Obese and overweight dogs: how can we help them?
overweight dogs like this pug can suffer severe health problems
Is your dog overweight?

The number of overweight dogs is rising and poses the same health problems as it does for humans.

'My dog is getting fat,' and the subsequent 'my dog is fat' are popular phrases every dog owner feels conflicted about, but many owners ignore. Whether it's an overweight Labrador or porky Pug, any adult dog or puppy can be overweight if their calories and activity aren't adequately monitored.

Unfortunately, it often takes a trip to the vet before owners realize the health consequences for an obese dog and take action. Is there a diet for overweight dogs, what is 'overweight' dog food, and how do you help your dog shave off extra pounds?

Nutrition and exercise are critical. The challenge dog owners face is deciphering facts from fiction regarding canine weight loss and nutrition. Just as with human diets, there are many fad diets out there, and there is also a lot of misinformation. What is real, healthy, and actually works? Well, let's take a closer look at the problem.

How to tell if you have an overweight dog

four pictures of dogs ranging from skinny to overweight dogs
An illustration of the difference between dogs that are a healthy weight and overweight dogs

Before you do anything, make sure that your dog's weight presents a health risk. The final verdict should be made by your vet, but here are some key indicators according to the American Kennel Club:

  • First, take a look at your pup from above. A noticeably rounded shape is a strong indicator that your dog is overweight. A healthy dog should have a defined waist and be relatively straight along the sides.
  • It should be easy to feel a fit dog's ribs. While they should not stick out (Unless you have a Greyhound or a Whippet), you should still be able to feel them by prodding the ribcage. If not, your dog is possibly overweight.
  • Your dog's belly should curve upward toward the spine from the rib cage. The amount that the abdomen is raised varies greatly between breeds, but no dog's tummy should sag so that it is even with the ribs.
  • Overweight dogs may have 'fat pads.' These are fat sacks between their legs that wiggle when they walk.
  • Different breeds have different energy levels. That said, a drop in energy, even in a low-energy dog, can be a sign of them being unfit and overweight.
  • Suppose your dog has difficulty breathing and presents other symptoms on this list. In that case, there may be a connection indicating a severe weight problem.

Why not just weigh your dog?

You can weigh your dog to determine if it is overweight, but this is a bit trickier as an indicator of weight-related problems. Breed guides will tell you that a specific dog should weigh between two given weight points, but this is only a general guideline since a dog’s frame can differ dramatically within the same breed.

Nevertheless, a good weight for a dog will depend on its own individual build. An English Bull Terrier can easily weigh as much as a dog twice its height since they carry more muscle for their size than any other breed.

Similarly, some dogs with naturally broad fronts and big chests, such as Mastiffs or American Bullies, are often mistaken for being muscled when they are actually overweight dogs. This means each dog needs to be correctly evaluated for excess fat according to their individual build.

What happens if my dog is fat?

95% of dog owners don't realize their dog is fat. This is a severe problem because the health ramifications can be serious. Consider this list of the most common health risks for obese dogs:

  • Osteoarthritis, especially in the hip
  • Orthopedic issues, cranial cruciate ligament injuries
  • Heart and Respiratory Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Skin problems
  • Heart problems
  • Joint problems
  • Kidney disease
  • Canine arthritis
  • Certain cancers
  • Liver problems
  • Mobility issues
  • Breathing problems
  • High blood pressure

If these ailments weren't enough, obesity decreases a dog's life expectancy by up to two and a half years (that excludes the risks associated with other health issues that may arise).

Furthermore, the problem is becoming an epidemic. An eye-watering 59% of cats and 54% of dogs in the US were diagnosed as overweight or obese in 2016.

Health consequences for different life stages

Puppies

In small and medium-sized breeds, puppy obesity usually leads to weight problems in adulthood. This can lead to an increased likelihood of health complications such as diabetes or pancreatitis.

In larger breeds, puppy obesity can have serious consequences, including abnormal skeletal development. It can also severely pressure their joints and exacerbate any problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia, thus drastically decreasing their quality of life.

Aside from the immediate risks, an overweight puppy runs a higher risk of developing many of the weight-related conditions associated with obesity in its adult life.

Adult overweight dogs

In adult dogs, we see the risks of weight problems and obesity more prominently. For instance, an adult dog is more prone to pancreatic issues when they are overweight.

This is because of a change in the glucose response, a factor in diabetes mellitus.

We won't go into detail about every risk we have listed above. Still, many, like joint disorders and heart and respiratory diseases, are potentially life-threatening. Even if an overweight or obese dog has not yet developed anything life-threatening, its overall quality of life is affected.

An obese dog cannot chase after a ball, go for a run on a beach, or fully enjoy many of the enriching activities a dog should be able to enjoy. They are also more at risk of environmental stressors, such as heat stroke on a hot day.

Senior overweight dogs

An older dog may face a higher risk of obesity. Naturally decreasing energy levels play a significant role in this. Older dogs face all the same health risks from obesity as adult dogs do.

