Canine obesity is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions. In a study conducted by the Royal Veterinary College as many as 1 in 14 dogs each year are recorded as being overweight by their vet.
Why are so many dogs overweight?
There are medical issues that can contribute to weight gain in dogs, such as thyroid disease and endocrine disorders; any sudden or unexplained weight changes in your dog should be investigated by your vet.
Dogs often gain weight after being spayed or neutered, it is important to adjust your dog’s food after these procedures if you notice they are becoming heavier.
There are numerous reasons a dog may be gaining extra weight, however, the most simple explanation is the calories being consumed exceed the calories expended. The feeding guidelines on dog food packaging are an approximation and may need you to make adjustments until you find the right amount to keep your dog trim and healthy.
How does obesity affect dogs?
The health implications of obesity are significant. There are some diseases where the impact of obesity is clear, such as arthritis where every extra pound a dog is carrying puts extra strain on the joints, or heart disease where extra effort is required to pump blood around the circulation, but there are others where the link is less obvious, including diabetes, liver disease, some skin diseases and many others. Put simply, obesity places an extra and unwelcome strain on the whole body and is a contributing factor in many clinical diseases.
The end result is not just a reduced life-expectancy brought about by these related clinical conditions, but just as importantly, a reduced quality of life. Obese dogs are generally miserable dogs, unable to enjoy the basic pleasures that dogs should be able to take for granted – running, jumping, relaxing comfortably and so on. In most cases they enter a vicious cycle of weight gain leading to reduced exercise and enjoyment which in turn leads to further weigh gain and so on – and breaking this cycle is the key to treating an obese dog.
How do you know if your dog is overweight? The first step in dealing with obesity is to understand whether or not your dog is overweight. The most accurate and reliable technique is what’s known as condition scoring. Condition scoring involves assessing the dog’s body based on a variety of criteria including fat coverage, shape and prominence of underlying skeletal features, to give a score based on a scale, usually 1-5 (although some condition scoring scales are more detailed and include up to 10 different scores).
Condition scoring scales are based on assessing the following key features – fat coverage over the ribs, presence or absence of a waist behind the ribs if viewed from above, prominence or not of the hip bones and size of the abdomen. If you consider your dog’s body based on these criteria, you should be able to decide which of the following classifications best describes the condition of your dog:
It is easy to see your dog’s ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all body prominences from a distance. There is no obvious body fat and clear evidence of muscle wastage.
Whilst you cannot easily see the ribs and the pelvic bones are not obviously prominent from a distance, your dog’s ribs are easily felt with no palpable fat. The tops of lumbar vertebrae are visible and there is an obvious abdominal tuck behind the ribs, as well as a clear waist when viewed from above.
A normal dog should have a distinct but not excessive covering of fat over the chest, through which the ribs are easily palpable. The abdomen tucked up when viewed from side, and there is a visible but not extensive waist when viewed from above. The pelvis and other bony prominences are well covered and not clearly visible.
A dog that is overweight will generally be carrying up to 20% extra weight compared to a normal dog, and this is generally laid down around the chest and abdomen, making it hard to feel the ribs, and giving the abdomen a full appearance, with little or no abdominal tuck. There is also very little or no waist visible from above, and there may also be obvious fatty deposits in the lumbar region and around the base of the tail.
Dogs carrying more than 20% extra weight are classified as obese and these dogs will have large fat deposits over their chest, neck, spine and tail base. They have no waist or abdominal tuck behind the ribs, and their abdomens often appear distended.
Note: Dogs with a heavy coat may be harder to assess, it may be easier to check their condition after a bath or swimming when the coat is wet. Sighthounds such as Whippets, Saluki, Borzoi, Greyhounds and their crosses (lurchers and longdogs) are naturally very lean, with little body fat and are very light framed, these dogs are an exception on the body condition score and are healthiest when their score is closer to 2/5 with the ribs being visible alongside their musculature, they would only be considered thin if they do not have good muscle cover to protect their bony prominences.
How can I help my dog to lose weight?
When designing a weight loss program for dogs, the main considerations are the rate of weight loss and the ultimate target weight. The rate of weight loss is an issue because if you put your dog on ‘crash diet’ where they lose lots of weight very quickly, this can lead to health complications such as fatty deposits in the liver (although this is more common in cats), so it is advisable to stick to a moderate rate of 1-1.5% per week as a safe maximum. So this would equate to a weight loss of between 300-450g per week for a 30kg dog, meaning that it would take around 3 months for this dog to lose 5kg safely.
