What and How to Feed Your Overweight Dog

Discover the real culprits when it comes to your overweight dog — don’t blame the number of pounds on the scale.

A beagle dog stepping on a scale.
A beagle dog stepping on a scale. Photography ©Sadeugra | Getty Images.

What’s a major but unspoken cause behind the rising percentage of dogs considered overweight or even obese in this country? For pet parents, not ‘fessing up to having an overweight dog speaks to the fear of being judged. For veterinarians, it’s the fear of appearing judgmental. Without open, two-way conversations, far too many dogs are staying chubby and at risk for a host of health issues.

“A person who has a Labrador Retriever who is 20 pounds overweight is afraid the veterinarian may judge him or her as being a poor pet parent,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. “And the veterinarian is so afraid of inadvertently offending the client about the dog’s weight that he or she backs off the conversation about the weight. I find that many veterinarians are more comfortable lifting the lip and telling their clients that their dogs have periodontal disease but won’t go that extra step to tell them that their dogs have obesity. But obesity is a disease, and as long as we remain silent about it, we can’t make it better for our dogs.”

Dr. Ward, who launched the APOP in 2005 to develop and promote effective weight loss programs for pets, is on a mission to help pet parents and their veterinarians shed fears of judgment and focus on working together to help dogs achieve healthy weights and enjoy quality lives. “For me as a veterinarian, I really care less about what a dog weighs and more about his body condition score that measures muscle, bone and fat,” he says. “There will always be a LeBron James of the dog world who has big bones but who is not overweight based on his body condition score.” He is hard at work dispelling myths regarding overweight canines.

Myth #1: A definition of ‘overweight dog’ exists.

A dog begging with an empty bowl.
Why isn’t there an exact parameter to define ‘overweight dog’? Photography ©RichLegg | Getty Images.

“We don’t have a definition for overweight for dogs yet, but we are working on it,” Dr. Ward says. “Quite frankly, overweight is anything that is over ideal weight. But we do agree on a medical definition of obesity and that is 30 percent above an ideal weight or a body condition score of 8 or 9.”

For dogs, the goal is to be a 4 or 5 on the 9-point body condition score system developed in 1997 by Nestlé Purina.

Myth #2: It’s the number of pounds on the weight scale that matters.

When determining if you have an overweight dog, focus less on the number of pounds registering on the scale and more on your dog’s fat percentage.

“Fat is one of the most biologically active ingredients in the body,” says Dr. Ward, who is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Excessive amounts of fat cause chronic inflammation throughout the body, and inflammation is the enemy of good health. When the body is in this chronic, inflamed state, there is an increased chance of cancer, arthritis in joints and other health issues developing.”

Myth #3: When measuring food portions, kibble is an easier option than canned commercial food.

A hungry dog eating food out of a bowl.
It’s easy to measure out kibble. Photography ©Chalabala | Thinkstock.

“It is far easier to use a kitchen scale and weigh the portion of canned food than it is to measure out the precise number of kibble,” Dr. Ward says. “For example, if you fed just 10 extra pieces of kibble a day to a dog under 22 pounds, he would gain one extra pound in one year. It’s easier to divide a can of food than to do kibble counting.”

And keep tabs on the number, size and ingredients in treats you dole out when rewarding your dog in training for successfully going to the bathroom in the backyard or acing his basic obedience class.

“Giving your dog a high-calorie treat each and every time he successfully potties outside or walks nicely on a leash can contribute to the extra pounds,” Dr. Ward says.

Myth #4: Low-fat diets aid in weight loss and can help avoid having an overweight dog.

“Therapeutic diets tend to excel because they are higher in palatability and protein,” Dr. Ward says. “The dream weight-loss diet is high protein, high fat, high fiber and low carbohydrates. Fiber is filling and helps with the gut flora.”

He adds that canned foods reduce the carbohydrate content found in dry food and that some contain two healthy allies: l-carnitine to increase fat metabolism and omega-3 to maintain healthy joints and skin. Consult your veterinarian about the possible benefits of adding these two ingredients as supplements.

Myth #5: An overweight dog will automatically become diabetic.

“People and cats who are overweight or obese are at tremendous risk for developing type 2 diabetes, but dogs are more resistant to type 2 diabetes, but they are at risk for being what’s known as insulin resistant,” Dr. Ward explains.

These dogs may not show the classic signs of diabetes — urinating and drinking excessively — but will suffer chronic inflammation in the body due to insulin spikes. Dr. Ward urges you to have your veterinarian analyze results from blood and urine tests on your dog to accurately identify his health status.

“For dogs identified as insulin resistant, boosting quality protein and losing weight steadily may be a simpler fix than getting a diabetes diagnosis that requires giving insulin injections twice a day for the rest of the dog’s life,” he says.

Myth #6: An overweight dog must lose at least 10 percent of his weight to achieve better mobility and better health.

