Creating a weight loss plan for dogs

4 September 2023 - 7 min read
A brown and white Husky gets weighed at the vets.

Helping your dog shed excess weight might be more than just a matter of cutting back on treats. If you've noticed that your pup is carrying extra weight, you're not alone. Many pet owners face the challenge of managing their dog’s weight to ensure their health and vitality.

"While I am a veterinarian, I'm also a dog owner and the offending treat giver in our house. Even the pets of vets can gain a few extra pounds unintentionally and we also have to go through the process of making adjustments,” says Dr Kirsten Ronngren, consulting veterinarian at ManyPets.

Why should my dog have to lose weight?

Just like humans, carrying excess weight can put our pets at risk for and/or worsen a range of health issues, including:

  • joint problems (arthritis, cruciate ligament tears);

  • diabetes;

  • cardiovascular disease;

  • certain cancers;

  • and a decreased quality of life. 

Overweight dogs are also known to struggle to enjoy exercise, socialising and display signs of challenges - such as lethargy, difficulty breathing, or an altered physical appearance.

We spoke to Jen, a dog parent who had to make a weight plan for their chihuahua Pugsley. "Pugsley got out of breath easily, struggled to run very far, and had little rolls of fat on his torso which stopped his harness fitting correctly. It was then I knew I had to pop to the vets and start a bit of a health-kick for my pudgy boy!”

Two profiles (each a top view and side view) of a dog sit side by side. The one on the left shows a dog at an ideal weight; the one on the right shows an overweight dog.

What's the first step in a dog weight loss plan?

When it comes to weight management, a veterinarian's guidance is crucial. 

Consulting with your regular veterinarian, a veterinarian specialising in nutrition, or a certified pet nutritionist is recommended, as they can provide personalised advice based on your dog's unique needs. To start the process, a comprehensive assessment of your dog's health will be conducted to rule out any underlying conditions that could be contributing to weight gain, ensuring a safe and effective weight loss journey.

They may also ask you to create a food diary.

“I’ll ask my pet parents to record every meal, treat and sneaky little table scrap. Sometimes, this can often be where the problem reveals itself right out the gate.”

If a dog is only mildly overweight, a vet may look at the food diary and see that nutritional balance looks adequate – but may see that there are a few too many treats in the mix or that owners are feeding too much of the pets current diet. The solution to your dog’s weight loss could then be as simple as cutting back on their total daily calorie intake.

"My local vet is really approachable," says Jen, "however, I was a bit nervous in case they thought this was neglect on my part. Thankfully they knew exactly what to do and guided me through the whole process."

What amount of food should I be feeding my dog to help it lose weight?

If first inspections show that your pet’s weight is of a concern, then a veterinarian might start discussing a weight loss plan.

This plan often dictates the amount you should be feeding your dog - and that begins with understanding your pooch’s energy requirements and how many calories it should be fed to meet them.

This bit requires quite a bit of maths - so strap in for a quick lesson in veterinary science.

Vets start by calculating a dog’s Resting Energy Requirement - or RER. That is the number of calories required for essential functions such as digestion, respiration, and cardiac and brain activity of an animal at rest at a constant average temperature. 

To calculate this, we use the following standardised equation devised by veterinary scientists:

RER = (Dog’s Body Weight in kg^0.75) x 70

Those numbers may seem random, but this equation is derived from the estimated metabolic needs of an animal based on the given weight.

The following chart provides general calorie requirements based on some standard dog weights:

Dog's Weight (kg) RER (calories)
5 263
10 394
20 662
30 897
40 1,113
50 1,316
60 1,509
70 1,694

The next step involves calculating a dog’s Maintenance Energy Requirement - or MER. This daily calorie allowance takes into account the pet’s lifestyle and factors that impact the amount of energy they might use.

After calculating RER, factors like life stage and activity level are taken into account to establish the MER. Adjustments are made based on whether your dog is neutered, prone to obesity, or highly active. The goal is to gradually reduce your dog's calorie intake while ensuring they receive the necessary nutrients for optimal health.

A vet will determine this MER factor using a standardised list of factors. They will then use this to multiply your RER value and produce the number of calories your dog should be consuming per day to lose weight at a healthy rate.

Life Stage Factors MER Factor
Neutered adults 1.4 - 1.6
Intact adult 1.6 - 1.8
Inactive/obese prone 1.0 - 1.02
Weight loss 1.0
Gestation 3.0 (for last 21 days)
Lactation (based on number of offspring and weeks of lactation) 3.0 to 6.0
Growth less than 4 months: 3.0 | greater than 4 months: 2.0
Work Light: 1.6 - 2.0 | Moderate: 2.0 - 5.0 | Heavy: 5.0 - 11.0

So let’s use what we’ve learnt to calculate the caloric intake of a healthy, neutered medium-sized dog that should weigh 15kg. 

