Tackling Dog Obesity

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

Did you know that in 2019, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association confirmed that approximately 51% of dogs and 44% of cats are overweight or obese? That’s a whopping great big percentage of the pet population that are piling on the pounds! You might think your fur-baby is rather cute when he’s a bit chubby, but there are some major health implications to being overweight. So now is as good a time as ever to fight the flab, and get your pet in shape! 

What is Obesity?

Obesity is the extreme end of overweight. It isn’t possible for your pet get fatter than obese. So, if they’ve reached that point, then some major life changes need to come their way. 

Being overweight or obese is a result of an accumulation of excess body fat. Not only does the excess weight make it hard to get active, but it also puts strain on your pet’s internal organs and significantly reduces their lifespan.

Alex German, Professor of Small Animal Medicine at the University of Liverpool says ‘Obesity is one of the most common diseases we currently face but it’s a major issue that we DON’T TALK ABOUT. It’s an uncomfortable topic wrapped in prejudice and blame.’ 

But why is it so uncomfortable to talk about? Your furry friend certainly isn’t bashful about his rolls, so let’s tackle this head on and talk about how to get your pet fit and trim!

How is Obesity Measured?

So, how do you tell if your pup (or kitty) is overweight? It’s not quite as simple as sticking him on the scales. Dog and cat breeds vary significantly in size. A chihuahua shouldn’t weigh the same as a Labrador, and a Devon Rex is never going to be the same weight as a Maine Coon. Even within the breeds, there is genetic variation, so a 20kg Springer Spaniel could either be skinny or obese depending on the build of their parents and the genetics they have passed on.

Did you know 46% of owners judge their pet’s weight by simply looking at it? Well, that’s certainly a good place to start. But a major problem is that they are covered in hair, and that can be deceiving. A shaggy Golden Retriever might look in pretty good condition, but it’s not until you put your hands on him that you feel he’s not at all how he looks. The good news is, there is a scientifically-verified, easily repeatable way to measure your dog’s weight, and that is known as ‘body condition scoring’.

Body condition scoring is a method of judging your pet’s weight on a scale of one to nine, where the score of five is ideal. The closer to nine your fur-baby is, the more overweight or obese he is.

Check out these downloadable charts from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association detailing how to assess your dog or cat’s body condition score:

Dog Chart

Cat Chart

So, how did your pet score? Is it time for him to tackle the world of dieting? Let’s start by understanding why your pet is overweight in the first place and why it’s important to get your pet in good shape. 

Why is My Dog Obese?

If your furry friend is a little bit plump, you’re certainly not alone. You might not have even realised until now. The key to getting the weight off him is understanding why it’s there in the first place.

The most common reason for a pet to be overweight is because they are neutered. This is because a neutered animal’s metabolism is slower, so they need less calories to get through their daily life. Many owners don’t realise this and continue feeding their pets exactly the same way as before their surgery. 

Other times, pets become obese because they are simply getting fed too much food. Maybe you don’t measure the daily amount of kibble you pop in the bowl, or maybe those puppy-dog eyes persuade you to give far too many titbits. Those calories have to come from somewhere! Since many pets are highly food driven, it is so easy to give them affection by giving them treats, but actually this act of love is not always loving their body.

Occasionally, obesity is due to a medical problem. But this is the exception, and not the rule. Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and Cushing’s disease (a condition affecting the adrenal glands) can lead to your pet putting on weight despite being fed very few calories. But they are uncommon in dogs, and extremely rare in cats, and you would notice other clinical symptoms too, so don’t immediately jump to this as the cause. 

What Health Problems Can Obesity Cause?

Approximately 67% of owners are not concerned about obesity, but it’s important to think about the troubling stuff too. Even though your pet might not give two hoots about whether or not they are overweight, ensuring they feel fit and healthy, and live a long life is a gift of love that you can give them. At times it will be hard, but in the long run it is the best. This is because obesity can lead to all these conditions:

  • Joint degeneration and osteoarthritis
  • Back pain
  • Difficulty breathing from tracheal collapse and laryngeal collapse
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Difficulty breathing for brachycephalic (flat-nosed) breeds
  • Tumours
  • Hyperthermia and heatstroke

Feeling the need to do something about your furry friend’s weight now? Read on to find out how to shed that weight.

How Do I Put My Dog on a Diet?

Dieting doesn’t have to be complicated. But it can be difficult to know where to start, and unfortunately there are a lot of unhelpful opinions out there.

First thing’s first, chat to your vet. If you don’t know what your dog’s target weight is, then how do you know when to stop the diet? Your vet will be able to assign a body condition score to your pet, and work out what he should weigh if he was at a body condition score of five.

