Saturday, December 11, 2010

My dog is not fat!! Or is she?

Pet obesity is a rapidly growing problem in the US.  In fact, many people don’t realize their dog is overweight and vets often don’t bring the issue up until a dog is obese.  This is unfortunate since recognizing the problem early definitely helps.  Catching Fluffy when she has just a couple of pounds to lose is a lot easier than trying to make her the doggy-version of a “Biggest Loser” contestant.

How do you recognize when your dog is overweight?  Especially if you have a long coated or fluffy pooch, this can be a challenge.  Over and over again, I hear people say, “My dog’s not fat!  She’s fluffy!” or some variation on this theme.  While I realize no one wants to hear that their dog is overweight, there is an objective way of assessing your pet’s “body condition score”.  Scientists use a five point scale where 1 is an emaciated animal while a body condition score of 5 is obese (some references use a 9 point scale which more precise).  This basic scale can be found on the back of the bag of many brands of dog food.  Here is a link to a commonly used body condition scoring chart:  Your goal is a body condition score of 3 on the five point scale.  (On a 9 point scale, a score of 4-5 is ideal.) 

At a body condition score of 3, your dog’s ribs should be easy to feel but not visible.  Also, she should have a defined waist when viewed from above as well as from the side.  If you have a hard time feeling your dog’s ribs, she does not have a well defined waist when viewed from the side or top, or she has paddings of fat along the back and at the base of the tail, you will want to get some weight off of her.  I always handle my dogs to make sure I am assessing their body condition objectively before I make a decision about their weight.

Remember that “just a couple of pounds” can be a big deal for a small dog.  Pip Squeak should ideally weigh 25 pounds but at 27 pounds – just two pounds overweight – she is carrying an extra 8% of her ideal body weight.  That is equivalent to a 150 pound person carrying an extra 12 pounds.  If I let her pork up to 30 pounds (which can happen surprisingly quickly!) she is carrying an extra 20% of her ideal weight.  This is equivalent to a 150 pound person carrying an extra 30 pounds.  This excess weight takes a toll on your dog.  Excess weight puts stress on your dog’s joints increasing her risk of joint injury while worsening symptoms of osteoarthritis and hip displasia.  It also puts stress on the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys while causing respiratory problems in hot weather and increasing the risk of diabetes.

There are several steps you can take to help your dog lose weight.  The first and easiest thing to do is make sure you are measuring her food.  Don’t just pour kibble into her bowl or use a scoop – actually measure it with a standard measuring cup.  Read the guidelines on the back of the dog food back and make sure you are feeding the amount recommended for her *ideal weight*.  Feed the recommended amount for several weeks and check her body condition again.  If she isn’t losing weight, you can cut her ration by a quarter to a third.  In my experience, most dog food manufacturers recommend feeding more than most dogs actually need.  I usually wind up feeding about 2/3 to ¾ of the recommended amounts.  You can bulk up her diet with the addition of canned greenbeans or plain pumpkin.  Both of these foods are very low in calories but will add fiber and volume to help her feel fuller.

Secondly, cut out treats and snacks and replace them with affection and playtime.  Treats can add up calories very quickly, especially for small dogs.  If fed according to package directions, a 20 pound dog on Purina One Lamb and Rice will only be ingesting about 576 calories per day.  It will only take a couple of treats to add up to 50 calories or an increase of 10% of her daily caloric intake.  This can be the difference between her maintaining versus gaining weight.  Cleaning up your dinner plate may quickly have her packing on the pounds. 

Pip Squeak is constantly battling her weight.  (Okay Pip doesn’t care at all, I’m constantly battling her weight for her!)  When Pip is getting treats for training purposes, I measure out all her dog food at the beginning of the day and use it for training.  What’s left at the end of the day is what goes in her bowl for dinner.  If I need higher value treats, I will substitute a semi-moist dog food roll product like Pet Botanics rolled dog food ( for a portion of her regular ration. 

Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise.  Do whatever you and your dog enjoy but get her moving several times a day.  Focus on low impact exercise like walking.  Interestingly enough, I find that letting my dogs run around all day at the dog sitters is not as effective as taking them for a nice long walk.  So get off the couch and take your dog for a walk - several miles each day will make a difference.  A long steady state walk will help her drop the weight in a way that sprinting after a tennis ball for 10 or 15 minutes at a time won’t.  If your dog is overweight and out of shape, make sure you ease into the exercise slowly starting with 10 or 15 minutes of walking and gradually add from there.  Avoid high impact activities that will put a lot of strain on her joints like jumping and turning until after she has lost weight.  Sending an overweight, out-of-shape dog chasing after a tennis ball is a recipe for a joint injury.