There are additional concerns. Older dogs may suffer from several joint conditions. Some may be very mild and manageable in a fit dog but could be severely aggravated by the dog being overweight.

As a dog grows older and its metabolism slows down, so does its need for calories. In general, a senior dog usually needs 30 - 40% fewer calories than its younger counterparts. This is why diets for older dogs need to be specially formulated and carefully monitored.

The causes of overweight dogs

A pug excited at the prospect of a dog biscuit
Treats should never form more than 10% of a dog’s diet

Just as with humans, there is no single cause that one can identify as the primary culprit for a dog being overweight or obese. There are dietary factors, exercise considerations, and genetic causes.

There are a lot of tools available to a dog owner to help manage a dog's weight. To understand how to help them, we must look at the leading causes of weight gain in dogs:

1. Low nutrient, high-calorie diets and overweight dogs

high-calorie, nutrient foods lead to overweight dogs. Like this French Bulldog between two packets of French fries
Highly processed foods can be almost as bad for dogs as human junk food

Studies have shown a clear connection between low nutrient, high-calorie diets, and obesity in dogs. This is not surprising, or news since the same principle applies to humans.

This problem is common when feeding your dog kibble. Kibble with a low nutritional value will leave your dog feeling hungry more often.

This also ties in with the problem of high glycemic indexes in processed dog food. While there is not enough research on pets to establish the effects of highly processed foods on blood glucose levels and insulin resistance, there is plenty done on humans.

The little preliminary research suggests that dogs who eat processed food with a high glycemic index have a lower response to their body's insulin. This indicates that they have more of a problem regulating their blood glucose levels.

Highly processed foods may be giving your dog blood sugar "spikes" followed by dangerous drops. This may leave them even more hungry and desensitize them to insulin.

Since almost a quarter of pet owners admit to overfeeding their pet to keep them happy and about half will feed their pet if they beg, a pattern of behavior may be emerging here.

Regardless, highly processed foods also remove essential nutrients from the food, which have to be put back artificially. Little research confirms how bioavailable the nutrients are when they have been replaced this way. However, the calories certainly remain.

Thus, most dogs are not getting all the nutrients they need. Combined with a high caloric value, it is a sure-fire path to weight problems and obesity.

Overfeeding and overweight dogs

This ties into the previous point. We are not always as clued-up on the nutritional contents of processed dog foods and snacks as we would like. Pet food guidelines on feeding quantities are at best very broad. What is needed is a specific feeding recommendation for your individual pet for the specific food formulation you have chosen. Overeating by even 15% for every meal will eventually lead to overweight pets.

This presents a risk of overfeeding. Surely, if your dog is clearly still hungry, they have not eaten enough? However, it is not always the case.

Ultimately, your dog should not be the one that decides how much food they eat. They simply cannot be responsible for regulating their own caloric intake. Like us, most dogs are programmed to eat as much as possible whenever they can. The difference is, dogs cannot feed themselves. It is up to us to make sure they don't overeat. Ideally, they should eat two meals a day in the right quantities.

However, remember it is not just a case of eating less. Pets still need to meet their daily nutrient requirements, so choosing a high-nutrient, low-calorie diet is critical.

Imbalanced diets

Getting your dog's diet just right can be tricky. The modern pet food industry is not all that moral, particularly when it comes to their claims about the nutritional value of their products.

An imbalanced diet, one with a high-calorie count, is detrimental to your dog's overall health. It deprives them of what they really need to be well-fed, fit, and happy.

Not enough exercise

overweight dogs may struggle with mobility issues, like this mixed breed that will often sit rather than stand.
overweight dogs may struggle with mobility issues

It is essential to consult your vet on the appropriate amount of exercise for your dog. A dog that generally performs below its expected energy levels is more at risk of weight gain and obesity. It's the old adage, "calories in; calories out."

The majority of overweight dogs are simply not getting enough exercise to burn off the calories they ingest. And, as a pet becomes overweight, their energy levels drop so the problem compounds itself,

Many owners think a short walk around the block is fine for a Labrador or German Shepherd. Some working breeds, in particular, are chronically under-exercised.

Sled dogs like the Husky are literally able to adjust their metabolism to cover long distances for hours. Border Collies and Belgian Malinoises were bred to be able to work for hours on end. An hour at the dog park does not suffice for these breeds. And the lack of sufficient exercise leads to behavior problems as much as it leads to obesity.

On the other hand, lower energy breeds are even more at risk. Many Bulldogs and Neapolitan Mastiffs are often unlikely to push their owners to go for a walk and seem happy to snooze most of the day. While this is convenient for owners, it contributes to a chronic lack of exercise.

What starts out as a slight weight problem can quickly spiral as your dog's energy levels continue to drop as its weight goes up.

More than likely, it is not just one of these factors that have caused your dog to gain weight. And while there are medical issues such as hypothyroidism that can contribute to the problem, these are usually the main culprits.