As a guideline, each body condition score equates to 10% of the body weight. However, each dog is slightly different, so his weight and score should be continually assessed throughout the diet. This table demonstrates what that means if your dog should be weighing 20kg:

– 10% – 10% – 10% – 10% Ideal + 10%  + 10%  + 10%  + 10% 
12kg 14kg 16kg 18kg 20kg 22kg 24kg 26kg 28kg
BCS 1 BCS 2 BCS 3 BCS 4 BCS 5 BCS 6 BCS 7 BCS 8 BCS 9

So now you know what weight you should aim for, how do you get there? There are several ways you can put your pet on a diet. Some will work better for some, others better for others. But our top pick is first:

  • The #1 way to get your dog to lose weight: Change the food to a high satiety diet. We all hate the hunger cramps which come from food restriction, and your pet will too. If you cut the food, expect him to start begging, or even worse, stealing. But high satiety diets will prevent this. They are low in calories, but high in fibre, resulting in him feeling fuller for longer, while receiving less calories than before.
  • Feed the same food, but based on his ideal weight: Since you know what your pet should weigh, check out the packaging for the feeding directions on the back. Work out how many grams of food he should receive if he was his ideal weight, and measure it out daily every morning. You can then split this into the number of meals he eats. If you want to give a treat, remember to pop a bit back in the bag, or give a bit of the food from his daily ration as a treat. Don’t forget, treats equals calories!
  • Work out your pet’s daily calorie needs – This can be a bit complicated, and you might need to ask for the help of your vet or nutritionist to figure it out. By calculating your pet’s resting energy requirement (RER) this ensures you are giving him enough calories for his body to function, but you are not adding more for the activities he’s doing, resulting in him losing weight. It can be calculated by multiplying the animal’s body weight in kilograms raised to the ¾ power by 70. So, a 10kg adult neutered dog of healthy weight needs RER = 70(10kg)3/4 ≈ 400 Calories/day. Now, looking at the packaging of your pet’s food, you can work out how many grams provide that many calories.

Accountability is a major key to success! So, make sure your vet is on board, and regularly swing by the veterinary clinic to put your pet on the scales. This way, you have a medical professional also tracking your pet’s weight to make sure the kilos are coming off and that he is staying healthy in his journey of doing so. Weight loss is not a race. Too quick, and it can put a strain on the internal organs, much like too much weight can do also. This is why it’s a good idea to stay in close contact with your vet.

How Much Exercise Should My Pet Get?

So, is diet the answer? Well it certainly accounts for the majority of weight loss, but upping the calories burned by your pet will also help your fur-child lose some weight. The amount of exercise needed will depend on the species, breed, age and health issues of your pet, and vary from individual to individual. 

Increasing your pet’s exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take them out for a run every day. You certainly can increase the length of their walks, make it more strenuous, or take them out an extra time daily. But it can also mean playing fetch in the garden with your dog, or bringing out the laser pointer for your cat to chase. It doesn’t necessarily require you to leave the home.

Check out our article on exercise to learn more about how much exercise your pet should get. 

How Do I Prevent Obesity?

Maybe your pet isn’t actually obese, or even overweight, but you’d like to prevent it. Or maybe you have managed to get your pet to an ideal weight through hard work dieting and exercise. Now, how do you prevent obesity from happening (again)?

It’s really quite simple. Firstly, don’t feed your pet too much. Just because the packaging of the food says your pet needs a certain amount of food per day, doesn’t mean he actually does. This is just an average figure. Weigh your pet regularly, and if you see his weight creeping up, alter the amount of food he gets daily, until he can maintain a steady weight. But this can only be done if you are measuring his food. You’ll be surprised how inaccurate a handful of dry food is. Even a cup of food will vary from cup to cup. Ideally, you should use a kitchen scale, and weigh his food daily.

Secondly, remember that treats contain calories. If you want to treat your dog, remove some food from his daily intake to ensure his overall daily calorie consumption stays the same. A dog which has had their fair share of gravy bones throughout the day won’t need as much dinner – no matter if they tell you differently!

Finally, do your research before buying a pet. Don’t buy a dog that requires two hours exercise a day if you have a small garden and have no time to take them on walks. There are plenty of dog breeds which will suffice with a half an hour walk around the block or less to stay fit. These breeds will be better suited to your lifestyle.

Take Home Message

So now you know how to judge your pet’s weight, and a few tricks to help him shed those extra kilos. While he might not thank you for it immediately, keeping your pet trim will provide him with plenty of extra healthy years, which in the end is a gift worth fighting for.