Symptoms, Expert Advice, and Healthy Tips

In the U.S., more than half of all dogs are overweight. Moreover, most American dog owners don't know when their dog is overweight or obese.

For most dog owners, preventing canine obesity is simple, and it all starts with education. In order to combat obesity in pets, it's important to first learn the basics of dog nutrition and fitness. In this article, veterinarian experts recommend ways to improve your dog's diet and increase his exercise to help him lose weight and prevent obesity.

Dog Obesity Facts: It’s More Common than You Think

According to the Association for Pet Obesity and Prevention, the percentage of overweight and obese dogs is increasing. It’s 2018 survey on dog obesity found that 56 percent of dogs are either overweight (36.4%) or obese (19.6 %).

The disease isn’t just prevalent in the U.S. Surveys from other parts of the world show the rate of obesity in dogs as high as 40 percent. Obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs.

So how do you know—based on weight—whether your dog is overweight or obese? Your veterinarian can provide guidance. The American Kennel Club also offers a weight chart for dozens of breeds. Experts recommend a basic guide:

  • Dogs that weigh 10-20 percent above their ideal body weight are considered to be overweight.
  • Dogs that weigh more than 20 percent above their ideal body weight are considered to be obese.

Ideal weight can vary, even among the same breed of dog. So, veterinarians and dog experts have created a nine-point body condition score (BCS) for dogs, based on how the dog looks. The scale considers a score of six overweight and seven or above obese.

In a survey conducted by third-party research group 5 Circles and sponsored by Darwin's, most dog owners weren't able to identify their dog's weight by a BCS chart alone. Instead, owners can use other cues to estimate their pet's weight and overall health.

The easiest way to do this is to gently glide two fingers along a dog's body. If you can feel your dog's ribs with gentle pressure but you can't see them, your dog is probably at an ideal weight. If you have a hard time feeling his ribs, he may be overweight. If your dog's ribs are visible, depending on his breed, he may be underweight.

Owners Often Don't Understand their Dog's Weight Issues

Owner denial is one unfortunate reality of U.S. dogs and their weight problems. Association for Pet Obesity and Prevention’s surveys have shown that 95 percent of owners of overweight dogs don't realize their dogs suffer from the ailment.

Dr. Sara Ochoa is a small animal veterinarian in Texas and a veterinary consultant for DogLab, a guide for dog products. "I have a your pet is fat discussion every day," she says. "They say, No, my dog's not fat. I respond, Yes, your dog is fat."

Veterinarians say there are obesity symptoms and easy ways, based in part on the body condition scoring system, for owners to assess whether their dog is overweight.

Dog Obesity Symptoms

Basic symptoms of an overweight or obese dog include excess body fat, a high score on the body condition scoring system, and an unwillingness to exercise.

Veterinarians suggest there are a few physical ways to assess whether your dog is overweight, or underweight:

Veterinarian Dr Zeltzman looks fondly on at his labrador retriever.
  • Feel His Ribs While He's Standing: You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs and spine, with only a thin layer of fat above the bones. If you can't easily feel his ribs, he's overweight. (If, on the other hand, you can easily see his rib's while he's standing, he's underweight.)
  • Look for the Tummy Tuck: When looking at your dog from the side, you should see a tummy tuck where his stomach (towards his waist and rear) is closer to his backbone than his chest area towards the front. "That abdominal tuck goes up. It's not supposed to be a straight line," says Dr. Jacqueline Sehn, a holistic veterinarian. If he looks like a straight tube or a sausage from the side, he's overweight.
  • Look for His Waist from the Top: In an ideal weight dog, you can see his waist from the top, with his chest area being a bit wider. "He should look like a bumblebee from the top," says Dr. Phil Zeltzman, a traveling veterinary surgeon and the author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound that covers weight loss for dogs and humans.

What Causes Obesity in Dogs?

The causes of obesity in dogs are simple in most cases: overeating—especially food high in calories and saturated fat—and not exercising enough.

Veterinarian Dr. Coates poses with her boxer.

"Dogs gain weight when they take in more calories than they burn over a period of time," says Dr. Jennifer Coates , a veterinarian and advisory board member of Pet Life Today, an online informational resource for pet owners. "Overfeeding is the most common cause of weight gain in pets. A lack of exercise also often plays a role."

Here are some practices to avoid:

  • Feeding your dog inconsistent portions, or practicing free-choice feeding, which is when you give your dog more than he can eat at one time and the extra food remains in his bowl.
  • Feeding high-calorie foods, or table scraps or frequent treats
  • Not encouraging your dog to get some simple exercise daily

It's almost important to know that weight problems are more common in:

  • Older dogs, because of their decreased activity and reluctance to exercise
  • Dogs that have been neutered or spayed. Experts believe that may be because of a change in metabolism and hormone levels after those procedures.
  • Female dogs
  • Certain breeds 

Luckily, even dog breeds prone to canine obesity can live healthy active lives. Darwin's created a guide made specifically for keeping these specific breeds in shape. Plus, your vet can always help you with specific diet and exercise plans that work for your unique dog.

Health Risks for Obese Dogs

Your dog being overweight significantly increases the number of risks to his health. Short-term issues include urinary issues and slow recovery from surgery. Over time, obesity can increase his likelihood of getting respiratory, heart, or liver disease and shorten his lifespan.

"We have proven, through studies, that overweight dogs live an average of two years less than dogs of normal weight," Zeltzman says.

