Overweight bulldog

U.S. dogs are fatter than ever. In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) estimates that 53 percent of U.S. dogs are overweight or obese. Obese dogs are more likely to suffer from debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, compromised immune function and even the development of some cancers. Obesity can be life-threatening and is a leading cause of preventable illness and death in dogs. It has been documented that dogs maintaining an ideal body weight live 15 percent longer, and with less disease, than overweight dogs.

How to Know If Your Dog Is Obese

It can be difficult for an owner to believe that an 80-pound dog is 20 pounds overweight. A recent study conducted by APOP reveals as a nation we are so accustomed to seeing fat dogs that we don’t seem to recognize it anymore. If you’re not sure, pat your hands along your dog’s sides from head to tail. In a healthy-weight dog, you should be able to just feel the ribs. Also, take a look at your dog from the side. Most dogs should have a slightly “tucked up” profile. If all you feel are fat pads on your dog’s sides, or if his side profile is more sausage-like than sleek, chances are your friend may need to shed a few.

The first thing you should do is get your vet involved. Take your dog for a checkup as there are underlying conditions that can contribute to obesity, including diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism. Have your veterinarian determine your dog’s current and ideal body weight and then tell you how many calories your dog can eat each day in order to reach that ideal weight. Your goal should be to work toward that ideal weight over a several-month period.

How to Feed for Good Health

Dogs should not be fed “free choice” as they tend to eat when bored instead of when hungry — which contributes to ever-expanding canine waistlines. Dogs should be fed two to four times each day, and all food portions should be measured exactly with a standard measuring cup.

Dog food label recommendations must be used cautiously. These guidelines are generic and most likely represent overfeeding for many U.S. dogs. Dogs must be fed according to their ideal body weight — not their current weight if they are obese. If your dog is even mildly overweight, feeding according to the recommendations found on the food bag will result in continued weight gains. 

What to Feed?

Most regular dog foods are quite high in calories — usually between 450 and 550 calories per cup or can — making it very easy to unknowingly overfeed a dog and fail at weight-loss attempts. You must find out how many calories are in a cup or can of your dog’s food and feed it according to the number of calories he requires.

There is not one best diet for weight loss in dogs, and your vet can help determine what might work best for your dog. While weight loss can often be achieved by feeding less of a dog's regular food, some dogs feel more satisfied on higher-fiber or higher-protein foods.    

Weight loss is often easier to achieve by adding canned food to your dog’s feeding regimen. In general, it has higher protein, lower carbohydrates and similar or fewer calories when compared to a similar-sized quantity of the same dry food. 

How to Give Treats        

Dogs should be given no more than 10 percent of their daily calories as treats. Treats are a huge source of “hidden” calories, and dogs are often grossly overfed because treat calories are not accounted for. If the calories per treat are not printed on the treat package, call the company and ask for this information.  

This is an alarming treat statistic: The average premium pig ear has 230 calories and when given to a 40-pound dog is the same calorie punch as an average adult eating two double cheeseburgers as a treat in addition to their normal meals. 

The best and most healthful treat choices are fresh fruits or vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, green beans or apples. 

Get Exercise Right

Not only does an obese dog need to eat less, he needs to exercise more. Get your dog moving — take a walk or run, play fetch, go swimming, go up and down the stairs! Provide at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise every day to facilitate weight loss.  

Monitoring Weight Loss

Weigh your dog every one to two weeks to monitor his weight-loss progress. Overweight or obese dogs should lose 1 to 2 percent of their body weight each week. If your dog is not losing weight, his daily calories may need to be restricted further. 

Eating right and being physically active aren’t just a “diet” for your dog — they are keys to a healthy lifestyle and will reduce your dog’s risk of chronic disease and increase his chance for a longer life.

Dr. Donna Spector is a board-certified internal medicine specialist who practices in the northern Chicago area. She also owns a consulting business that focuses on bringing specialty veterinary care to underserved regions, providing consultations directly to pet owners and their veterinarians.