What is Obesity in Dogs?
Obesity can be defined as an excess accumulation of body fat that contributes to disease. Dogs that weigh at least 10% above their ideal body weight are considered overweight, while dogs weighing 20% more than ideal are considered obese. Excess body weight can be a contributing factor in many diseases.
What are the risks associated with obesity in dogs?
Up to 65% of dogs in the United States are considered overweight or obese. Obesity can contribute to many conditions in dogs, including:
Decreased exercise and heat tolerance
Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
Abnormal response to insulin
Increased anesthetic risk
Decreased quality of life
Showing love by showering your dog with treats may actually result in a shortened lifespan and decreased quality of life if the excess calories result in obesity.
Symptoms of Obesity in Dogs
Signs of obesity include:
Less energy than usual
Decreased exercise tolerance
A collar or harness that seems tighter than it used to be
Being unable to feel the ribs, or seeing a “waistline” (a small tuck in the belly right in front of the hind legs)
Causes of Obesity in Dogs
The most obvious cause of obesity in dogs is overfeeding, which can include the dog’s regular wet or dry food, treats designed for dogs, and “table scraps” or human foods. Inadequate exercise can also lead to your dog becoming overweight. There are some medical conditions that cause obesity, including hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism, also known as Cushing’s disease.
In addition, certain dog breeds can be predisposed to obesity, including:
Is My Dog Overweight?
If you suspect your dog may be overweight, schedule a weight check and examination with your veterinarian. If there seems to be excess padding over your dog’s ribs or you are unable to see a slight tuck-up just in front of the hind legs, chances are good that your dog is carrying excess weight.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Obesity in Dogs
Your veterinarian can obtain your dog’s weight and look for trends over time indicating weight gain or loss. A measurement called body condition scoring can also be done.
The two most commonly used body condition scores are a five-point scale (where three is considered ideal) and a nine-point scale (where four to five is considered ideal). Your dog should have an hourglass shape when viewed from above if he is at his ideal body weight.
Your veterinarian may also run some lab work to check for any underlying conditions that may be contributing to weight gain, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. If the weight gain has been very sudden, your veterinarian may also recommend x-rays to check for fluid or masses in the abdomen.
Treatment of Obesity in Dogs
The basic components for treating obesity are exercise and dietary changes. Depending on the severity of obesity and current fitness level, increasing the amount of your dog’s daily exercise may need to be done gradually. In general, most dogs can safely exercise for 15-30 minutes per day to start. The duration and intensity can be slowly increased as your dog loses weight and becomes more fit. A simple walk is feasible for most families, but exercise can also include playing fetch indoors or outdoors, swimming, and running. If your dog is older, you may need to do shorter exercise sessions.
Dietary changes should be made with the guidance of your dog’s veterinary team. The reduction or elimination of extras like treats and table scraps will be helpful, and a change in type and/or amount of food is often needed. There are many weight loss diets available, and some require a prescription from your veterinarian.
A good goal is weight loss of 1-2% of body weight per week, ideally reducing body fat stores while maintaining lean body tissue. While most dog foods give feeding amount recommendations, these are only guidelines, and individual dogs may need more or less than recommended to maintain ideal body condition. Meal feeding (instead of free choice) is often helpful in controlling caloric intake. It is also important to use a measuring cup to ensure consistent feeding of the appropriate amount of food.
Instead of eliminating treats completely, you may opt to switch to baby carrots, frozen green beans, pumpkin, or lower-calorie dog treats if your veterinarian agrees that these are good options for your dog.
Medications are not typically needed to treat obesity unless your dog has hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, in which case regular exams and lab tests will help determine the appropriate type and dose of medication.
Recovery and Management of Obesity in Dogs
Once your dog has reached his ideal weight, your veterinarian may recommend transitioning to a maintenance diet. It is important to continue regular exercise and limit extra treats and snacks.
Of course, preventing obesity before it even happens would be ideal. This can be achieved by two or three meals per day instead of always having food available, avoiding excessive treats, and ensuring that your dog gets regular exercise. Exercise is not just good for your dog—it’s good for humans and offers physical and emotional benefits for all involved.
While it takes effort to prevent or correct obesity, the benefits of a longer and healthier life are well worth it for you and your dog
- Tilley L, Smith F, Sleeper M, Brainard B. Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline. Wiley-Blackwell. Seventh edition; 2021
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