More than 50% of dogs in North America are classified as either overweight or obese and that figure is growing. We know that these dogs are at a higher risk for health problems so take an objective look and follow these Dos and Don’ts if you suspect your dog is on the heavy side.
If your dog or cat is overweight, you’re far from alone. In fact, because so many animals are overweight now, many people can no longer tell the difference between a fat, chubby, and normal dog. If you’re not sure about your own animal, look down at his body from above as he’s standing or walking. Does he have a tapered-in waist? If not — if he’s shaped more like an oval or rectangle — he’s probably too heavy. You should also be able to feel (but not see) his ribs, as well as the bones near the base of his tail. If he’s obese, you’ll see obvious amounts of excess fat on his abdomen, hips, and neck.
Compare your dog or cat to the body condition charts provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) at https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Body-Condition-Score-Dog.pdf. The goal is a body condition score of 4 to 5 for dogs.
Help him lose weight — do’s and don’ts
Don’t free feed. Providing round-the-clock access to food is a mistake that goes hand-in-hand with feeding ultra-stable, ultra-processed dry foods, because they’re the only types of food you can safely leave out at room temperature 24/7 for days on end. Free feeding is the perfect way to create an overweight or obese dog. A constantly available food source turns your carnivorous hunter into a grazer, which ultimately creates metabolic diseases, including diabetes and immune dysregulation.
Do this instead: Separate your animal’s daily rations into several small portions and place them in different locations around the house for him to find. Make use of food puzzle toys for dogs, which encourage natural behaviours and provide mental stimulation. Also consider putting food bowls at the tops and bottoms of stairs to encourage muscle-building exercise throughout the day. Alternatively, you can feed two portion-controlled meals a day, aiming to get all calories into an eight- to ten-hour window. This effective strategy means your animal is practicing intermittent fasting, which has been demonstrated to extend the lifespan of all mammals.
Don’t feed too much. Most people who feed ultra-processed, shelf-stable, commercial kibble follow the suggested feeding guidelines printed on the package, which often isn’t the best approach. These recommendations typically use overly broad weight ranges such as “under 20 pounds” when clearly, a 15-pound dog requires significantly more calories than a five-pound dog. Feeding instructions on these packages also use wide serving ranges, such as “feed ½ to 1½ cups”. These suggestions obviously can’t take into account, for example, an animal’s activity level, and they tend to be short on other important details, such as whether “feed ½ to 1½ cups” is a daily or per-meal guideline.
Do this instead: Decide (with the help of your veterinarian, if needed) what your dog’s ideal weight should be. Then use the following formulas to calculate the precise number of calories he needs to get down to his or her ideal weight and maintain it.
This means an “average” 22-pound beagle needs about 370 calories a day (assuming he’s not doing agility or has extenuating medical circumstances). For dogs that need to lose more than 10% of their body weight, I recommend reducing calories in small increments. So in this case, first calculate how many calories the beagle needs to get to 28 pounds; once he achieves that goal, recalculate daily calories for 26 pounds, until he achieves his ideal weight. “Slow and steady” is the name of the weight loss game.
Note that these are resting energy requirements for “average” animals, which is why it’s important to work with a veterinarian if your dog has extenuating circumstances.
Don’t feed starchy, carb-heavy, processed pet food. A very big contributor to the animal obesity epidemic is the carbs found in ultra-processed pet food. Many dog parents overfeed, but very often the problem is the type of macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) – i.e. where the calories are coming from. A calorie from protein acts very differently in the body than a calorie from starch (sugar).
Many commercial dry pet foods are loaded with carbs (30% to 50% of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. A carb intake above 20% often activates internal enzyme factors that store the excess as body fat, unless your dog is very active.
Do this instead: Calculate the carbs you are feeding by looking at the guaranteed analysis on the side of the bag, then doing this simple equation:
Carbs in food = Fat + Protein + Fiber + Ash (estimate 6% if not listed) + Moisture – 100
Dogs need food high in animal protein and moisture, with low to no grain or starch content. A high quality fresh food diet is the best choice for animals who need to lose weight. It’s important to adequately nourish their bodies with great quality protein as weight loss occurs, making sure their requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients are met. My own recommendation is a homemade, nutritionally balanced, fresh food diet of lean meats and healthy fats, along with fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates. If you can’t make food for your dog, many companies offer great quality, species-specific (low carb) foods.
Don’t feed too many treats. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese animal, while overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies. Treat size is also a big factor. Treats should be the size of a pea: bigger animals just get more pea-sized treats than smaller ones.
Do this instead: Limit treats to rewards for training and good behavior. For a dog, use treats to practice a “sit”, or as a “time to get in your crate” enticement. Keep treats at or less than 10% of your animal’s daily calorie intake, which means offering very small amounts, very infrequently. Consider using small amounts of fresh human foods. such as tiny bits of cooked chicken breast, blueberries, other safe fruits (e.g., tiny pieces of melons and apples), chopped string cheese, frozen peas, or raw sunflower or pumpkin seeds.
Don’t ignore the need for exercise. You’ll never see fat canines in the wild because they follow their natural instincts, which include the drive to be physically active, and the need to move a lot to catch food. Given the opportunity and incentive, our dogs will enjoy walking, running, playing, chasing things, rolling in the grass and just being the natural athletes they were born to be. It’s up to us to provide these opportunities.
Do this instead: Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (preferably 60) of aerobic activity will help your animal burn fat and increase muscle tone. Animals that are very overweight or obese may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise at first. Ask your veterinarian or an animal rehab professional what exercises are safe for your animal to do now, and which you need to avoid or put off until he’s in better condition.
You dog doesn’t have to be an obesity statistic. By making a few lifestyle changes, he can get back on track to a long and healthy life, and help bring those numbers down!
Dr. Karen Becker is a holistic veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator. She has certification in acupuncture and homeopathy and in 1999 opened the Natural Pet Animal Hospital in Tinley Park, Illinois. Dr. Becker is also a licensed Naturopathic Medical Doctor. www.drkarenbecker.com