Finally, if all else fails try a weight control dog food.  I used to poo poo the idea of weight control dog food but nothing else seemed to help Pip lose weight.  If you feed too little of a normal ration, your dog will feel constantly hungry and may not get the amount of nutrients that she needs.  Nutrient deficiencies are not only detrimental to your dog’s health, it can also cause joint pain and prevent her from losing weight.  If you are feeding less than 2/3 of the recommended ration for your dog’s ideal weight, ask your vet whether you should consider a weight control formulation. 

A weight control dog food allows you to feed a higher volume of food and will provide the recommended amount of nutrients in a less calorically-dense package.  When reading the ingredients list on weight control food, remember that there are likely to be high-fiber fillers in these foods.  These fillers help to increase bulk without adding a lot of calories.  Make the transition to a weight control formula slowly just like you would any other food transition. 

Make sure you read the bag carefully though and realize that there are inconsistencies between formulas and manufacturers.  I was reading labels this morning and 1 cup of Authority Weight Management provides 318 calories versus 384 calories in 1 cups of Purina One Lamb and Rice.  However, the Authority recommends feeding 1 ¾ c for a 20 pound dog for weight loss while the Purina One recommends 1 ½ c for a 20 pound dog.  This means that if you fed according to package directions, you would actually be feeding almost as many calories with the weight control formula as the Purina One formula.  (Authority Weight Control 1 ¾ c * 318 cal = 556 cal; Purina One Lamb and Rice 1 ½ c * 384 cal = 576)  Package recommendations are just that – recommendations.  You may need to adjust up or down to meet the needs of your individual dog. 

Manufacturers are not required to list the calories per unit volume in their food – only kcal/kg.  This can be confusing since foods are not equally dense but most of us feed by volume rather than weight.  Some manufacturers will provide kcal/cup but if they don’t, you may need to do some figuring to compare foods directly.  Carefully measure out a cup of dog food and weigh it (or convert the weight) in grams.  Divide the kcal/kg value by 1000 (to convert it to kcal/g) and then multiply that number by the weight of a cup of food in grams to get the kcal/cup.  This will allow you to compare calories per cup of food from one manufacturer or formulation to another.   

Each time you change some aspect of your dog’s diet, wait a couple of weeks to see how she responds before giving up or making another change.  Even though it can be challenging, helping your dog lose weight will protect her joints and health in the long term.  Remember the key steps: make sure you are consistently measuring her food, eliminate extra snacks and treats, increase low impact exercise and, if all else fails, try a weight control dog food.  Once she has hit her ideal weight, you will want to increase her feeding ration slightly (probably by about 10%) to maintain her new, svelte figure.


  1. Fabulous article here! I'm lucky to have a vet who has always stayed on top of our dogs' weight! Peanut still has a pound to go, but she's doing great! Now, if I can just get up the oomph to take them out in the cold! lol! It's not them, it's me who doesn't want to be out there!

  2. Excellent article! As a small animal veterinarian, I see pets overweight much more frequently than I should, and as you pointed out, this creates serious health problems such as joint disease, heart disease and diabetes. I have two additional comments to the wonderful information provided above. First, kcal information is often not listed on the dog food bag, but I have found that nearly all manufacturers have this information on their website. If you cannot find it there, they can give it to you if you contact them on the phone (which is often listed on the packaging of the diet). Secondly, if you are working really hard at helping your pet lose weight by limiting calories and increasing exercise, but nothing is working -- it's time to see your vet. Hypothyroidism, a common disease in many breeds of dog, can cause weight gain and lethargy even in animals receiving reduced-calorie diets.

    Thanks for a great article!

  3. Excellent, as always!

    Do you remember how overweight Mac was when we free-fed him? Unlike Rocket (who always stayed slim on free-feeding), he was a chow hound who hid those pounds under his luxurious coat.

    He went from an obese 82# to a trim and lively 62# just because I got an appropriate food (lighter on the carbs and better quality protein sources), measured what he got daily, and also factored in the "extras" (like scraps).

    I am convinced that being a healthy weight added years to his life - and they were years of comfort as, with his arthritis and spondylosis with advancing age, he would not have been able to get about if he'd been overweight.

    Thanks for the good advice! And it was your recognizing his obesity (so many of us are blind when it comes to our pets - or ourselves) and helping me onto the right path to deal with it.

  4. PS - You need to add all your other wonderful write-ups to the blog!

  5. Thanks ladies!

    Tricia, my girls are getting a little plump this month because I haven't been taking them for long walks in the snow. I've cut their kibble back a little bit but we need to get back on track with our exercise too.

    Staying lean is especially important for older dogs and dogs with joing problems. It's amazing the difference it can make, isn't it?

  6. Thanks for the feedback! And Streck-Nichols Family, thanks for bringing up the issue of hypothyroidism. My oldest female tested borderline low for hypothyroidism but has benefited greatly from treatment.