Healthy Pets

Weight Control

posted: 05/15/12
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Is your pooch too pudgy for his own good?

Obesity is one of the most common disorders seen in dogs. It is important to understand how to determine if a dog is overweight, what health conditions may predispose a dog to obesity, and what medical problems may result from being overweight. If it is determined that your dog is overweight, your veterinarian can help you develop an appropriate weight reduction program, which will help your dog lead a happy and healthier life.

Veterinarians often use a 9 point scoring system to evaluate the body condition of pets. A point value of 1 means the dog or cat is extremely thin to the point of emaciation. A score of 9 means the pet is grossly overweight. And like Goldilocks and the three bears, a score of 5 is 'just right.' To determine body score, there are several specific areas of the dog or cat we look at. Remember, these are guidelines. A Greyhound with a score of 5 is still going to be thinner than a Bulldog with the same score. Find out how you can determine your pet's body score.

To perform the rating, we first feel the pet's ribs. We should be able to quite easily feel the ribs. There should be a slight amount of fat over them, but each rib should be distinct. If you can see the ribs, the pet is too thin. If you can not feel them at all, the pet is very overweight. Second, check the area near the base of the tail. There should be a slight fat covering over this area and it should feel smooth. If the bones protrude, the pet is too thin; if you can not feel any bones at all, the pet is very overweight. Third, feel other bony prominences on the pet's body such as the spine, shoulders, and hips. Again, you should be able to feel a small amount of fat over these areas. If these bones are easily felt or visible, the dog or cat is too thin. If you can not feel the bones beneath the layer of fat, the animal is obviously overweight. Fourth, look at your pet from above. The animal should have a definite waist behind the ribs. If the waist is extreme, or again, bony prominences are visible, the animal is too thin. If there is no waist, or worse yet, the area between the ribs and hips is wider than the hips or ribs, the dog or cat is grossly overweight. Fifth, look at the pet from the side. Dogs and cats should have an abdominal tuck, i.e., the area behind the ribs should be smaller in diameter than the chest. This can vary a lot between breeds. Irish Setters and Greyhounds, for instance, appear to have a much more distinct abdominal tuck since they are so deep-chested. An animal who is too thin will have a very severe abdominal tuck. Overweight animals will have no abdominal tuck.

If you feel your dog is overweight, consult your veterinarian to determine if there are any other medical problems before starting the animal on a weight reduction program. Your veterinarian can also suggest various diets, how fast your pet should lose weight, etc.

Like humans, overweight pets are at risk for health problems and do not generally live as long as dogs that are trim. In addition to being at a greater risk for heart disease, overweight dogs show greater incidence of arthritis, circulatory problems, pancreatic disorders, liver disease and more.

To determine if your dog is overweight, run your hand along his side. If you can't feel his ribs, it's time to start a weight reduction program. If your dog does not have a waist, that is another indication it's time to start a weight reduction program.

A weight reduction program for dogs is multi-faceted and should include the following:

Veterinary examination

Any dog with a weight problem should be examined by a veterinarian prior to initiating a weight control program.

Certain medical conditions can cause obesity in dogs, and any dog with a weight problem should be examined by a veterinarian prior to initiating a weight control program. The veterinarian will determine if there is an underlying cause for the obesity or if there are other medical conditions present which could complicate weight reduction. The veterinarian is also a valuable resource in helping you establish a weight reduction program specific for you and your dog. Certified veterinary nutritionists are also a good resource.

When starting a weight reduction program, your veterinarian can help you determine a realistic weight goal and timeline. It is important to understand how long the process may take. In general, a good goal to aim for is 1-2% of the body weight per week. We do not want the dog to lose weight too fast, since rapid weight loss increases the likelihood the weight will come back after the weight reduction diet is stopped.

Household participation

One of the main reasons weight reduction programs for dogs fail is that one (or more) member(s) of the household, or even the neighborhood, is not following the recommendations. Everyone must agree that the program is essential for the life and health of the dog. Each must follow the recommendations regarding diet, treats, exercise, etc. if the program is to be successful.

Most weight loss protocols for dogs recommend estimating the dog's ideal weight, calculating the energy needs (maintenance energy requirements-MER) for a dog of that weight and then feeding 25 to 50% of that amount of energy (calories). The calculated MER is based on the amount of energy used by an average, moderately active dog in a room temperature environment. There is extreme variability (up to 20%) in the actual MER of dogs weighing the same amount, since their activity level can vary greatly. For this reason, the dog's response to the program is monitored and adjustments made as necessary. There are two basic ways to cut down on calories. One is to feed less of the food the dog is currently eating. The second is to switch to special weight reduction diets. And of course, with either way, table scraps are a no-no and treats need to be minimized. Limit access to current food: If your dog will be placed on a weight reduction program that calls for her to continue eating her current food, it is generally recommended that the amount of food fed daily be cut back by 20 to 40%. For example, if your dog is normally fed 3 cups of dry food, she should now be fed in the range of a little less than 2 cups to 2 and 1/2 cups. After 3 - 4 weeks, the progress is evaluated. It may be necessary to cut the amount fed even further. Feed a weight reduction diet: Weight reduction diets allow you to feed the usual amount of food (unless you are severely overfeeding), but still feed less fat and calories. For example, if your dog is normally fed 3 cups of dry food, the recommended amount of diet food will probably be about three cups also. Feeding your dog more often during this time will keep hunger under control. Generally feeding 2-4 small meals throughout the day is recommended. Also feed your overweight dog separately from the other pets to prevent him from eating their food. Feeding your dog before you prepare a meal or eat may also be helpful.