(15kg^0.75)  x 70 = RER 533 calories

We’ll then multiply their RER by a MER factor of 1.6 - as it’s healthy and neutered.

RER 533 x 1.6 = MER 853

It’s important to point out that these calculations are just a starting point - they provide more general guidelines to help estimate a pet’s necessary caloric intake. 

Any individual animal’s needs can absolutely vary from the calculated goal. It’s important to understand that weight loss plans are tailored to an individual pet’s needs and health, and require adjusting as you go through the process.

What should I be feeding my dog to help it lose weight?

drawing of stomach with food in it

After working the numbers, it is then recommended that you work with a vet or certified veterinary nutritionist to figure out a safe and nutritionally balanced diet to make sure the dog is getting the right number of calories daily, while still getting the appropriate proportion of nutrients.

Commercial diets formulated for weight loss can be used, or you can work with a professional to create home-cooked meals that meet your dog's needs. 

Slow and steady weight loss - around 1-2% of their body weight per week - is the aim, achieved through controlled calorie intake and nutrient-rich foods.

Overall, a safe and nutritionally balanced diet should replace high-calorie treats and unhealthy table scraps. "I reduced Pugsley’s intake of kibble and switched to a low-fat brand," Jen shared, "and - at the recommendation of my vet - built in more bulk through carrots, celery, cucumber and other vegetables." 

Does exercise help my dog lose weight?

While exercise plays a role in weight management, it's important to note that controlling caloric intake is often the primary focus for dogs struggling with obesity. 

However, exercise can complement dietary changes, as long as it’s tailored to your dog's breed and energy level.

Aim for around 30 minutes of brisk walking per day, adjusting for factors like smaller breeds or higher-energy breeds. You can even try a slight jog to get the energy pumping for a little bit of the walk to increase the exercise’s intensity if your vet states it’s safe to do so.

There are a few things you can do to introduce a touch more activity to your dog’s day which can aid the weight loss process. These might include:

  • Use an activity feeder, puzzle toy or licky matt to slow down ingestion and make mealtimes a bit more of an activity.

  • Consider breaking up your daily exercise, try 2 shorter walks to get your pup up and moving more regularly.

  • Get hold of some toys or balls to encourage games of chase or fetch. 

  • Try new activities such as a scent work class or hydrotherapy sessions.

Do I have to keep working with the vet to help my dog lose weight?

Ongoing collaboration with your veterinarian is crucial throughout your dog's weight loss journey. Regular check-ins allow for progress assessment and necessary adjustments from experts who can help make suggestions should there be any issues!

Veterinary teams might also use monitoring tools like body weight, body condition score (or BCS), and body fat percentage to help track results and guide modifications to the plan. 

Typically - if the steps above are followed - a pup might reach their ideal body weight within six months. Your pup might achieve their goal sooner, or take longer, and that's ok! Every pet's weight loss journey is going to look different.

By maintaining a partnership with your vet, you can help ensure that your dog's weight loss plan remains effective and aligned with their evolving needs.

Keep the faith - the weight loss journey is worth it!

overhead shot of black doodle dog standing on wooden scale above robins egg blue floor

Embarking on a weight loss journey with your dog may seem daunting, but with the guidance of a veterinarian and your dedication, positive results are achievable. 

Just like Jen and their rescue chihuahua Pugsley, you can witness the transformation in your furry friend's health and well-being. 

“Pugsley now sits at a much healthier 3.5kg. He had so much more energy and his breathing really improved! I think the best thing that I’ve learnt is that even small changes in diet and exercise may take some time for your dog to adjust to - so steadying your resolve and sticking to the plan is super important.”

Remember, every dog is unique, and a tailored weight loss plan ensures that your pet receives the individualised care they deserve. 

Through the combined efforts of owners, veterinarians, and pets themselves, we can pave the way to a healthier, happier life for our four-legged companions.

Dog insurance can help

Diagnosing, treating, and managing weight-related health conditions can be complicated and costly, but dog insurance may help! Just make sure you insure your dog when they’re young so that chronic conditions may be covered instead of being considered pre-existing conditions.

Lewis Martins
Communities marketer

Lewis has worked in pet health since 2017. Before joining ManyPets in 2021, he led content production at VetForum and PetsApp. Lewis has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest vet groups and suppliers to write educational articles for vets and pet parents. His Instagram feed is 60% dogs, 40% cats.