“I have a lot of Labrador Retriever patients who are 100 pounds and who need to be 75 pounds,” Dr. Ward says. “But if they lose just 5 to 10 pounds, you will see improved quality of life in these Labs. We need to focus on the goals of achieving quality of life and not on the number of pounds lost.”

In the Ward household, Border Terriers Harry and Jenny were doled out healthy treats, especially baby carrots that the family also enjoys snacking on. “It’s a super way to do parallel healthy eating,” he says. “What’s good for my pet can be good for me.”

Dr. Ward’s parting message to anyone who has a dog who is above the ideal weight

“Don’t beat yourself up, and realize that you are not helpless,” he says. “If your dog has gained weight, you can help with minimal effort by not giving high-calorie treats and by weighing your dog’s food at mealtime and by taking your dog for an extra 10-minute walk. The joy of obesity is that of all the diseases we treat in dogs, this is one that people can address inexpensively through consistent efforts.”

Pet parents talk about their tricks to combat having an overweight dog

A woman and a dog out for a walk.
How do real-life pet parents prevent their dogs from gaining weight? Photography ©N8tureGr | Getty Images.

Here are comments we at Dogster fetched from a Facebook shout out:

  1. Linda Stello of Crystal, Minnesota: Doc, her 9-year-old German Shepherd Dog-Chow Chow mix, shed 20 excess pounds over two years. Linda worked with her veterinarian in giving Doc a Chinese herbal supplement, carprofen, and adjusting the food portions for her arthritic dog who now moves easier and with less pain.
  2. Laura Showers of Davenport, Iowa: After noticing that her senior dog, Harley, was a bit overweight, she followed her veterinarian’s advice and replaced one-fourth of Harley’s food with green beans at each meal.
  3. Raquel Aguilar of San Antonio, Texas: Her mom’s dog, Missy, has hip dysplasia, so they turned to eliminating treats, switching to a therapeutic diet recommended by her veterinarian and training Missy how to safely walk on a water treadmill available at the veterinary clinic. Missy is also taking anti-inflammatory medicine.

To learn more ways to help keep your dog at a healthy weight, visit the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity’s website at petobesityprevention.org.

About the author

Arden Moore, the Pet Health and Safety Coach, is a pet behavior consultant, master certified pet first-aid instructor, author and host of the Oh, Behave Show on PetLifeRadio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

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13 thoughts on “What and How to Feed Your Overweight Dog”

  1. Great Article, I have been giving our dog who is only 18 months old and 158lbs Presa Canario 27-28″ tall. She should actually be around 145 according to our vet. So we have been measuring her food with an actual measuring cup instead of what you buy in the stores. And giving her smaller more frequent meals. It has been working great. We also ordered a Dog weight vest in hopes to keep her from having problems in the future. Not sure if it will work yet we heard it help a dog lose weight and gain muscle. The article hit all the points needed to help your dog. These techniques really do work! Great Advice you couldn’t have said it any better!

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  5. Parker Brown-Nesbit

    When we rescued our English Lab/Mastiff mix, he was 113 lbs, down from 119 (when his previous owner surrendered him). I immediately cut his food ration down to a cup of dry food, plus about 1/4 cup green beans. We also started walking regularly; slowly increasing the time walked as he lost weight. Two years later, he is a muscular 82 lbs. Because of the weight issue, he does have severe arthritis.

    We feed him a grain free dry kibble (wet food doesn’t agree with him. It’s the only thing he can’t eat.) that’s moderate in protein, fairly low in fat, and low in carbs.

  6. On a lighter note, there is an old saying, “If your dog is overweight, YOU are not getting enough exercise”.

  7. Curious as to why you state canned is easier to weigh? I weigh dry kibble. Calories per ounce or gram is on the bag. Who in the world would count pieces of kibble as you suggest?

  8. I have a huge lab mix male dog who has put on a large amount of weight . He is about eight years old. My husband insist on feeding our dogs one certain brand of high protein dog food since puppies. some one told him that is what you are suppose to do. well this high protein is too fat for a ten year old dog and this eight year old lab. Now this lab is having back problems because of the extra weight and the fact the other dogs plays so rough with him. I want to change his food to a low fat food. what would be best for his problem

    1. I have a 12 year old miniature dachshund who was about 4 lbs overweight. My vet recommended that I reduce the amount of dog food to 1/4 cup and add a 1/2 cup of vegetables. He has lost 3lbs already. He moves around more easily now. Your vet can give you a recommendation on how much dog food needs to be reduced and the amount of veggies to supplement the diet. Slow and steady wins the race! Good luck with your pup!!

        1. Initially I gave him cabbage, carrots and green beans. Now I give him carrots and green beans. I will be resuming the cabbage!!

        2. PS- Make sure to let your vet know about any diet changes. My vet has been monitoring my pup’s weight loss!!

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