What's the cure for overweight dogs?

  • High nutrient, low-calorie foods. Simply put, highly processed foods will tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients, while unprocessed foods usually have lower calories and more nutrients. Also avoid misleading 'prescription products.' You can use Pet Assistant's food comparison toll to help you identify the best food for your dog, according to your budget.
  • Stop overfeeding your dog. You can work with Pet Assistant’s veterinary nutritionists to create a customized feeding guideline. Check out our food comparison and advice on feeding guidelines here.
  • Getting enough exercise. Your dog needs to get sufficient exercise, and not only for their current energy levels. You need to build on their exercise routine until it is in line with your vet's recommendation for their age, weight, and breed.
  • Regular mealtimes. Like humans, regular mealtimes are essential for regulating metabolism and promoting healthy weight loss in dogs. Avoid snacks.
  • Free feeding has many cons. In overweight dogs, it is a no-no.

How do I exercise my fat dog for weight loss?

overweight dogs can struggle to play, which can affect their quality of life

This depends on how overweight your dog is. A slightly porky puppy should be OK with a regular exercise routine appropriate for the breed.

Such exercise includes walks, play, and sports such as agility. Each depends on your dog, its size, age, and what the breed is best suited to.

In puppies, the general rule of thumb is that most exercise should come naturally from play. Structured exercise, such as loose walking on a lead, can be done for five minutes, twice a day, for every month of age.

Therefore, a four-month-old puppy should be able to go for a gentle walk for twenty minutes twice a day. If the puppy is severely overweight, cut this time in half and gently build up to gain fitness and lose weight.

For an aging dog, exercise needs to be gentle to avoid unnecessary stress on their joints. This will mean short walks multiple times a day. If possible, introducing some light swimming can help them burn off calories without putting strain on their joints.

In severe cases of obesity with adult dogs, you will also need to start with swimming and short walks. Swimming is a low-impact exercise and will help prevent joint strain and damage in extremely overweight dogs.

You don't want to push an overweight dog too hard; this can pose entirely new health risks. Always consult your vet when planning your dog's exercise routine.

In general, you want to aim to get your dog close to the recommended amount of exercise appropriate for their breed. This can differ wildly. For toy breeds, it can mean a 30-minute walk, supplemented with playtime throughout the day.

Terriers are more energetic and will benefit from sports like agility or earth dog trials. They will also do well on moderate hikes. Breeds with a lot of muscle mass like Pit Bulls or Cane Corsos are not necessarily made for long-distance running. But they benefit from short bursts of high-intensity workouts such as weight-pulling or wall climbing.

Herding dogs such as Collies or Heelers need a lot of activity for their minds and bodies. This may include running, hiking, long games of fetch, or sports like agility or herding trials. Similarly, working dogs like the Belgian Malinois or gun dogs like the Weimaraner or Vizsla need at least two hours a day of moderate to intense exercise, as do sled dogs such as the Canadian Eskimo Dog or any kind of Husky.

What do I feed my dog for weight loss?

A high nutrient, low-calorie diet is usually the best way to go. Avoid any processed foods like kibble and canned pet foods.

A natural, raw diet of primarily lean meats is a good option. This diet can include raw eggs and certain vegetables, along with a few whole grains. It is a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Certain premixes added to the raw diet can help you ensure that the diet has all the vitamins and minerals a dog needs.

If raw food seems a little intimidating, there are also great fresh cooked diets or even dehydrated human-grade food that can be just as nutritious, tasty, and help your dog lose weight.

Be careful to establish how many calories your dog should get daily and stick to it religiously, whether you are feeding raw or not.

Studies have shown that this diet aids in effective and healthy weight loss. One study showed that the diet can have noticeable results in as little as four weeks.

How much, and how often do I feed my dog to help them lose weight?

Every weight loss plan has its own guidelines. The quantity of food depends on its nutritional value. Most animals don't require any specific mass of food, and most dogs need less food than you think.

In general, it is all about the amount of nutrition available in that mass. Follow trustworthy nutritional guidelines.

To begin with, you can make use of the Pet Assistant food calculator and our nutritionists to help you establish your dog's healthy target weight. The diet should help your dog lose about 3 - 5% of their body weight per month until they reach their goal weight.

If you are transitioning to a new diet, it should take about a week to move from their old food to the new food. You need to gradually replace their old diet with the new one to avoid any sudden digestive troubles during this time.

Other tips include:

  • Cut out snacks and table scraps.
  • Carefully control your dog's portions so that they don't get more calories than they need
  • Try cutting back on carbohydrates and increasing proteins. But remember, "grain-free" does not mean carb-free since grain-free diets can contain as many carbohydrates as any other dog food.
  • Add more fiber to your dog's diet to help them feel full.
  • Make sure they have plenty of water to drink.
  • Space out the day's food. Feeding your dog two meals per day works for most dogs.
ExerciseNutritionOverweight dogs