptible to overheating, be sure to exercise them during cooler times of day (morning, evening) or, if it’s very hot, in climate-controlled areas.
  • Always bring water, as well as a container for your dog to drink it from – this will also help prevent your overweight dog from overheating.
  • When you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to avoid going up or down any hills, which can put strain on your dog’s legs.
  • Make the experience enjoyable. Exercise can be a literal drag at first for an overweight dog, so do your part to make it fun. Reward your dog throughout with verbal encouragement, toys, or even low-calorie treats. As your dog progresses in their exercise plan, you can also switch up the type of exercise you do to keep them interested – try hiking in new exciting areas, playing fetch or frisbee in the park, or even swimming at the local lake or in the ocean. Just remember to keep it safe and never push your dog past their comfort level.

As your dog progresses in their weight loss plan and starts to shed the pounds, their energy level will skyrocket and exercise will turn from a chore into a joy they look forward to.

Weight Loss Tricks for Dogs Who Love to Eat

So, what about dogs that love to eat? If your dog absolutely lives for food, you may be skeptical as to whether or not you can realistically cut their calories without seriously bumming them out. Here are some of our favorite weight loss tips to keep your dog happy during their diet:

Provide extra fiber:

If you know that your dog won’t be particularly thrilled when the amount of food they’re eating gets cut by a third, consider switching to a kibble that has higher fiber content, which will allow you to give a greater volume of food overall without overdoing it on calories. You can also add low-calorie, high-fiber veggies to their meals, such as broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans, to up the volume of food without the risk of excess weight.

Provide extra water:

Choosing a food with higher water content can also help your dog feel full without packing on pounds. Canned or fresh foods tend to have more water (kibble usually has less than 10 percent water, while canned or fresh is generally 70 percent or more). You can also simply soak your dog’s kibble in water for a few minutes before feeding.

Try a special weight loss dog food:

Special foods designed for pups on a diet can be a good option for some dogs, as they typically allow for more volume with less calories. However, remember that for your dog to enjoy eating, their food has to be palatable. If you find your dog is not loving their special weight loss kibble, try canned or fresh foods designed for weight loss, as they typically have a stronger taste and smell that dogs respond to.

Change up your treat tactics:

As we mentioned, treats are a wonderful way to bond with your pet, but it may be beneficial to adjust how you give them. As an alternative to highly-processed store-bought treats, try offering baby carrots, green beans, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, or ice cubes. If you decide to give fruit, do so in limited quantities, as high sugar content can thwart your weight loss efforts. You can also break treats in half, or even smaller pieces, which gives your dog the idea that they’re getting a higher quantity of treats.

Pack on the protein:

When your dog is losing weight, you want them to shed fat, not muscle mass. Studies have shown that increasing dietary protein may help preserve muscle tissue in dogs on a weight loss plan. In addition, protein requires more energy to break down in your dog’s body than fat or carbs, which can accelerate calorie burn and keep your dog on track (which means potentially less time on a restricted diet). Find out exactly how much protein your dog needs here.

Provide natural supplements:

There’s some evidence that certain natural supplements can help keep your dog’s weight loss on track, helping to avoid you needing to further restrict food intake. For example, a high-quality Omega-3 supplement such as Flexerna contains EPA and DHA, two fatty acids which help regulate hormones linked to obesity. Other supplements which may assist in weight loss include L-carnitine, which helps mitochondria in cells use fat for energy, and herbal supplements like green tea extract or cinnamon, which may help to combat some of the effects of excess weight on insulin resistance and lowered metabolism. As always, it’s important to consult your veterinarian before adding any supplements into your dog’s diet, as well as check in with them on proper dosage.

Get the entire household on board:

It’s important to understand that your pup’s weight loss needs to be a family or household affair. Unless everyone that can potentially feed your dog is committed to helping them get to their ideal weight, extra food, stray treats, and unhealthy table scraps are going to make it into the mix and affect your dog’s daily calorie intake… and ultimately, prolong their diet. Be sure everyone knows the plan and sticks to it.

Adjust your attitude:

At the end of the day, no matter what you do, some dogs are just not going to enjoy being on a diet. It can be hard to see your beloved pup down in the dumps, and tempting to lift their spirits with extra treats or food. But here are 2 things we urge you to remember:

  1. A hungry dog is a hungry dog. For dogs that live to eat, it doesn’t matter if you feed them 1 cup of food per day or 10, they are still going to want more (Labrador Retrievers, anyone?). So you may as well feed them a healthy amount.
  2. If you stay focused on the bigger picture, you can remember that your dog is going to be healthier and happier in the long-run if you get them to their ideal weight. It will be easier for them to walk, play, breathe, and simply live without the burden of carrying excess weight. Not to mention they’ll likely enjoy a longer life, and be more likely to avoid unnecessary health problems that lead to unnecessary suffering.

Always remember that you are the #1 advocate for your dog. While they may not understand that scarfing down bowl after bowl of food makes them feel worse in the long run and puts them at greater risk for disease and a shorter lifespan, you do. It’s up to you to take steps to get them back on track for health and happiness, and if you stay within these guidelines, it’s completely within reach.