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How to help my dog lose weight? Diet and exercise for overweight dogs

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe


How do we help a dog lose weight, and why is it so important that we do? Like humans, obesity is becoming an epidemic for our best friends. In 2016, more than 54% of dogs in the US were classified as overweight, and this trend is growing. This means that weight loss for dogs is a critical issue for more than half of canine companions.

Unfortunately, many owners don't want to face the idea that their dog is fat, it makes us feel guilty and avoid the issue. And many of us can't resist those pleading eyes or fat shame our pudgy pups! But a good weight loss exercise can be as good for us as for them. And helping our fat dogs get on a healthier diet is a satisfying and rewarding way of improving their quality of life and overall health.  

So, let's start at the beginning; does your dog need to lose weight?

How do I know if my dog is fat?

The easiest and simplest way to know if your dog is fat is by touch and sight. Touching is essential if you have a "floof" or long-haired breed that makes it difficult to gauge their actual body condition. 

The most common chart that vets use determines their 9-point body condition score (BCS). There is a similar 5 point system, but we will focus on the 9-point BCS right now. It's best to let your vet help you do this for an accurate assessment but you can get a good idea yourself at home by focusing on a few main points:

  1. Looking at your dog from the side, is there a clear tummy tuck? Does the tummy curve upward from the rib cage to the spine, or does the stomach area run flat from the ribs or even further than the ribs?

  1. If you probe the ribcage, can you clearly feel them? The last one or two ribs should be mildly visible on short-haired breeds. Ribs should not protrude, but if they are covered with a thick layer of fat and are difficult to feel, your dog is likely overweight. Keep in mind breeds like sighthounds will have much more pronounced ribs than other dogs.

  1. Looking at your dog from above, can you see a clearly defined waist between the ribcage and the hip bones? Can you see a lovely hourglass figure, or is it more of a sausage shape? A lack of a waist is a sign of obesity. One should also clearly be able to feel the hip bones without them jutting out.

Using the 9 point BCS system, scores 1-3 indicated a dog is underweight. 4 and 5 are the ideal weight, while 6 is overweight. It progresses from there, but a dog that scores a 9 is grossly obese.

Dogs are diagnosed as obese if they are over 15% of their ideal body weight. This means that they would have a BCS score of 7 or above. 

What is my dog's ideal weight?

Getting your dog's ideal body weight is tricky since breeds can have drastically different body types. For example, Pit Bulls or English Bull Terriers are naturally densely muscled dogs with an ideal weight as high or even higher than many larger breeds. Some breeds like Whippets or Greyhounds have natural "thin" frames with visible ribs, which would be considered underweight on most other dogs.

Of course, breeds have average weight ranges that are helpful guides. However, your specific dog will have their own unique build and will have their own individual ideal weight. Again, a vet assessment is best to establish a perfect weight, look for underlying medical issues, and create the best weight loss plan. But if you confirm your dog's BCS, you can do some math to get an idea.

You can also read more about how to keep a dog healthy here/learn/dog-health/how-to-keep-your-dog-healthy.

Example of how to calculate your dog's ideal weight using the 9 point BCS system

    Choosing a dog that currently weighs 30 pounds and has a BCS score of 8.

1. Deduct 5 from the BCS score:

    8-5 = 3

2. Take answer and multiply by 10:

3x 10 = 30

3. Add 100 to answer:    

30 + 100 = 130

4. Divide 100 by your previous answer:

100 / 130 = 0.769 (or 0.77 when it is rounded off)

5. Take your dog's weight at the moment and multiply  it by the previous answer. 

.77 x 30 pounds = 23.1pounds

6. The ideal goal weight:

23.1 pounds

Why is my dog getting fat? Causes of canine obesity.

The most obvious reasons that dogs are getting fat is they’re ingesting too many calories, especially in the form of treats, snacks, or free-feeding practices, and not getting enough exercise. 

However, suppose you have a fat dog. In that case, it’s vital to see a veterinarian for a full screening before embarking on a canine weight loss plan. Several conditions could be contributing to the weight, such as pain from osteoarthritis preventing movement, Cushing's Disease, Hyperthyroidism, and more. 

