56% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and that excess weight is tied to an astonishing array of health problems.
When it comes to preventing obesity, or even the slow creep of excess pounds, simple awareness—knowing what your dog’s weight should be, and keeping on top of any fluctuations—is the first step (read more about the importance of weight awareness and the big difference just a few pounds can make here).
You can seek your vet’s counsel on your dog’s ideal weight, but a quick way to assess good canine condition at home is to ask:
Does your dog have an hour-glass shape when you stand behind them and look down?
Do they have a waist?
Can you easily feel their ribs?
If you’re getting three “nos,” there’s a good chance your dog needs to lose weight. So, now what? Here, some vet-approved tips for helping your dog safely shed excess pounds and keeping them in good condition.
The food factor
For dogs, as for humans, losing weight really comes down to two things: food and exercise. And for a dog owner trying to manage or reduce their dog’s weight, food is most important, by far.
“Weight loss begins and ends at the food bowl for dogs and cats,” Dr. Ernie Ward, DVM, and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) told us. “Weight loss for humans and dogs is 60-70% diet and 30-40% exercise.”
For dog owners who have active lifestyles, it’s easy to overestimate the impact of physical activity on weight maintenance.
Get specific with how much you’re feeding
Here’s where things can go sideways. Humans may or may not choose to count calories as a guide for what they’re eating, with some opting for other methods of keeping to a healthy regime (do my pants fit? Great). But when it comes to the long-term management of your dog’s weight, it’s essential to establish a concrete benchmark for how much to feed. This means determining the number of calories your dog needs every day.
It’s not a good idea to rely on the feeding guidelines on the average pet food package. There are many factors that will influence your dog’s dietary needs, including breed, size, activity level, and whether they’re spayed or neutered. Standard kibble-bag feeding ranges are generally too broad for your dog and many owners end up over-feeding based on too-generous, and too-vague suggested portion sizes, typically measured in cups and scoops.
The feeding guidelines on pet food packages, says Ward, are based on active adult dogs for all life stages. “Spaying or neutering, for example, reduces energy requirement by 20 to 30%,” he says. So, if your pet is spayed or neutered, and not particularly active, you can already be overfeeding by 20 or 30% or more.
Ward recommends working with your vet to determine the ideal caloric intake. “We take a couple of things into consideration—we look at body condition score, we look at muscle condition score, we look at lifestyle, and any concurrent medical conditions,” he says. “We start by determining, ok how many calories should you be feeding?”
As a starting place, there are also many tools online to provide rough feeding guidelines based on weight and breed (you might start by consulting the guide published by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention).
For at-home calculating, you can use the Resting Energy Requirement (RER) formula. Take your dog’s weight in kilograms, multiply by 30, and add 70 (or, take their weight in pounds, divide by 2.2, multiply this figure by 30 and add 70). You can then factor in a metabolic energy requirement (MER) depending on things like health, whether they’re spayed or neutered, etc.
Typical MER factors:
Weight loss–1.0 x RER
Neutered/ Spayed Adult–1.6 x RER
Intact Adult–1.8. x RER
You can find a MER multiplier table here.
These tools provide an estimate, but every dog’s metabolism is different, so be sure to keep monitoring your pet’s weight. You can also sign up for a fresh-food plan (like the ones we offer customers of The Farmer’s Dog). A plan like this makes it easy to determine the correct total caloric intake and food portions based on your dog’s very specific requirements, and also makes it easy to adjust daily calories based on changing weight-management needs.
Try breaking up meals
Feeding in smaller portions can also be helpful. Dr. Carol Osborne, an integrative veterinarian at Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Ohio, recommends taking your dog’s total daily ration and dividing it up into three to six portions. Multiple, small meals require energy to digest, which burns calories, she says.
“Feeding small meals every four to six hours helps keep your dog’s insulin levels stable, which reduces appetite spikes and keeps (your dog’s) tummy full most of the day,” she says. “Once your dog’s metabolism begins to work properly, excess pounds come off easily.”
Food quality is also key
In addition to calorie counting, another important part of weight maintenance or weight loss is feeding lower carb, whole, fresh food.
Many processed dog foods are full of carb-based fillers—Ward has written that when you actually break down the ingredients on the label, many of them top out at over 60% or more carbohydrates. Ward and Osborne both generally recommend diets that have balanced protein and carbohydrates. Fresh diets provide quality protein, but also the fiber and moisture that can keep your dog satisfied.
