Bigger isn’t always better—especially when it comes to your dog’s weight.

By Sarah Mouton Dowdy
March 02, 2021
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You've likely heard of obesity being an epidemic in humans, but did you know that it's plaguing our pups, as well? According to October 2018 clinical survey results from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 36.9 percent of dogs were overweight and 18.9 percent were obese. Based on 2018 pet population projections from the American Pet Products Association, that comes to around 50 million overweight or obese pups. And when you consider how many health problems are associated with that excess weight, it becomes clear why big pets are a big deal.

But how can you tell if your dog is overweight or obese? And what should you do if you find out they're carrying more pounds than they should? Martha Cline, DVM, DACVN, a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® at Red Bank Veterinary Hospitals in New Jersey, is here to shed light on the problem and equip you with the education and tools you need to help your dog maintain (or reach) a healthy weight.

How Can I Tell if My Dog is Overweight or Obese?

The 9-point body condition score (BCS) system is a visual and descriptive tool that details what underweight, ideal, and overweight dogs look and feel like to touch. A dog at an ideal weight would have a BCS of 4 or 5, while an overweight dog would have a BCS of 6 or 7. "A dog is obese when they score greater than or equal to 8 or 9," says Cline. "This correlates to a body fat percentage of greater than or equal to 35 percent." 

Cline recommends asking your veterinarian about your dog's BCS, but she adds that pet owners can also do the scoring at home. "I frequently encourage pet owners to do this," she explains. "There are several videos online that can guide you on how to score your dog, including this one from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association." Or if you'd rather learn how to use it from your veterinarian, just ask for a quick tutorial during your next veterinary visit

What are Some of the Most Common Health Problems Associated with Obesity in Dogs? 

The concern about excess weight in dogs isn't rooted in cosmetics but in the health problems it can lead to. "In dogs," Cline says, "obesity is most often associated with orthopedic diseases like osteoarthritis and cruciate ligament rupture." In fact, the 2019 State of Pet Health Report from Banfield Pet Hospital found that 52 percent of dogs with osteoarthritis were also overweight or obese. And while extra weight doesn't necessarily cause the degenerative disease, it most certainly worsens it. As for cruciate ligament rupture, which is a common knee injury in dogs that's similar to a torn ACL in humans, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice found that obese dogs are four times more likely to experience this trauma than their non-obese counterparts. 

Cline adds that obesity can also contribute to the development or complicate the management of a variety of other diseases, including:

Pug dog's smushy face
Credit: primeimages / Getty

Are Certain Dog Breeds or Ages More Prone to Weight Issues? Can Certain Health Conditions Contribute to Obesity?

In short, yes. "Certain breeds are predisposed to accumulate excess body fat," Cline says. "This includes, but is not limited to, Labrador retrievers, beagles, golden retrievers, pugs, and Shetland sheepdogs." If you'd like to know if your dog's breed is a risk factor, your veterinarian is the best person to ask.

Age can also be an important determinant. "Dogs have a tendency to gain excess body weight around middle age and then to lose weight during their later senior years," Cline explains. In other words, an ideal BCS in your dog's early years is great, but it's not a guarantee against future weight issues. 

Cline says that obesity and health issues can have a reciprocal relationship: Obesity can lead to medical conditions (as already discussed), but medical conditions can lead to obesity, as well. "Certain endocrine (hormone) diseases can contribute to the development of obesity in the dog," she says. "Hypothyroidism, in which there is decreased thyroid hormone production, is most common." Banfield's 2019 State of Pet Health Report also notes that pets suffering the pains of osteoarthritis may slow down and gain weight due to inactivity. 

According to the Pet Nutrition Alliance (PNA), there's another factor worth considering: spaying and neutering. The PNA calls the procedures a "nutritional milestone" and recommends changing the type or amount of food provided to a dog who is no longer intact. Otherwise, the pet will gain weight. Why does spaying or neutering affect your pet's weight? For starters, the PNA says that the loss of estrogens and androgens (sex hormones) that accompanies the surgeries decreases the dog's metabolic rate. Moreover, these hormones are responsible for stimulating roaming and physical activity, in general. Finally, estrogen has been known to decrease appetite, so post-surgery pups may feel hungrier than usual.

How Can I Help My Dog Get to a Healthy Weight?

If your veterinarian determines that your dog is overweight or obese, Cline says to expect a lifestyle change not only for your pet, but also for you. Accordingly, a thorough weight management program should include the following components:

Nutrition 

"Ensuring meals are portioned correctly and that treats are not overfed is essential," Cline explains. This has gotten especially tricky as dogs have shifted from pets to full-fledged family members during recent years. Dog owners commonly use treats (including sometimes harmful human foods) as a way to show affection, but this mindset can cause pets to pack on pounds. When visiting with your vet about what your dog eats, be honest about treats. They can add significant calories, and if you withhold that information, your veterinarian won't have an accurate representation of what your dog is really consuming on a daily basis. And as a result, their recommendations will be flawed.

Exercise

Exercise also plays an important role, says Cline. Your veterinarian can make recommendations tailored to your dog's ability and weight loss needs. If you have to start limiting treats, consider exercise and play your new way of showing affection. The beauty of living with dogs is that time with you is typically their favorite treat.

Follow-ups

A weight management program isn't a one-and-done appointment. According to Cline, pet owners should expect regular weigh-ins and diet plan adjustments, when necessary. These will ensure that the plan is truly working and will keep it as effective as possible.

Patience

Helping your pet lose weight will be a slow process, and that's OK. "I often remind owners that we are not on a weight loss game show," explains Cline. "Weight loss should not be rapid. We are typically aiming for 1 to 2 percent body weight loss per week."