According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, over half of dogs in the United States are obese or overweight. Just like in humans, obesity can lead to a variety of health problems as dogs age. These can range from painful joint conditions to more serious conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
To prevent these problems and keep dogs at a healthy weight, veterinarians may recommend weight loss for dogs. If you’re wondering how to help a dog lose weight—and do it safely—we’ve rounded up some effective methods and tips. But first it helps to understand more about what causes obesity in dogs and how excessive fat can impact your pet’s health.
Understanding Obesity in Dogs
Obesity in dogs is caused by excess body fat. Dogs that weigh more than 30 percent of their ideal weight are generally defined as obese. Veterinarians use body condition scores (which are similar to BMI measurements in humans) and breed standards to determine the ideal weight for a dog.
Overweight Dogs: How it Impacts Health
Excessive fat on a dog is not just a cosmetic problem—obesity comes with significant health consequences. In fact, obesity is likely the greatest health threat that dogs face. We now know that obesity is an inflammatory and hormonal disease, and is linked to many diseases in dogs, including osteoarthritis, cancer, kidney disease, urinary tract problems, underactive thyroid, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and liver disease.
The good news is that you can drastically reduce your dog’s risk of most of these diseases and live longer, healthier, and more pain-free through proper diet, exercise, and weight management.
7 Ways to Help Your Dog Lose Weight
Fortunately, if your dog is carrying around extra weight, it is fairly straightforward and simple to help your dog slim down. Here are seven tips to get you started.
Ask Your Vet for Target Weight and Daily Calories
You know your dog needs to lose weight, but how many pounds? And how much should you be feeding your dog every day? This is where your vet’s knowledge comes in. Don’t hesitate to ask your vet for a healthy dog weight, and how many calories you should be feeding your dog every day to facilitate weight loss. This calorie amount includes dog food and any treats the dog receives during the day. You can also calculate calories yourself (but it is much easier to ask your vet).
Do Monthly Weigh-Ins
Just like Weight Watchers, you need to see your dog shed pounds to feel successful and make sure you are on the right track. Most veterinary clinics will let you come by and weigh your dog for free, and keep a record of their weight loss journey. If you have a small dog, you can always check progress at home by weighing yourself while holding your dog, then weighing yourself alone and subtracting to get your dog’s weight. However, your vet office may have a more accurate scale. Most healthy dogs should be able to reach their target weight within 3-6 months.
Use a Weight Management Dog Food
It is a good idea to switch your dog to a weight loss dog food instead of just restricting the amount of their regular food. This is because restricting a maintenance food leads to imbalances in micronutrients. Instead, switch to a low calorie, low fat, and high fiber diet that is designed to be fed for weight loss to ensure your dog does not develop an imbalanced nutritional state.
While there are many over-the-counter weight loss foods, most veterinarians prefer to use therapeutic foods, like Hill’s Metabolic Diet or Blue Natural Veterinary W + M diet, that have been clinically proven to facilitate rapid, safe weight loss in dogs.
If your dog eats their food too quickly and then begs for more, try giving them their food in a food puzzle or slow feeder bowl.
Weigh Your Pet’s Food
Using a measuring cup to measure pet food turns out to be fairly inaccurate, and feeding even a kibble or two extra each day to a small dog can sabotage your weight loss goals. This is why it is most accurate to weigh the food daily on a gram scale. Again, you will need your veterinarian’s expertise. Just tell them that you weigh your dog’s food, and you would like to know how much, in grams, to feed each day. Your veterinarian will need to know the exact brand of food you are feeding to calculate the amount to feed.
Give Low Calorie Treats
While you are restricting your dog’s calories, it still might be an important part of your bond to feed your dog treats. You don’t have to stop feeding treats, but instead of choosing high calorie milk bones, give your dog raw or cooked veggies. Many dogs love veggies like carrots, cucumber, zucchini, and green beans. You can also give berries and apple slices in moderation.
There are also commercially available low calorie, high fiber dog treats that you can purchase. You can also break treats into small bits so that your dog thinks they are getting many treats! Just remember that 90 percent of a dog’s daily calories should come from their dog food, and if you want your dog to lose weight, it is important to not exceed the daily calorie count.
Walk for Weight Loss
Taking your dog on a brisk 30-minute walk every day can boost calorie burn, reduce behavioral problems including begging, and improve heart health and immune function. Commit to 30 minutes daily of low-impact cardio with your dog, rain or shine. It will be good for you both! You can even train a dog to walk on a treadmill if there is inclement weather, or play indoor fetch or other games.
Supplement for Weight Loss
L-carnitine, an amino acid derivative, has been shown to facilitate weight loss and promote muscle building. It is often included in a lot of weight loss dog foods but can also be supplemented.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, have also been shown to facilitate weight loss and reduce inflammation. They can also help dogs that have arthritis pain feel better, and most dogs can benefit from a daily fish oil supplement.
Check with your veterinarian before starting any supplements to make sure they are right for your dog.
Weight Loss Safety for Dogs
It is always a good idea to get your dog checked out by a veterinarian to make sure there aren’t any underlying conditions, like Cushing’s or hypothyroidism, that can make it very difficult for dogs to lose excess weight. Your vet can also make sure your dog is healthy enough for an exercise program, and ensure that any pain from osteoarthritis that might make your dog reluctant to move is controlled.
If you are changing your dog’s food, do so gradually. Introducing a new food too quickly can cause stomach upset, leading to diarrhea, nausea, and possible refusal of the new food.
Start any new exercise routine slowly, even with healthy dogs. As long as your dog is healthy, you can use the following guidelines from the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention for a safe dog exercise program:
- Week 1: 10 minutes brisk walk, 20 minutes casual pace (to allow for the sniffing on the way home)
- Week 2: 15 minutes brisk walk, 15 minutes casual pace
- Week 3: 20 minutes brisk walk, 10 minutes casual pace
- Week 4: 30 minutes brisk walk, 5-10 minutes casual/cool down
You don’t need a warm-up at the beginning unless your dog is stiff when they start out. Otherwise, just go for it!If you are walking your dog in cold winter weather, jackets and protective booties may be needed. If you are exercising in the heat, try to time walks during the cooler parts of the day. If it is warmer than 85 degrees or you will be going longer than 30 minutes, bring water. Avoid walking very old, sick, or brachycephalic (smush-face) dogs in the heat.