Obese dogs have a higher risk of having:

  • Breathing problems and respiratory disease
  • Many types of cancer
  • Heart disease (Learn more about heart disease in dogs.)
  • Hypertension
  • Osteoarthritis and faster degeneration of joints (Learn more about arthritis and joint health in dogs.)
  • Urinary problems and urinary bladder stones (Learn more about urinary tract problems in dogs.)
  • Metabolic disorders, including diabetes
  • Anesthetic complications during surgery
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Increased risk for anesthetic complications during surgery
  • Slower recovery after surgery
  • Tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (or ACL) in one of the dog's hind legs
  • Fat causes increases in inflammatory hormones and creates other stresses on body tissue, both of which contribute to disease
  • Increased risk for osteoarthritis and faster degeneration of affected joints
  • Skin allergies and conditions (Learn more about skin conditions in dogs.)
  • Increased risk of orthopedic problems
  • Increased risk of liver disease
  • Lowered immune system function
  • Increased risk of non-cancerous tumors
  • Increased risk of pancreatitis
  • Lower quality of life
  • Shortened life span

Obese Dog Breathing Problems

Overweight dogs are more susceptible to overall breathing problems. They are more prone to having their trachea (windpipe) collapse and paralysis of their larynx, which sits above their trachea.

Overweight dogs are also more prone to breathing problems when they are under anesthesia for surgery.

Obesity Can Indicate Underlying Health Problems

In a small percentage of cases, obesity can be an indicator of a more significant underlying health problem, including:

  • Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland
  • Cushing’s disease (Learn more about Cushing's disease in dogs)
  • Insulinoma (a tumor on the pancreas that causes low blood sugar)

How to Help My Obese Dog Lose Weight

Dr. Sehn recommends that people talk with their veterinarian about any weight concern they have for their dog. The vet can identify if there are any underlying health issues. "It's important that you rule that out before you take matters into your own hands," she advises.

Sehn says your veterinarian will also have recommendations for how to help your dog lose weight. For dogs without underlying health issues, basic guidance is simple: eating fewer calories and exercising more.

Infographic top ten tips to help dogs lose weight

Diet Advice for Overweight Dogs

There is some disagreement among veterinarians about whether you should feed your overweight dog a bit less of his regular food, or instead feed him an appropriate amount of food specially formulated for overweight dogs.

Some veterinarians believe you should feed your dog only food (often specifically formulated by veterinarians) that is low in fat and has fewer calories but is rich in dietary protein and fiber and nutritionally balanced.

"A prescription diet, through a vet, replaces calories with fiber," explains Zeltzman. "So, they're not hungry, but they get fewer calories. It changes the metabolism and works amazingly well."

Other veterinarians worry that your dog might not like or eat the low-calorie food. They suggest decreasing the amount of his regular food by 5 to 15 percent until he starts losing weight. (You can learn more about appropriately feeding your overweight dog at "Weight Loss and Dog Food.")

General Canine Diet Tips

  • Determine your dog's appropriate weight. Your vet can help with this or check the American Kennel Club's online guide.
  • Measure what you are currently feeding your dog.
  • Calculate the number of calories your dog should be getting. (Your veterinarian can help with this, or you can try an online calculator.).
  • With help from your vet, identify the right food for your dog. Then calculate how many calories you are giving your dog of that food; dog food labels often include the number of calories per serving.
  • Feed your dog at least two meals per day (rather than one large meal).
  • Feed your dog on a regular schedule and take up the food he doesn't eat after 15 minutes.
  • Don't free feed or leave a large amount of food in his bowl to eat whenever he wants.
  • Don't give him inappropriate snacks.
  • Feed him high-fiber foods.
  • Choose low-calorie treats.
  • Log daily feedings for your dog, including the amount of food, to ensure you're tracking how much you're giving him.
  • Certain natural supplements can be helpful.
    • L-carnitine is the active form of carnitine, an amino acid that helps the body turn fat into energy. Many believe it can help manage your dog's weight and keep him active.

Fish oil contains fatty acids that can help regulate hormones in your dog that may contribute to being overweight.

Get Your Dog Moving: Exercise Advice

Check with your veterinarian before starting a new exercise regimen to make sure your dog doesn't have conditions that could be exacerbated by exercise. After your veterinarian's blessing, start your dog on some simple exercise, even if it's only 15-20 minutes per day.

"Get him off the couch and doing something," says Dr. Ochoa. "Even if it's chasing the laser pointer around the house."

"You have to start slow, and then, as they lose weight, you can increase their exercise," advises Zeltzman.

After your dog's slow start, then try these steps:

  • Take him on a leash walk 15-30 minutes, eventually moving to twice per day.
  • Avoid steep inclines and declines in the terrain, especially at first.
  • Play games like fetch.
  • Keep his nails trimmed; when nails are long, they can make walking more difficult.
  • Consider taking him swimming when you can, which is a great form of exercise with less impact on his joints.
  • Eventually, you'll hope to get him to one hour of exercise per day.
  • Log your daily activity with him.

To help track weight loss from his new diet and exercise, do regular weigh-ins (once a week is good). “Your goal is helping them lose between one and two percent of their body weight per week," Dr. Coates shares.

Special Obesity Considerations for Puppies

You'll want to pay special attention to any weight issues with puppies and respond quickly.

Overweight puppies are more prone to developmental orthopedic diseases. These problems can develop as they grow and then cause problems in the bones and cartilage within their joints.

By the time a puppy is 12 to 16 weeks old, his body should show a similar definition to an adult dog.