Maintaining your dog's healthy weight: the do's & dont's
Updated: Jan 24
A shocking statistic: currently over 50% of pet dogs are overweight or obese. Even more shocking is that most of us may not realize if our dog is overweight, or underweight, and what to do about it if they are. Let’s take a peek at why this statistic occurs, why a healthy weight is important, what to look for in an ideal weight, and how to help your dog achieve a healthy weight.
So why are so many dogs overweight?
It may have to do with how dogs evolved. Wild canines convinced humans to share their food with them, ensuring easy survival. Of course, this survival skill still exists in our dogs and they know how to look at us with those “puppy dog eyes” and convince us to give them just one more treat or just a little human food scrap or just a bit more kibble.
So what if my dog is a little overweight. Why does it matter?
Your dog’s life, literally, and wellbeing are at stake. A Purina-funded study in 2018 found that an overweight dog’s lifespan is 2.5 years shorter than a dog kept at a healthy weight. In addition, overweight dogs are at greater risk for these common health concerns:
Osteoarthritis and joint pain
Heart and respiratory disease
We all want our dogs to enjoy their life and live as long as possible. Our role in helping them live their best lives is to keep them at their ideal healthy weight.
How can I tell if my dog is at the ideal weight?
You can’t tell by knowing that they are in the “normal” weight range for their breed. You can’t tell by whether your dog begs for food or seems hungry all the time. You can’t tell just by looking at them (especially if you have a long-haired or fluffy dog). The only way to tell is by knowing what to look for and really getting your hands on your dog to feel for a few key things.
Assessing a dog with longer fur
To start, make sure your dog is standing up (not sitting or lying down) when you assess their weight. Look at your dog from the side. You should see the waist of your dog tuck up behind the ribs. Then, straddle your dog and look straight down at their waist and hips. You should see an obvious tucked-in waist behind the ribcage making an hourglass shape to their hips.
Next, you need to get your hands on your dog to feel for a good weight. Run the flat palms of your hand (not your fingertips) from your dog’s shoulders to their waist along their ribcage. You should fairly easily feel ribs just beneath the skin, especially the last TWO ribs just before the waist. If you can feel every single rib with your palms then your dog may need to gain a little weight. If you have to press really hard or tell yourself that just beneath that layer of flesh you know that there are ribs, your dog needs to lose weight (you are not alone in this).
Now, find the bony protrusions of the pelvis (your dog's hips) on their topside, and then feel for the spine between those hip points. There should be a good layer of muscle covering the vertebra between the hipbones. If you can easily feel the vertebra here, your dog may need to gain weight. If you have to press really hard to feel vertebrae deep under the flesh here, your dog may need to lose weight.
Assessing a dog with shorter fur
If after you do a hands-on test of your dog’s weight you realize that they may be either underweight or overweight don’t worry, there are lots of things you can do to help bring them closer to the ideal. Consult with your veterinarian to ensure that feeding alone is not the reason for your dog’s weight, as there are medical conditions that might cause a dog to be over or under a healthy weight.
The DOs and DON’Ts of helping your dog lose weight
Talk to your veterinarian and make sure it is safe to cut their daily calorie intake by about 1/3rd. Ensure their weight loss is safe and sustainable long term by keeping it slow and steady. Ideally, your dog will be losing between 1 to 4 percent of their starting body weight every 2 weeks (or about 0.5 to 2 percent per week, and 2 to 8 percent per month). Keep in mind that it’s normal for them to lose weight faster initially at the beginning, as they may be quickly dropping water weight. You can read in more detail about how to calculate your dog’s daily caloric needs for weight loss or maintenance here: https://petobesityprevention.org/pet-caloric-needs.
Spread out their food over several small meals throughout the day to help keep them feeling full.
Bulk up their meals by adding dog-safe fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber and nutrients, like green beans, carrots, apples, blueberries, or bananas
Feed lean, high protein meats and fish
Ration their treats each day. Cutting back on meals won’t help if everyone is giving the dog extra treats. Consider feeding some or all of their daily kibble ration as their training treats and rewards.
Use a puzzle feeder to make mealtime more active and engaging physically and mentally.
Provide plenty of exercise. Try to get them out for at least two 30-minute walks every day.
Feed based on the recommended amount listed on the kibble bag. Most brands recommend more than most pet dogs actually need.
Think of putting your dog on a diet. Think of this as adjusting their feeding routine permanently to maintain their ideal weight.
Feed them because they look or act hungry. Remember, that is what dogs evolved to be extra good at doing. Dogs that want food all the time (looking at you labs!) want food all the time, regardless of how much you feed them.
Feel guilty about feeding them less. Just feed them the appropriate amount of nutritious, high-quality foods and give them lots of love, exercise, and quality time with you.
Try clicker-training games to build strength and flexibility. Here are some great ideas that do require experience with basic clicker training https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/easy-exercises-for-canine-conditioning/ These exercises are great if it is too cold or dark or icy or smoky to get your dog out one day. They are also good for giving your dog variety in their exercise routine and movement which helps develop a variety of muscles and prevent injuries or boredom. An additional reward of clicker training exercise is that your dog gets to spend fun time with you, which is what they really want even more than food or treats.
Helping your dog gain weight
If you need to help your dog GAIN some weight here are some of our favorite things to add to kibble meals:
Two days (not more) a week add a raw egg to their meal (grind up the shell into dust and add that too. It's great for their joint health!)
Add canned sardines or salmon. Sardines or salmon packed in water is best, but oil is okay. Just watch that the salt content is not too high. One or two sardines or a quarter to half a can of salmon per meal is plenty depending on the size of your dog.
Feed several small meals throughout the day to make it easier for them to digest extra calories.
Talk to your veterinarian about adding pre and probiotics and/or digestive enzymes to their meals to help them digest their food efficiently and maximize the calories they get from it.
Reach out to anyone on the Buddy team if you need some support with assessing your dog's weight and maintaining their healthy weight. We're here for you!
Photos from Port Royal Veterinary Hospital Facebook post (they give credit to Haldon Animal Hospital). Fit vs. Overweight for the same breed.