How to help an obese dog lose weight

29 August 2023 - 5 min read

Obesity is a significant issue in pets, with over 59% of dogs in the US being overweight, according to APOP.

Obesity in pets leads to several health issues, including decreased life span, diabetes, heart conditions, and difficulty breathing.

To determine if your dog is overweight, you’ll want to assess their body condition score (BCS) to determine where they fall on a 1-9 scale.

Fortunately, there are ways to help an overweight dog lose weight. Working with your veterinarian to determine your dog’s BCS and formulating an exercise and diet plan is a great first place to start.

We don’t often think about how showering our dogs with affection in the form of food can cause long term issues in our pets. But the unfortunate truth is that our good intentions are leading to an increase in canine obesity worldwide. In fact, according to our 2023 Why Weight? Pet Obesity report, veterinary professionals reported that 61% of the dogs and 53% of the cats they saw in the clinic had weight issues.

Dogs don’t have any control over their body or their food intake. But fortunately, we do. Here’s how to tell if your dog is overweight, how obesity can impact your pet’s health, and a few ways you can prevent your dog from becoming overweight.

How to tell if your dog is overweight

Instead of looking at a number on a scale or measuring body mass index (as is used in human medicine), veterinarians calculate what’s called a Body Condition Score (BCS) to determine if a dog is overweight.

A dog’s BCS will be measured on a scoring system that goes from 1 to 9, with low numbers equating to “severely underweight” and high numbers equating to “overweight” and “obese.”

The scale was created to give veterinarians an objective way to measure a pet’s weight, rather than using terms like “ideal weight,” “underweight,” and “obese,” as these terms can be different for each individual.

To begin, the veterinarian will perform a physical examination of the pet by asking the following questions:

  1. Is it easy to feel the dog’s ribs?

  2. Does the dog have a “tuck” in the abdomen when viewed from the side?

  3. Does the dog have a waist when viewed from the top?

Based on these three measurements, your veterinarian will determine what score to give your dog. On a 1-9 scale, 4-5 is a good score. Below 4 is too thin and above 5 means your dog is on their way to being overweight.

These charts are also readily available online or from your veterinarian, which will allow you to monitor your pets at home and keep track of where your pet falls on the scale. Of course, it’s important to have your pet evaluated by your veterinarian first and foremost to determine if your dog is overweight.

How can I help my dog lose weight?

There’s no easy or quick fix to getting an obese dog back to a healthy weight. You’ll need three ingredients: patience, consistency and a tailored weight loss plan from your veterinarian.

Every dog’s plan will be personal, depending on their breed, size, age and health, so this isn’t something you should attempt alone. To begin, your vet will assess your dog’s current diet, weight and BCS and set a safe goal weight. Then they’ll use a series of calculations to determine how many daily calories your pet should be getting to achieve this.

Safe weight loss should be done slowly with no more than 1-2% of total body weight lost each week. Often the weight loss plans a vet will create can take 6-8 months to reach the goal.

It’s important that your pet receives the right nutritional balance of proteins, fats and fibre, so often just cutting the amount of food down won’t be the right measure to help an obese dog to lose weight. Instead your vet may prescribe a specific weight-loss food which limits daily calories but still helps your dog feel full and satisfied.

Once you’ve determined what type of food your pet should eat and how much, the next step is to increase their activity levels. While diet will be a bigger factor in your dog’s weight loss journey, exercise will still help shed some pounds – and improve their overall health.

If your pet is older, hasn’t exercised in some time, or has a health condition, take it slow. Regular walks and play time are great ways to help your dog keep active, and you can gradually increase the duration and intensity of activity over time. However make sure to pay attention to your dog’s cues – if they begin limping or want to stop, don’t push them.

Best dog foods for weight loss

There are lots of reputable commercial dog foods on the market that are specially formulated for weight loss. Your veterinarian may recommend any one of them, based on your pup’s individual needs.

What sets them apart? You’ll find that the best dog foods for weight loss are usually higher in protein and fibre, and lower in fat - thus lower in total caloric value per specific volume of food. This is to make sure the protein intake is enough to help your dog maintain muscle mass in the face of decreased calories consumed, while the added fibre helps them feel more full - all while still meeting a safe and balanced nutrient profile.

Some brands also offer what’s known as metabolic weight management food. These foods actively promote your dog’s ability to burn fat by influencing their metabolism – helping them lose weight more effectively.

Top tips to prevent pet obesity

When it comes to pet obesity, prevention is always the best treatment. It’s much easier to help your dog maintain a healthy weight than lose it – after all, they love being healthy and active! All they need is a little help from you.

Some top tips to follow are:

  • Ask your vet for a dog food recommendation

  • Weigh your pup’s portions for accuracy

  • Don’t let treats take up more than 10% of their daily intake

  • Make sure your dog gets regular exercise

Acceptable treats may include:

  • A limited amount of bite-sized dog treats for training

  • Ice cubes

  • Vegetables like baby carrots, green beans, and broccoli

  • Fruits, like banana slices, berries, watermelon, and apple slices (with no seeds, of course)

  • Air-popped popcorn with no salt or butter

  • Plain rice cakes broken into tiny pieces

It’s best to avoid high-calorie treats like table scraps – even when they give you those puppy dog eyes! Instead offer them a few bites of their kibble or something healthy.

Diseases related to canine obesity

It’s essential to be mindful of your dog’s weight as canine obesity can lead to various potential health issues. Some common health problems associated with overweight pets include:

  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis is common as many dogs age, but excess weight, especially when the dog is older, leads to additional strain on all the supportive structures that allow dogs to romp, play, hike, and do everything they love. The extra weight also makes getting up and down more complicated, and this constant strain limits the pet’s ability and desire to partake in everyday activities.

  • Diabetes: Diabetes is also a risk factor for overweight dogs. Dogs with diabetes require insulin injections for life and often have a decreased life span. Not all diabetic dogs are overweight, but keeping dogs at a lean body weight can prevent this condition.

  • Heart disease: Heart disease in overweight dogs is caused by accumulated fat over their lifetime. Heart disease can be debilitating to dogs, decreasing their quality and quantity of life.

  • Breathing problems: Many dogs that are overweight struggle to breathe well. This is due to increased fat over their thoracic rib cage, causing the lungs to work harder to move oxygen in and out.

On the other hand, a study by Purina using lifetime data of Labradors showed that dogs that are kept in a lean body condition from puppyhood can live up to 15% longer than their overweight friends.

Final words

We all want our dogs to live their best lives and helping them stay lean is one of the best ways we can do that. If your pup is overweight, then chat to your veterinarian to start their weight loss journey. Trust us, it’ll be worth it.

Oneal Bogan, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer

Dr. Oneal Bogan is a mixed animal veterinarian from Colorado. Dr. Bogan graduated from Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in 2013.