Just like people, dogs can quickly put on a few unwanted pounds, especially as they get older and exercise less. In fact, a staggering 35%* of all dogs in the UK are overweight - and most owners don't even realise it until they take their pets to the vet for a related illness. Overweight and obese dogs are much more likely to develop obesity-related health problems such as diabetes, respiratory conditions, arthritis, even behavioural problems. So it's easy to see why monitoring your dog's weight and body condition carefully is important.
Is your dog overweight?
Regular assessments by your vet are recommended, but it is relatively simple to weigh a small dog at home using bathroom scales; first weigh yourself, then pick up your dog and get back on the scales to measure the difference. This is obviously more difficult for a large dog, for which you may need your vet’s scales. For easy reference, use the Body Condition Chart. Run your hands around their flanks and abdomen. At ideal weight you should be able to feel, but not see, the ribs quite easily, with a thin covering layer of fat. The waistline behind the ribs should be visible when looking down from above, with his or her abdomen noticeably tucked up when viewed from the side.
Your dog is moderately overweight - if their waistline is not clear or hard to see, and the abdominal tuck is absent or barely discernible, some fat deposits are present along the spine, at the base of the tail, and you can still just feel, but not see their ribs under a layer of overlying fat. Body Condition Score 6-7.
Your dog is obese - if there is no waistline visible, you can’t feel their ribs under a thick layer of fat and heavy fat deposits appear along the spine and at the base of the tail, the waist and abdominal tuck all but disappear, and their tummy bulges outwards and may sag downwards. If your dog is obese (Body Condition Score 8-9) consult your vet immediately.
In order to get rid of that excess flab, you need to increase the amount of energy used (exercise more) and reduce the amount of energy consumed (feed your dog fewer calories).
Cutting back on calories
Before embarking on any dietary changes or ‘weight-loss programme’ consult your vet. It is important your dog is weighed and checked over for any underlying disease problems before any dietary change or restriction.
To help your dog lose weight, increase the amount of energy used (increase your dog’s exercise) and reduce the amount of energy consumed (feed your dog fewer calories). Cut out table scraps and titbits/treats as these are often high in calories. Make sure everyone else in the family knows the rules so there’s no affectionate cheating! If you have several dogs, feed your overweight dog separately to avoid stealing. Try dividing the food into smaller portions fed more frequently to help reduce hunger and begging, and always keep track of what your dog is eating. Your vet may suggest reducing the amount you are feeding, or a special, lower-calorie diet. Remember never to ‘starve’ your dog or restrict food without veterinary advice.
Consult your vet
If your dog fails to lose weight despite increasing activity and cutting out treats, speak to your vet again, who may want to investigate for underlying medical problems that can cause weight gain. You may also be able to join your vet’s weight-reduction group to provide regular monitoring of your dog’s weight as well as help and advice. Remember, successful weight loss is slow and steady and the secret to success is patience.
You should also consider a specially formulated 'light' food. Light products have a lower fat content than standard small-dog products, but are enriched with essential nutrients to meet your dog’s needs even when rations are reduced. Note, however, that if you currently feed your dog a specific diet for a medical condition, or a sensitive or delicate formula, seek veterinary advice before making any diet changes.
Once your dog has returned to ideal body condition slightly adjust feeding quantities again to stabilise weight and continue to regularly monitor your dog’s body condition.
No 'crash' diets
Never starve your dog in an attempt to lose weight quickly. It's not safe to reduce food intake by more than 15%, as your pet won't get the right balance of essential minerals and vitamins and could run the risk of becoming seriously ill. This is why veterinary supervision of a diet is important.
Remember, food is only part of the equation. Lifestyle and exercise is important to encourage healthy weight loss. Lack of exercise can often be the cause of weight gain. If you get the all clear from your vet, increase your dog’s daily exercise.
Increasing the amount of exercise your dog receives is simple. Adding an extra 10-minute walk or 20 minutes of playtime each day not only has the additional benefit of increasing the amount of time you spend with your dog, but can be just as beneficial for you as for your pet! Make sure the type of exercise is vigorous (depending on your pet’s age and veterinary advice) and your dog's heart rate goes up. But be careful not to do this when the temperature outside is very high or you may risk heatstroke. Never exercise your dog in very hot weather and avoid the midday sun.
It's always a good idea to consult your vet before putting your dog on a weight-loss programme. As well as helping you to develop an individual weight-loss regime for your pet, your vet will also be able to track progress and provide ongoing support. Many practices have a regular weight-loss clinic at no extra charge to help keep you and your pet motivated and on the right track.
Weight loss should be gradual - over several months depending on how much your dog has to lose - and may in some cases take up to a year. If weight is lost too fast, your dog will probably just put it back on, so be patient. *Source: PDSA 2009