Reviewed for accuracy on March 14, 2019, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarians have been raising concerns about the issue of pet obesity, and with good reason. Overweight dogs are at risk for conditions like heart disease, arthritis, Cushing’s disease, and some types of skin disease and cancer as well as a shorter lifespan and decreased quality of life.
Helping your dog lose weight can result in a host of health benefits for her, including a reduced risk of disease along with better joint health and overall vitality. An added benefit is that with a healthy dog, you’ll likely be making fewer trips to the veterinarian.
How You Can Help Your Dog Lose Weight
While certain health conditions—like low thyroid hormone levels—can result in an overweight dog, a poor diet and lack of exercise are often key contributors to weight gain in dogs.
“We’re seeing dogs who are increasingly being overfed and not exercised enough. They are also increasingly considered members of the family, with pet owners using treats as a form of communication and love,” says Dr. David Dilmore, medical editor at Vancouver, Washington-based Banfield Pet Hospital.
The good news, says Dr. Dilmore, is that even small changes can have a big impact over the long term. “Instead of resolving to run with your dog 3 miles a day, start with walking a few extra blocks each day. Cutting down on ‘people food’ and limiting treats to no more than 10 percent of the dog’s daily calories are also small changes you can make.”
Another easy change is to use dog interactive toys for mealtime rather than a dog bowl. Some interactive toys encourage dogs to increase their activity levels, says Dr. Angela Witzel, clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.
Partner with your veterinarian to design a balanced diet that ensures that your dog is losing weight properly. Additionally, “Consulting with your veterinarian before starting an exercise plan for your pet is a good idea, as it may be best to start slow to build up your pet’s endurance,” says Dr. Dilmore.
Getting fit can actually be fun, too. You can use technology to help monitor the progress your pet is making and set daily goals for her. A dog activity tracker, like the FitBark 2 waterdog activity and sleep monitor, can help you meet those fitness goals, monitor your pup’s movements and track progress. It even has an option that lets you synchronize the monitor to your phone so you can get in shape together.
If you need a little extra motivation in helping your dog lose weight, consider the following benefits.
1. A Decreased Risk for Health Issues
Obesity in dogs is linked to many health conditions, including intestinal issues, skin disease, recurrent infections, arthritis, pancreatitis, breathing problems, heart disease and endocrine problems, says Dr. Joe Bartges, professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia in Athens.
It may also be linked to cancer. “While there is little research in dogs examining the link between obesity and cancer, in humans, it is estimated that approximately 30 percent of cancer is attributable to obesity. It seems logical that the long-term state of inflammation associated with obesity may also increase the risk of cancer in dogs,” says Dr. Witzel.
Keeping a dog at a healthy weight helps decrease her risk of developing one or more of these conditions, says Dr. Bartges, who is board-certified in veterinary nutrition. Additionally, if a dog already has heart or lung disease, weight loss may improve their clinical signs, says Dr. Witzel.
Being at an optimal weight also makes it easier for veterinarians to detect, diagnose and treat potential diseases. “It is more difficult for veterinarians to do a thorough physical examination on overweight and obese dogs, so there is more opportunity for diseases to go undetected,” says Dr. Witzel, who is also board-certified in veterinary nutrition.
2. A Longer Lifespan
Excess weight can contribute to decreased longevity in dogs, according to a large-scale study that sought to determine if body condition score (BCS) affects lifespan. BCS is a common method that veterinarians use to determine whether a dog is too thin, overweight or just right. One criterion, for example, is that the ribs should be easily felt but not seen.
Researchers examined the data—collected via veterinary consults across the country—on 10 popular dog breeds, including the Golden Retriever, Beagle and Cocker Spaniel. On average, 546 dogs of each breed were represented.
The research concluded that middle-aged (between 6 ½ and 8 ½ years), overweight dogs generally have a shorter life expectancy (up to 10 months) when compared to dogs of an ideal weight.
In another study of Labrador Retrievers, the evidence demonstrated that keeping extra weight at bay can potentially extend a dog’s life span. “It has been shown that dogs (Labrador Retrievers) who are kept optimal to slightly lean lived approximately two years longer than their related siblings who were allowed to become overweight or obese,” explains Dr. Bartges. Some of the trimmer dogs in the study were still thriving at 16 and 17 even though the average life span of a Labrador is 12 years.
3. A Lowered Risk for Arthritis
Losing weight can contribute to improved joint health for dogs and can reduce the pain associated with arthritis. “Dogs will develop arthritis as they age, which is another reason to make sure they don’t become overweight,” says Dr. David Wohlstadter, an emergency veterinarian and certified canine rehabilitation therapist with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in New York. “If they’re carrying more weight on arthritic joints, that’s going to be more painful,” he says. Body fat also secretes hormones that can increase joint inflammation and pain.
Dr. Dilmore adds, “A vicious circle can develop: the heavier the pet is, the less it will move about. At the same time, regular, moderate exercise is a key factor in the improvement of the signs of joint disease, so it can be a difficult situation for pets and their owners.”
If your dog is experiencing joint pain, ask your veterinarian if she might benefit from dog supplements for joint health, like Nutramax cosequin maximum strength (DS) plus MSM chewable tablets.
4. Increased Energy and Vitality
Weight loss has the potential to add not only years to a dog’s life but also to improve the quality of their life. “Overall, I have repeatedly heard from pet owners that their obese and overweight dogs are happier after they lose weight,” says Dr. Witzel.
Part of this may be attributed to the increased movement that results from weight loss. “I think dogs in general like to be active, and physical activity increases their quality of life,” says Dr. Wohlstadter. It’s more difficult and more painful for an overweight dog to be active, he says.
“Labs like to go in the water, and Retrievers like to retrieve, and Huskies like to pull things,” Dr. Wohlstadter says. “If they’re overweight, that’s going to make those activities harder and more painful. They can feel pain in their joints and develop muscle strains.”
In the Labrador Retriever study, the 16- and 17-year-old dogs were reportedly active, vibrant and highly social.
5. Savings of Time and Money
Healing a sick dog is still costly and time-consuming, even if it is ultimately successful. If you have a dog with Cushing’s disease, for example, there are the costs and time associated with trips to the veterinarian, adrenal hormone level tests, and often the long-term administration of prescription medications. If a dog needs surgery, chemotherapy or other intensive care, these treatments can easily set you back thousands of dollars.
This doesn’t take into consideration the time you’d need to take off from work or other obligations. It also doesn’t calculate the high level of stress and discomfort your pup may experience from frequent trips to the veterinarian and unpleasant procedures.
Healthy dogs typically require less veterinary care. “Maintaining a healthy weight will mean fewer trips for medical care other than preventative therapy, and less or no medications to treat obesity-related problems,” says Dr. Bartges.
A longer life, increased energy, decreased risk for health issues and better joint health are all benefits that can result from dogs losing weight. Committing to a balanced diet and exercise—with the help of your veterinarian—is an important part of maintaining your dog’s health and is well worth the effort.
By: Paula Fitzsimmons
Featured Image: iStock.com/Przemyslaw Iciak