The issue of ultimate target weight is more subjective, as previously discussed, and should always be kept in context with the concurrent use of condition scoring as a ‘fail safe’ back up. For example, if your vet advises that your 30kg dog needs to lose 5kg to get to a target weight of 25kg, it might be that at 26kg, a condition score exercise determines that your dog is actually now at a ‘normal’ weight and the weight loss program can be stopped rather than continuing on the arbitrary figure of 25kg. Always be prepared to modify your target based on the physical evidence of condition scoring as this is a much more reliable and safe guide to your dog’s true state of weight than simply relying on what the scales say.
There are many approaches to effecting weight loss in dogs, ranging from simply feeding less and walking more, to the use of expensive ‘prescription’ diets, but whatever approach you chose to use, there are some key pieces of advice that you should consider:
Eating too much of the wrong kind of foods is the main reason that so many pets are overweight, and by making some simple changes to the way you feed your pet, you can make a big difference to their weight and wellbeing:
Reduce the calories – the ideal way to keep your pet slim is to feed them exactly the right amount of calories, or energy, everyday. If they are overweight, then you simply need to feed less, or use a lower calorie food, and they will lose weight. VetChef weight gives you detailed guidance on exactly how much to feed to ensure safe weight loss while maintaining the intake of essential nutrients.
Cut out the tit bits – leftovers and tit bits from the table are the number one enemy of slim pets!
Use healthy fillers – grated veg such as carrots or courgettes add bulk to food but very few calories so they are a good way of keeping your pet feeling full but not piling on the pounds.
Small regular meals - are better than one big meal, so divide your dog’s food into 2 small meals, morning and evening.
Choose a healthy food – avoid ‘junk foods’ containing high levels of sugars, fats and artificial additives. VetChef can help you choose the right healthy food for your dog.
Along with a suitable diet, regular and appropriate exercise is vital to keep your dog in shape.
Build up gradually – don’t suddenly change the amount of exercise your dog gets as this could cause health problems – instead, make the change gradually over a few weeks to let them adjust to the new regime, especially if they are old or very overweight.
Make it fun – exercise regimes are so much easier to stick to if they are fun, so choose something that you and your pet will enjoy. Why not consider joining your local flyball club, or try mountain biking or jogging with your dog as activities like this can be a great way of burning off calories as well as being fun for all concerned.
Take it easy – if your pet is old or suffers from a mobility problem such as arthritis it’s important not to overdo it. Regular short walks are much better for older dogs than long hikes, and make sure you talk to your vet if you are concerned about any lameness or stiffness associated with increased exercise.
General Weight Loss Tips
Don’t give in to begging – dogs who beg will never be satisfied so even if you do give them the treat they want, they will still want more. Much better to be firm and only give them healthy snacks at set times such as just before bedtime.
Give your pet attention, not treats – many owners use food as a reward and way of ‘buying’ affection from their pets – use attention as a reward instead by spending quality time with your pet.
You are not being cruel by cutting down their food! A healthy, slim dog will be much happier than an overweight one.
Dry food is much more filling than it looks – dry dog food swells up when it reaches the stomach, so what looks like a tiny portion will still fill your pet up.
Neutering does not cause obesity! – many people worry that their pet will become overweight if it is neutered, and while it is true that neutering can slow the metabolism and reduce the amount of calories a pet needs, that doesn’t mean that this should automatically lead to weight gain, as you can easily reduce the amount of calories they eat to compensate for this.
Don't crash diet - One of the biggest barriers to helping an overweight dog achieve a healthy weight is hunger. Drastically reducing the diet in order to shed excess weight can result in a dog being confused by finding itself hungrier than usual, which can lead to scavenging and begging behaviours that pet guardians may find distressing. It is important that weight loss is gradual, manageable and achievable whilst ensuring the dog is satiated. Aiming for a weight loss of around 1.5% of total bodyweight per week is sustainable and can be achieved without your dog having to go hungry.
Trim those treats - It is important to factor in treats as part of the daily calorie intake and decide which treats are necessary and which are habitual and serve no purpose. Some dental chews can clock in at 150 calories, whereas a raw carrot or half a cucumber is only 25 calories and can be given frozen as a chew. Even so, these calories need to be counted. Look at toy play as a reward instead of food, not only is this a great way to positively reinforce behaviour, but playing burns extra calories and releases happy hormones.
Weigh regularly - It is important to weigh your dog regularly to monitor progress. Weekly weigh-ins are advised initially, so you can get an idea of your dog's progress and make adjustments as needed. Some dogs are very energy efficient or have very low exercise levels and may need even fewer calories than planned.
The VetChef weight program is designed to manage your dog's weight loss program safely and effectively, providing detailed feeding guides to ensure appropriate weight loss is maintained all the way to your dog's target weight. To access VetChef weight for you dog, head over to app.vetchef.com and register now.