Eliminate table scraps and reduce treats

Table scraps are often high in fats and sugars, and thus in calories. Feeding your dog before you cook or eat may help decrease his begging. If you can't resist giving treats, choose a treat that is made for dogs and is low in fat. Examples include:

  • Air-popped popcorn, non-salted and non-buttered
  • Broccoli
  • Cooked green beans
  • Carrots
  • Baked or frozen canned diet food (Cut small slices of canned food and bake them at 350 degrees F until crisp. Store in refrigerator. Alternatively, simply freeze slices of the canned food and feed it frozen to your dog.)
  • Commercial low calorie dog treats

Treats should never make up more than 10% of the daily intake. New toys are often a good substitute for treats, as is exercise. For dogs who like to be groomed, a good brushing can take the place of food treats. If you ask your dog, she will probably say your attention is the best treat she could have.


In addition to reducing calorie intake, it is important to increase the calories used. Exercise, may in fact, be more important than feeding a diet food. Exercise programs will need to be tailored to the dog taking into account the condition of the dog's muscles and joints, heart, and respiratory system. It is important to choose activities appropriate for your dog and don't overdo. Start slow and work up to higher activity levels. Rest if you notice signs of fatigue, like heavy panting. In general, leash walking for 20-60 minutes a day, five days a week would be a great way to start. Swimming is also an excellent activity for obese dogs since it places less stress on joints. Exercise is a great way to give your dog attention and can be a substitute for treats. Exercise will help your dog build muscle, and increase mental stimulation, taking his focus away from food. Supplement with a multi-vitamin and fatty acids If you are feeding less food, it also means your dog is receiving fewer nutrients. The added exercise may also produce a greater demand for nutrients. A vitamin/mineral supplement helps guarantee your dog's body has what it needs to stay healthy, alert, and active. Until recently many of the weight reduction dog foods were deficient in fatty acids, and supplementation was necessary. One of the consequences of decreased fatty acid intake is a dry, flaky hair coat. To keep your pet's skin and coat healthy, it may still be necessary to supplement your pet with a fatty acid supplement such as Dermcaps or Drs. Foster and Smith Vitacaps.

Dietary aids

Various medications and nutraceuticals are being evaluated for use as an adjunct to the more traditional weight reduction program. These include dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) which has been shown to have antiobesity activity in rodents. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine demonstrated that dogs receiving DHEA while being on a weight reduction program lost weight faster and had lower cholesterol levels than those dogs who were on a weight reduction program alone. Carnitine is being included in some weight reduction programs because of its effect on the utilization of fat by the body. Studies have suggested that another compound, pyruvate, has favorably altered the metabolism of obese rats and humans and was associated with increased weight loss. Chromium picolinate has been demonstrated to promote the activity of insulin. It's effect on weight loss in obese animals is being studied. The herbal compound Garcinia cambogia contains hydroxycitric acid which is being investigated as a potential antiobesity agent. Coenzyme Q10, also known as ubiquinone, is essential for energy production at the cellular level. It has been shown to benefit humans with various heart and muscle diseases. Again, studies of its effect on obese animals are currently underway. It has been shown to be safe, with no adverse effects demonstrated in animal studies according to Nutramax, a company which produces Coenzyme Q10 in an oral form for dogs, cats and horses. The above five compounds are included in the product Drs. Foster and Smith's Metabolic Accelerator for dogs. Chitin/chitosan, a compound that may inhibit fat absorption and storage is undergoing evaluation as an adjunct to dietary alterations. It is the active ingredient in Dr. Foster and Smith's Fat Absorber.

Keep a written log of food intake (including all treats), exercise and weekly weight. Weigh your dog weekly on the same scale at the same time of day. (Most veterinary offices will be more than happy to have you come in and use their scale.) It is sometimes helpful to plot out this information (dates and weights) on a graph. Remember, you may hit 'plateaus' in which your dog seems stuck at a certain weight. This is common. Don't despair, but continue with the weight reduction program. A good way to help you enjoy your success is to take a 'before' diet picture, several during the weight reduction process, and then one at its conclusion. You will be amazed at the difference. Make appointments with your veterinarian every two to four weeks to make adjustments in the weight control program.


Once the weight is lost, the last thing we want is for the dog to regain it. To be sure that does not happen, continue weighing your dog as you gradually increase food intake. You can either feed more of weight reduction diet or change to a diet that is less restrictive. Do not start feeding free choice (the bowl of food is always there). If weight is regained consistently for 2 weeks or more than 3% of weight is regained in one week go back on the diet program. Remember exercise needs to continue after the weight is lost or pounds will start to accumulate again.

Enjoy the results

When the weight goal is reached, congratulate yourself and your dog. You will be amazed at how much younger and livelier your dog seems to be. Enjoy the longer life you will be able to have with your happier, healthier friend!

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