Furthermore, overweight dogs are more prone to having underlying diseases that may require specialized diets, such as diabetes. 

But in research, lack of exercise is highlighted as the leading cause of fat dogs, aside from overeating. Specifically, overweight dogs are usually walked less and for shorter periods.

Other dogs that are more at risk of being overweight are:

Neutered and spayed dogs.

  • Older dogs
  • A dog belonging to sedentary or older owners,
  • Dogs who watch their owners eating (it's the puppy eyes!)
  • Specific breeds prone to being overweight, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Beagle, Cairn Terrier, Dachshund, Basset, Shetland Sheepdog, Labrador, Golden Retriever, and Pug.

Health risks for overweight and obese dogs

We all know that being fat is not good for dogs, but we don't always realize the extent of the problem. Just some of the issues related to obesity in a dog include:

  • Muscular and skeletal problems. Fat puppies are particularly at risk of degenerative orthopedic disorders as they age because of the strain on their growing bones.
  • Breathing issues, particularly for short-nosed dogs like Bulldogs.
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus
  • Skin problems and tumors in both skin and stomach
  • Various cancers
  • Fertility issues
  • Renal tract and liver problems
  • Lameness, particularly in the limbs, osteoarthritis, and other inflammation.

In general, overweight dogs don't live as long as their leaner, fitter counterparts. But sometimes we put aside health; after all, eating makes your dog happy, doesn't it?

The truth is that weight loss in dogs is far better for their mental health. Studies show fat dogs who lose weight have increased vitality and less emotional disturbance. So weight loss can vastly improve an overweight dog's quality of life.

Why is my overweight dog panting so much?

An overweight dog that is panting is either struggling to cool down or get enough oxygen. Excess weight means even low levels of exercise are much more effort and cause them to pant, just like being out of breath after running up some stairs. The fat is also more insulating and makes dogs more vulnerable to heat, so they may pant excessively to try to cool down and are more at risk of heat exhaustion. 

Finally, obesity is related to heart and lung issues. So a fat dog may pant excessively when they’re ill and struggling to get enough oxygen in their system. This could be a sign of serious illness.

How long does it take for a dog to lose weight?

If a dog is obese and needs to lose 15% of its body weight, a healthy rate of weight loss should take 3 to 5 months to reach their ideal body weight.

The greater amount of weight they need to lose, the longer it will take. Smaller dogs should also lose less weight per week or month than a larger dog. 

In general, a dog that’s healthy and has no underlying problems should lose between 3 and 5% of its body weight per month. According to the Association of Pet Obesity, a safe rate of weight loss for a dog is about 1-5 pounds a month, but this depends on the dog's size and overall health. Smaller dogs should lose much less weight than bigger ones. 

Another way to put this is that a good rate of weight loss is 1-2% of the total body weight per week. This should mean losing about 15-20% of total weight (in an obese dog) in between 12 and 18 weeks. This means regular weigh-ins to track your dog's progress.

How to get your dog in shape

Firstly, as obesity correlates with so many other conditions, overweight dogs need to be examined for comorbidities. It's vital to always have your vet do a full assessment before implementing a weight loss diet and exercise plan for an overweight dog.

But assuming your dog is otherwise healthy, let's look at what a diet and exercise plan should look like.

Dog diets for weight loss

Firstly, growing puppies mustn't be given adult dog weight loss formulas, as this could cause severe deficiencies and imbalances. Overweight puppies need food that is correctly formulated for their size. Owners can simply be more careful about portions. 

Other general rules are: 

  • Restrict treats 
  • Stop any free feeding
  • Don't allow a dog access to another dog's food or leftovers
  • Gently increase activities like playtime.

You can read more about choosing a diet for your dog here/learn/dog-food/how-to-choose-the-right-food-for-your-dog

Most weight loss formulas focus on high-protein (about 30% crude protein), low-fat (10-12%), and high-fiber diets. Soluble fibers contain prebiotics that improves gut health, while insoluble fibers promote gut motility and help dogs feel fuller. 

