The holidays are wrapped up and we are officially in 2023. The new year is a time for setting goals and reflecting on how to better ourselves. Two of the three most popular resolutions according to Forbes are to exercise more and eat healthier. After indulging during the holidays, the start of the new year is a perfect time to reset with a clean slate. But what about our dogs?
Dangers of Dog Obesity
Owning a dog can be a good motivator for getting out of the house and being more active. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t enough for them. Dog obesity is a serious and widespread problem. Approximately 25-30% of dogs in America are obese and the Association of Pet Obesity estimates as much as 54% of pets are overweight.
Studies prove that a dog’s lifespan is significantly shortened when they are overweight. Other issues include difficulty breathing, joint inflammation and injury, as well as higher risks for cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Yet many people don’t even realize their dog is overweight. In this post, we explore common reasons for dog obesity, teach you how to tell if your dog is overweight, and provide effective ways to get your dog back to their ideal healthy weight.
Common Reasons Your Dog Is Overweight
The following is a list of common misconceptions or beliefs that I hear from dog owners when they do not realize their dog is overweight.
“My dog is always hungry”
Some dogs will gobble down their food as if they are starving. To help them feel full without adding too many calories, you can add fiber. Frozen vegetables, like broccoli, are an inexpensive way to help them feel full without adding a lot of calories.
“I feed the amount that the bag says”
The recommended feeding amount or feeding guidelines listed on your pet’s food packaging is exactly that. Pet food manufacturers estimate the best they can, but each dog is an individual. Make sure to take into consideration your dog’s stage of life, metabolism and daily exercise.
“My dog’s weight is within the breed standard”
While there are breed standards with weight ranges listed, make sure you are not trying to push your dog into that range or bulk them up. Knowing your dog’s ideal weight is important, but focus on how the body is carrying the weight instead of what the number is.
“My friends said my dog was too skinny”
I hear this one a lot— even when a dog is perfectly healthy. I think we are just so used to seeing overweight dogs that when we see a healthy dog, it looks too skinny. If your vet has not mentioned that your dog is underweight, they probably are not.
“I thought it was muscle”
This has got to be the number one misconception I hear from pet owners. I think since fat is soft on our human bodies, we expect it to be soft on dogs, but when you feel an overweight dog, it feels solid. Don’t let that fool you. It is most likely not muscle. If it is muscle, you will still be able to see and feel their waist.
How to Know If Your Dog Is Overweight
If you are unsure or have suspicions that your dog is overweight, below are a few helpful ways to help you decipher and take action.
Check your dog’s Body Condition Score (BCS)
I find a BCS chart is the easiest way to show clients where their dog currently ranks and where they need to be. There is both a five and nine point scale. I prefer the nine-point scale. See the attached graphic. Your dog’s ideal weight should be at a 4 or 5 on the scale. If you are unsure because you have a furry dog, do a rib check.
You should be able to feel each rib and each vertebrae, with minimal pressure. If you have a dog with a smooth coat or short fur, you will probably see the last floating rib when they are drinking water or smelling. That is NOT too skinny.
There are a lot of dogs that I call “sausage dogs”, meaning they have no waist. If you look down at your dog’s back and they look like a sausage, they are probably overweight. After the ribcage, there should be a waist. Since the ribcage is there to protect the organs, they should not have the same thickness from chest to tail.
Difficulty being mobile or tires easily
As your dog gets older, they will naturally slow down. If your dog is having difficulty with basic mobility at age two, that’s an issue. They could have a soft tissue injury or on the road to one. The excess weight will wreak havoc on their joints, much quicker than we might think.
Look at old photos
Check photos from when your dog was around one or two years old. If your dog has always been overweight, this might not be as helpful, but if your dog has been steadily gaining weight, it might surprise you. When I don’t see a dog for a couple years, I can see a big difference, whereas the owners can miss gradual weight gain when they see the dog every day.
There are some dogs that are picky eaters and some that will learn how to train their owners to add things to the food bowl. If you find that you are trying to entice your dog into eating, it might be better to look at changing their food instead of adding extra goodies that can quickly increase calories.
*If you have a food motivated dog that suddenly snubs food, this can be a sign that they need medical attention.
Getting Your Dog to a Healthy Weight
Here are some effective ways to get your dog back to their ideal healthy weight.
Feed a fresh, species-appropriate diet
Nutrition is the first thing I look at when helping a dog lose weight. You might be surprised when you read the ingredients on a bag of kibble or treats. Even prescription “weight loss” kibbles often contain fillers like legumes, starches and grains.
It is always best to feed fresh food instead of processed kibble, but this is not an option for everyone. There are many options for balanced pre-made raw, gently cooked, dehydrated or freeze dried pet food.
So many choices can quickly become overwhelming. To get help, I advise going to your local small business pet store and tell them about your dog, your budget and any dietary needs. If it is not financially feasible to get away from kibble, focus on ingredients, their sourcing and check out our blog on how to add fresh food to a kibble diet.
Do not free feed
If your dog is overweight, you should stop free feeding or leaving their food out. It is easier to measure and control the amount they are eating when you have feeding times set. Leaving food out for a dog that grazes, is not necessarily a bad thing, but make sure you are not topping off the bowl. The fats in kibble will go rancid, so you do want to throw it away and start fresh every day.
Adjust feeding amount when activity level changes
Different dogs will have different activity levels depending on weather and time of year. A husky, for example, will be more active in winter than summer. Check their BCS and make sure your dog doesn’t lose their waist. You can increase and decrease their caloric intake based on how much exercise they are getting.
Check for food sensitivities
You might be feeding your dog the correct amount of food, but if they have issues breaking down some of the ingredients, they can still be overweight. This can be caused by inflammation and leaky gut. Always read the ingredients. Steer clear of legumes, starches, grains, and by-products. There are also at home food sensitivity tests you can order online. Remember sourcing is also very important and look for Human Grade ingredients.
Test the thyroid
Hypothyroidism is linked to dog obesity. Starting at one year old, it is a good habit to test your dog’s thyroid annually. There are different tests, so if your vet only sends out for a T4, you might want to look into a more thorough test.
If your dog is overweight or obese, exercise can be difficult and even unsafe. Many dog breeds will “play through the pain” and you might not even know if they pull a muscle while running. Be especially careful while playing fetch. If your dog has a tendency to run past the ball, try not to play in wet grass where they can easily pull or tear a ligament.
Swimming is a much safer activity to help a dog lose weight, while also keeping the joints and soft tissue protected. If your dog doesn’t like to swim, look into a rehabilitation center that has an underwater treadmill.
Make sure that any increase in your dog’s exercise routine is implemented gradually.
Core exercises, body work, and chiro
I am a true believer in all of the above. All four of my dogs get regular chiro adjustments and body work. If your dog looks stiff when walking or running from behind, I advise finding a good integrated vet that offers chiro and visceral manipulation. You can learn how to do bodywork and core exercises at home, but make sure you are doing so under guidance of a qualified professional.
As simple as it sounds. If you are trying to get your dog to lose weight, don’t forget how quickly calories can add up with snacks and treats. Opt for veggies, fruits or dehydrated organs instead of processed foods or treats made with sugar, salt and binders.
Living Their Best Life
As pet owners, we all want the same thing for our dogs: to give them the best life possible. Our pups already leave us too soon, but with awareness and a few simple changes, we do have the power to extend and increase the quality of their lives.
Disclaimer: This article is not medical advice. Any dog weight loss plans should be discussed with your vet or canine nutritionist