Obesity in dogs is on the rise. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs are overweight or obese. This is a figure that has increased by 158% over the past 10 years.
Sadly, statistics have emerged identifying that the lifespan of obese pets is cut shorter, on average, by 2.5 years. Obesity is also a risk factor for a host of other chronic health conditions including but not limited to:
- Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
Obese dogs are also at higher risk for health complications related to their decreased heat tolerance.
The reasons a dog may be overweight or obese are many and varied and you might be surprised to learn that not all of these are diet related. These can include genetic and hormonal reasons as well as a lack of physical activity in addition to their diet.
However, diet is a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic in our dogs. Feeding too much food, the wrong type of food to suit the needs of the dog, or a diet with unknown calories may lead to a dog gaining weight over time.
In addition to the food being fed, type and amount, it’s easy for pet owners to forget that treats contain calories and still feed their dog their full daily meals without accounting for how many treats they may be receiving each day.
Homemade diets and feeding a diet heavy in table scraps can be a risk in the development of weight problems because unless a diet has been formulated by an expert in pet nutrition, it’s impossible to know how many calories is in every meal.
Common non-dietary risk factors for obesity include genetics, breed, lack of physical activity and hormones. For example, de-sexed dogs are more than twice as likely to be obese compared to entire animals. Of course, this is not a reason to ignore the importance of de-sexing our pets, but to note that after being de-sexed you may find you need to decrease the amount of food you are feeding your dog if they start to gain weight.
But how can I tell if my pet is overweight?
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has created a Body Condition Score chart to help you and your chosen veterinary specialist, assess your dog’s weight and if they are in the healthy range or not.
You can find a copy of this document here: https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Body-Condition-Score-Dog.pdf
If your pet has a long coat and you can’t easily see their body condition, feeling their ribs can help you determine their weight. Their ribs should be able to be felt with a thin covering of fat, but this fat should not prevent you from being able to easily feel their ribs. The best way to describe this feeling is your dog’s ribs should feel like the knuckles on the back of your hand, when your palm is open on a flat surface. If you turn your hand over and feel the same spot on the bottom of your hand, you will feel the covering is much thicker; this is not what your dog’s ribs should feel like and if they do, they may be overweight.
If you suspect your dog may be overweight, then it’s a good idea to take them to your vet for an assessment. Your vet will be able to give them a general health check and advise you if your dog is in a healthy weight range or not. They may even be able to assist you in putting together a weight loss plan for your dog.
Because there are varied reasons your pet may be overweight, there is no clear weight loss plan that works for 100% of pets, 100% of the time, but some of the things to consider are:
- Their breed – Some breeds are more predisposed to weight gain than others.
- Their age – As pets age, their metabolism slows, and they do not need as many calories as they used to.
- Their activity level – Also as pets age, they become less active. As their energy levels drop, they need more rest and sleep, or may have age-related diseases developing such as arthritis which may make exercise painful, this natural slowing down also means they don’t need the calorie-rich diet they did when they were younger.
- The food they are being fed – The dietary needs of pets change throughout the course of their life and their diet should change accordingly. Our dogs should be eating the appropriate complete and balanced diet for their life-stage and treats should be used responsibly.
- The treats they are being given – Unfortunately, treats are not calorie free and should be used for training and rewards in an appropriate manner. Also consider where else treats may be coming from. Some dogs are extraordinarily food motivated and may be using those puppy dog eyes to convince neighbours or friends to give them food in addition to what you are already feeding them at home.
So, what do you do if your vet has confirmed your suspicions that you have an overweight dog? When it comes to weight loss, do go slowly with decreases in food and increases in exercise. Weight loss should be a gentle and considered process. You’re aiming for weight loss of about 3-5% of your dog’s bodyweight per month until they reach their target weight. Losing weight too quickly can be dangerous for your pet, so don’t put them on a crash diet or start exercising them for hours every day. This is another important reason to consult with a vet or nutrition expert as part of your pet’s weight loss journey.
Your vet or nutrition expert will help you calculate your dog’s ideal weight, their required daily caloric intake, and the decrease in calories they will require as part of their overall weight loss journey as well as an appropriate exercise program for their breed and age.
When feeding dogs who need to lose weight, the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia recommends sticking with commercially prepared foods with clear energy information found on the label, so you know what is in each meal from a calorie perspective. Steering clear of homemade diets where calories may fluctuate and are unknown, as well as avoiding feeding table scraps will be an important part of knowing what your dog is consuming and being able to control this as part of their weight loss plan. A commercially made dog food will also ensure that your dog is getting the nutrition they need to keep them healthy, while calories are being restricted as part of their weight loss plan.
- Salt, C, Morris, PJ, Wilson, D, Lund, EM, German, AJ. Association between life span and body condition in neutered client-owned dogs. J Vet Intern Med. 2019; 33: 89– 99. https://doi.org/10.1111/jvim.15367