Low-GI carbohydrates like oats fed in moderate amounts contain vital soluble fiber, such as beta-glucans and resistant starch which helps control blood sugar. Not only does this help prevent diabetes, but avoiding blood sugar spikes can help prevent your overweight dog from feeling excessively hungry.

Less processed food can also help your dog. Food cooked at high temperatures, such as canned wet food and most extruded pellets, release pro-inflammatory compounds called advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGEs are linked to obesity and related health risks in humans and animals. 

Therefore, you might consider Front of the Pack's air-dried food/food, as it removes many of the issues of over-processed dog food.

Exercises for overweight dogs

While a dog is overweight and obese, we want to look at low-impact exercise to build up their fitness and heart health over time. Gentle walking and underwater treadmill therapy are two great places to start. 

A truly overweight dog faces many risks due to excessive exercise. 

Firstly, just because a dog is overweight, it doesn’t mean they can’t run. Research shows that dogs with healthy joints don't suffer cartilage damage running with extra weight. However, it’s really common for larger breed dogs or overweight dogs to have joint problems such as hip dysplasia or luxating patellas and older dogs are more prone to arthritis. What's more, unfit dogs who run are much more susceptible to heatstroke. They may also have weaker hearts due to a lack of exercise, putting them at risk of a heart attack.

Therefore, we rule out a high-impact exercise like running while dogs are overweight or obese. Hopefully, as they reach a healthier weight, they can engage in more high-impact activities such as running, playing fetch, or even doggy sports like agility. 

But for genuinely overweight and obese dogs, we need to focus on structured walking and, if possible, regular training on an underwater treadmill.

The underwater treadmill is a great way to increase cardiovascular health and build muscle due to the low-impact resistance from water. Ideally, an overweight dog should build up to 30 minutes on an underwater treadmill three to four times a week and daily 30 minutes of brisk, fast-paced walking.

Naturally, an underwater treadmill is not accessible to everyone so let's focus on walking. 

Two things are necessary to help a fat dog lose weight: frequency and stamina.

Firstly, walks must start happening with intent. No more wandering around and smelling the roses at a leisurely pace. We need to burn calories! Rather, keep the pace brisk and the leash short. Keep water and a collapsible bowl on you to make sure your dog stays hydrated, and beware of heat and humidity. 

Stop to rest your dog if they struggle to keep up with you or begin excessive panting and lagging behind.

Walks can start with as little as five to 10 minutes of fast walking for an obese dog. Try to do this two or three times a day to build their stamina and fitness. As they grow fitter, you can increase their walking time. Every dog is different in terms of their capabilities. 

Still, ideally, you want your overweight dog to become comfortable with at least 45 minutes to an hour of moderate exercise daily. Unless their size, age, or health don’t allow this. 

How much exercise does a dog need to lose weight?

Most dogs need about an hour of exercise a day to affect their weight. For smaller dogs, or dogs that are severely obese, this can be broken up into two or three sessions throughout the day. In fact, the more frequently they are active, the faster their metabolism can keep running. So spreading physical activity across the day is beneficial. 

A good idea for the average healthy but overweight dog is to walk at a brisk pace for at least twenty minutes, three times a day. Alternatively, they can walk for 30 minutes twice a day. 

Increasing the variety of activities can also help. Teaching a fat dog to swim or play fetch can also build their strength and cardiovascular health. You can also make lifestyle changes to keep them more active, such as placing their food at the top of the stairs or letting them go with you to dog-friendly public places. 

Final Thoughts

One of the many benefits of having dogs is that they keep us active, and give us a reason to go for daily walks and runs. This is especially true for overweight and obese dogs. While they may not be able to keep up with intense exercise, gradually improving their exercise regime will massively improve their health, vitality, and quality of life.

Similarly, dogs help us remember the importance of diet. It is easy to get caught up in modern life and overlook the value of good nutrition. Choosing a healthy lifestyle for our dogs is not just about being a good and responsible pet parent; it is also a step towards reminding us to take better care of our own health to make sure we can be there for them.