Feeding nutrient-dense, bioavailable food will keep your dog healthy as they reduce their overall intake of food.
Treats count, so count them
Another way to help your dog drop some extra weight is by controlling, and possibly reducing, their treat intake. Here, again, quality and quantity matter.
Nobody wants to deny their dog treats, as they are often helpful training aids, and it’s fun to see the excitement they generate. But it’s important to keep a close eye on how many treats your dog actually eats in a day and what their caloric impact is. Treats should be factored into, and comprise no more than, 10% of total daily calories.
Dog owners who feed their dog healthy food yet still feed highly processed, high-carb, high-calorie treats are potentially missing a big source of weight gain and health issues. And if you feed your dog too many treats (more than 10% of their daily intake of food), you can undo the benefits of the balanced diet you’re feeding.
Osborne, and many other vets, recommend using single-ingredient treats like fresh veggies and fruit. Baby carrots, celery, broccoli, green beans, cucumbers, blueberries, apples and bananas all make healthy treats and, unlike mystery-meat treats, can contribute to your dog’s health (use apple and banana in smaller amounts due to higher sugar content).
As for peanut butter, make sure it’s truly a special (rare) treat, and doled out in limited amounts—this dog- and human favorite has a hefty 100 calories per tablespoon. Also, ensure that the peanut butter you’re using doesn’t contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. For a lighter, and perhaps better, substitute, try plain canned pumpkin, which weighs in at just five calories per tablespoon.
It’s also worth stepping back and considering why you’re giving your dog treats. Our bond with our dogs is so special, and every dog owner wants to see the happy excitement a treat brings. But you can get that joyful response with healthy treats, or with smaller portions. “I typically tell owners that dogs get the same enjoyment, and you can get the same reaction, from a small piece of a treat as you can from the whole thing or a handful,” says Dr. Alex Schechter, DVM. “There are many ways to show love and bond with your pet. It doesn’t have to be all about food.”
Increase Exercise, Safely
Food is key, but no weight loss plan, or health maintenance plan, is complete without exercise. The most obvious, and important, activity for your dog is walking. Regular walks don’t just exercise your dog’s body, they provide crucial mental stimulation and and that all-important opportunity to sniff. The amount of walking your dog needs, or wants, depends on their breed and general health. But while conventional wisdom says that some dogs need less exercise than others, all dogs need to move.
While the recommended minimum of daily exercise is 20 minutes, twice a day, many dogs will need much more. For many breeds, an hour of exercise a day is a good target. If your dog needs to lose weight, try to increase the amount of exercise they currently do. So, if that’s none, or barely any, start with short intervals of walking. If you’re already exercising, try lengthening your walk or other activity by at 10-20%.
Ask your vet about the best types of activities based on your pet’s breed, age, gender and current physical condition. Introduce new activities slowly to avoid injury. And, unless your dog has been trained for or slowly introduced to these kinds of activities, leave the extreme sports to your own weekend hours—too-vigorous, or repetitive activity can put your dog at risk of joint problems. Also, keep weather conditions—like high sun—in mind if your activities are outdoors. The sun creates potential for heat stroke and burnt paw pads.
Rule out a medical condition
If you’ve established and are staying within caloric boundaries and you’re and still not having any luck helping your dog lose weight, a visit to the vet could be in order to rule out a medical condition. Weight gain and lethargy can be symptoms of conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Syndrome. The latter, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, usually occurs in older dogs, and can also cause frequent urination, hair loss and weakness.
Weight Loss (and Maintenance) Is A Long Game
If you determine that you’re overfeeding, work with your veterinarian to create a weight loss schedule based on the appropriate calories so that your dog doesn’t lose weight too fast, which is unhealthy.
Overall, the best weight management strategy is to develop good habits that are applied, consistently, long-term.
“People (humans) want to rush weight loss,” says Ward. “30 days to bikini season! But this is a long process. It’s years of making small decisions that help. When you’re deciding on sharing your pizza crust with your Pomeranian, if you do it once, ok. But if you do it once a week for five years, that’s a problem.”
This article was vetted by a vet.
Reviewed by Dr. Alex Schechter, Founding Veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care