Manage your dog’s weight without pills

weight issues in dogs

Weight is a major health concern in dogs. Just as millions of Americans are overweight, so are our canine companions. Approximately 20% to 30% of dogs in the United States are overweight, and 5% are obese.

The two main causes are too much food and too little exercise. According to the Veterinary Medical Association, obesity is the fourth leading cause of death among canines. Dogs carrying too much weight are prone to heart disease, arthritis, skin and coat problems, trouble breathing, and difficulty controlling their body temperature. Other factors that can cause weight gain are neutering, slow metabolism, and hormonal disorders such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease. “The metabolic rate of spayed and neutered dogs drops dramatically immediately after sterilization surgery, meaning they need fewer calories,” says veterinarian Dr. Jean Hofve. “If people understood the need to decrease a dog’s food intake by 25% after sterilization, many weight problems would be avoided.”

An extra seven pounds on a dog that should weigh 35 is equivalent to an extra 30 pounds on a human weighing 150. So how do you tell if your dog is overweight? When you put your hands on your dog’s ribcage, do you feel a lot of fat instead of a thin layer of fat across the ribs? Other signs to look for are fat on the lower back and base of the tail, no “waist” when viewed from above, and a thickened trunk near the hind legs. Morbidly obese dogs have protruding abdomens and fat deposits throughout their bodies.

Diet pills are not the answer

In response to this widespread problem, Pfizer Animal Health recently developed Slentrol, the first FDA approved diet drug for canine obesity. It works by suppressing the dog’s appetite and blocking fat absorption. It is administered orally, either on the dog’s food or directly into his mouth. Dogs can be expected to lose an average of 3% of their weight every month. Some experts, such as Dr. Hofve, feel that drugs for weight loss are going to the extreme, when diet and exercise are more natural ways to help dogs drop extra pounds.

Dr. Hofve believes these drugs should only be used when the comfort and health of the dog has been so severely compromised that he is in danger of serious illness, incapacitation, or death. “I would not use it except in extreme cases and on a very limited basis,” she says. “To be brutally honest, I think we are so accustomed to ‘quick fixes’ that a diet pill for dogs is just one more way to appeal to human laziness and unwillingness to put any time or effort into a problem that could and should have easily been prevented in the first place.” Dr. Hofve has heard from other vets that the drug doesn’t work for every dog. “In fact, it only works really well for people who are highly motivated and committed to helping their dogs lose weight. Not surprisingly, these are the same guardians who will comply with a diet and exercise program that will produce the same good results without the drug.”

Like many drugs, Slentrol has side effects that can include intermittent vomiting and/or diarrhea. “After reviewing the studies and other available information, I have to wonder if nausea is one reason why dogs on this drug eat less,” says Dr. Hofve. “It may also have adverse effects on the liver, and appears to decrease blood levels of fat-soluble vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients. Since a dedicated guardian giving the dog an appropriate diet and adequate exercise is likely to be successful without the drug, I see no particular advantage and many potential disadvantages to using it. Maybe what we really need is a pill to convince guardians that excess weight on a dog is in fact a life-threatening problem, and make them buckle down and help their dogs get healthy! In the meantime, diet and exercise remain the fundamentals of weight management.”

Weighty issues

It is up to you to make sure your dog maintains his ideal weight. This means:

•Not allowing him to free feed (leaving food down all the time)
•Not over-feeding him at meal times
•Not giving him high-caloric treats and fatty table scraps

While there are diet foods on the market, it’s better to feed your dog a high quality food with natural ingredients to help prevent weight gain. When choosing packaged foods, look for named meat sources such as beef, chicken or lamb. Avoid foods that contain corn or wheat gluten; these are cheap waste products from the human food industry that provide an incomplete source of protein not easily digested by dogs. Stay away as well from artificial sugars and sweeteners.

“Many foods are highly processed, contain many additives, and are generally too high in carbohydrates (20% to 30%) for most dogs to metabolize as efficiently as they do meat,” explains Dr. Hofve.

If you are unable to resist the pleading eyes of your dog during mealtimes, there are ways you can treat him without piling on the pounds. Make treats small. You can even use a small portion from your dog’s own food. Instead of leftover French fries or pizza crusts, try giving him low-calorie snacks such as fresh or frozen vegetables, lean meat and fruit slices.

Slimming down

If your dog is already overweight, there are steps you can take to help him slim down. First, aim for a 10% weight loss, which amounts to 1% of your dog’s bodyweight per week. You’ll want to make sure he loses at a slow rate, because losing weight rapidly can cause a loss of lean body mass.

Next, weigh your dog and calculate his daily caloric intake. By doing this, you’ll be able to determine how much weight he should be losing and the number of calories that should be subtracted from his diet. “Dogs should be fed for their ideal weight, not the weight they are,” advises Dr. Hofve. “For instance, a dog that should weigh 30 pounds but is 15 pounds overweight should be fed the recommended calorie intake for a 30-pound dog.” You can find an online calculator at

To start your dog on his new feeding schedule, you can either reduce the total amount of food or change his diet to something healthier. Also, instead of two main meals a day, try giving him mini meals throughout the day. “It’s the same as with people – portion control!” says Dr. Hofve. “And feeding smaller meals more often is better than a single daily meal.”

To all those whose dogs may be overweight, remember that food is not a substitute for love and affection!

Filling up on treats?

Remember to consider how many calories you might be adding with treats. “Some commercial treats contain over 100 calories each,” says veterinarian Dr. Donna Spector. “It is easy to see how giving just a few treats, in addition to regular meals, can be the cause of excess calorie intake and contribute to obesity. Treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calories For example, an average 20-pound adult dog will require approximately 500 calories each day – therefore, no more than 50 calories should be provided as treats.” Halo, Purely for Pets is one company that’s making it easier to know what you’re giving your dog by putting the caloric content on its treat packaging.

Smart Moves

Exercise must be a part of your dog’s new weight loss program. An overweight or obese dog is not at his peak physical condition, so start slowly and increase the frequency and intensity of exercise. Jumping into a vigorous exercise program can tax underused muscles and put stress on the dog’s heart and lungs.

Talk to your vet before starting a sedentary or overweight dog on an exercise regime. Begin with short walks around the block, and then you can slowly work towards a game of fetch. Make it a habit to set aside the same time each day to exercise your dog, so it becomes part of your routine and not just something you do when you think of it or have the time.

“Every dog is an individual,” says Dr. Hofve. “It depends on the breed, age, condition, and how overweight the dog is. Starting an exercise program for an obese couch-potato with a five-mile hike is more likely to give you a lot of exercise – carrying the exhausted dog home. For an older, very out-of-shape, very obese dog, a walk to the corner and back might be the most you can expect. Of course, as the dog becomes better conditioned and loses weight, the amount of exercise can and should be increased.”