How to help my overweight dog lose weight without surgery

March 15, 2021 - 4 min read
fat pug


  • Obesity is a significant issue in pets, with over 50% of cats and 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 1-5 or 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 to spoil our dogs are leading to an increase in canine obesity worldwide. In fact, over 50% of cats and dogs in the US are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Dogs don’t have any control over their body, food intake, or how they look in the mirror, but fortunately, we do. Here’s how to tell if your dog is overweight (hint: we’ll be reviewing their body condition score), how obesity can impact your pet’s health, and what to do if you have a fat dog.

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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 through 5 or 1 through 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 is too thick. These charts are also readily available online or from your veterinarian, which will allow you to do an assessment from 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.

It’s essential to be mindful of your pet’s weight, as canine obesity can lead to various potential health issues. Here are some common health conditions associated with overweight pets:

  • 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 for dogs, decreasing their quality and quantity of life.

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

Overweight dogs are also more prone to:

  • Decreased life span

  • Skin infections

  • Lower back issues

  • Endocrine disease.

How to Help an Overweight Dog Lose Weight

There is no easy or quick fix to getting a fat dog back to a healthy weight, but the good news is that most dogs can’t cheat on their exercise or weight loss plan. As long as the pet parent has created an attainable goal with their veterinarian and has the tools to reach it, pets can achieve their ideal weight within two to three months of starting the process.

To begin, work with your veterinarian to determine your dog’s current BCS and establish a time frame and amount of weight your dog should lose. This will be based on your dog’s current weight, BCS, other health issues, age, and activity levels. Typically, weight loss should occur over two to three months.

Veterinary-prescribed weight-loss food may be helpful, too.  Often, just cutting down on the amount of food is not enough for an obese dog to lose weight. Weight loss diets limit daily calories per cup of food and are designed to help pets feel full and satisfied, even if they receive fewer calories.

Once you and your veterinarian have determined what type of food your pet should eat, the next step is to increase exercise to help shed those pounds.

If your pet has not exercised in some time, take it slow. Gradually increase the exercise’s duration and intensity, but make sure to pay attention to your dog’s cues. If they begin limping or stop in the middle of their workout, decrease the amount of exercise by 25-50% until these signs stop.

Finally, make sure you cut out any extra calories from your pet’s diet. Acceptable treats may include:

Any high-calorie treats should be avoided, and table scraps should be cut out immediately. Just remember that this is for your pet’s best interests, and when they give you those puppy dog eyes, offer them a few bites of their kibble or something healthy, but ultimately remember that you largely determine the success of your dog’s weight loss.

Final Words on Pet Obesity

We all want our dogs to live their best lives, and having a lean body weight will help them with that. If you feel like you have a fat dog, begin by talking to your veterinarian or determining what your dog’s BCS is. If your veterinarian determines that your dog does not have a medical condition causing them to be overweight, now is the time to begin your dog’s weight loss journey. It will be well worth it, and your canine companion will only thank you in the long run, despite what those puppy dog eyes are saying.

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.