Obesity in Dogs

Written by Jess Elliott

Oh, how I dread the sight of an obese dog. I feel bad for the dog and have the usual quick scroll of all the medical complications run through my head, but I also wince in anticipation of the upcoming discussion with the client about their dog’s weight. The range of responses includes just flat-out astonishment (the thought that their cinderblock-backed dog is overweight has really and truly not crossed their mind) to a litany of excuses to an outright defensive hostility. Being able to communicate—not just talk—with clients is key to preventing and healing the obesity we see in our companion dogs.

But first things first: How do we judge a dog’s weight?

How to measure body condition in cats and dogs

The gentlest descriptor in veterinary medicine for obesity is the term “over-conditioned.”  Body condition, or conditioning, indicates how appropriate the dog’s weight is for his or her frame. As anyone who has picked up an English bulldog knows, the height of a dog can be no indicator whatsoever of the weight. Differences in musculature, conformation, bone density, etc. can lead to different appropriate weights for dogs of a similar height-at-withers.

Veterinary medicine uses a numerical body condition score (BCS). Some vet med universities use a 1-5 score, and others use 1-9, based on Hill’s and Purina guidelines, respectively. I’m more used to using the Purina-style chart and also think clients may be more comfortable with the more nuanced options. Dr. Sophia Yin posted a handy chart based on the 1-9 system; the Purina chart can also be found for free on the Internet. I’d strongly encourage everyone to note the BCS at the initial client visit and to include links on how to assess BCS in your client literature.

BCS charts give visual descriptors that help you arrive at a score. In my opinion, the best way to really assess BCS is to use your hands as well as your eyes. Ideally, you’d stand over the dog and, starting at the dog’s head (at the hinge of the jaws), move your hands back, hitting the shoulders at the chest, and coming around the neck to the back. You should be able to clearly feel the shoulder blades. Run your hands down the back, thumbs over the spine and fingers over the ribs, all the way down to the pelvis. Get used to the way your own or familiar dogs (and cats!) feel, and then with your clients’ pets, you’ll be able to do it the unofficial way: by stroking them. Many dogs aren’t comfortable with someone looming over them, so there’s a benefit to being familiar enough to do the evaluation more casually. For clients whose cats or dogs may not be keen on handling, I take advantage of what the animal does like (most cats love to be stroked down the back and over the pelvis) to show them how to evaluate a weight gain or loss in this area.

For those companion animals with more challenging handling issues, a short or thin fur coat is our friend. You can visibly evaluate the prominence of the shoulder blades, pelvic bones, spine, and ribs. Dogs also tend to get a wrinkle of fat above their tail when they’re sitting, or when the tail is completely upright, as they gain weight (in cats this is seen only in morbid obesity) and both cats and dogs get an overall “tick-like” appearance in that their head will appear disproportionately small as they become more rotund.

A good rule for anyone with companion animals is to evaluate their weight on a weekly basis, right before a meal when you’ve got their attention. Run your hands over them and make sure they are appropriately- muscled (for their age) and at an ideal weight.

Causes of Obesity

As with humans, there may be a genetic predisposition to weight gain in animals. Because the gene pool of pedigreed cats and dogs is so small, deleterious genetic anomalies can be amplified. The other side of that coin is that some breeds have a strong disposition to physical issues (degenerative joint disease, joint malformation, spinal issues, heart defects or early onset heart disease, abnormally narrowed airways, etc.) that make normal exercise difficult and can contribute to these breeds having a reputation for excess weight.

Medically speaking, a dog who gains weight without a change in routine or shows reluctance to exercise (sudden or progressive) needs a through physical exam including lab work and an orthopedic evaluation. If the dog has handling issues or appears to have become painful, the client should notify the clinic beforehand as they may need to prepare for sedation. Lethargy always deserves veterinary investigation. There are many potential causes of lethargy, including endocrine disease (thyroid, pituitary, adrenal), blood disorders, and pain (caused by anything from intestinal disease to a slipped disc to joint deterioration).

Dogs and cats also require fewer calories after gonadectomy (spay/neuter). Although this is true no matter what age they have surgery, it is often done at adolescence when their calorie requirements will change anyway, strengthening the association between neutering and weight gain. Neutered animals can maintain a healthy weight with adjustments in caloric intake.

A 2010 Australian study found correlations between overweight/obese dogs and several factors: weekly exercise (rather than daily); yard time (rather than walks); frequent treats and once-daily or free-feedings (rather than twice-daily); and it found that households with more members tended to have heavier dogs. The findings are as expected; dedicated exercise and controlling food intake is a good way to maintain a healthy weight.

Consequences of obesity

When you’re young, you can fall out of a tree and pretty much get up and keep going. After 30, if you sleep funny you may be hobbling around for a week. Now imagine you’re a dog, so your aging is accelerated (the rough guidelines of the American Veterinary Medical Association equate four years old to 32 human years), and you should weigh 30 pounds but you weigh 36. That’s 20 percent of your body weight. If your own weight is 160 pounds, imagine carrying 32 pounds across your shoulders as you go about your day. No fun, and that’s what a dog who weighs 36 pounds instead of 30 is forced to do.

The day-to-day consequences of obesity include decreased ability to exercise, decreased ability to lose heat (this matters especially for our flat-faced pups, who have trouble with this to begin with), joint pain, and increased risk of degenerative joint disease (DJD). In dogs with previously diagnosed hip dysplasia (a malformation of the hip joints), both weight and severity of the dysplasia were significant risk factors for DJD. Not surprisingly, a comparison of the gait of both lean and overweight dogs showed that the extra weight could change joint mechanics in a way that predisposes to osteoarthritis.

Just as in humans, obesity likely leads to more subtle changes in things like metabolism and respiration, though these effects are not well documented in dogs and cats. In brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs, excess weight can exacerbate airway disease typical for these breeds.

Treatment and prevention through behavior modification

If your client’s dog is obese based on your BCS evaluation, I would strongly recommend a referral to a veterinarian. Some veterinarians do run “obesity clinics,” and both Hill’s and Purina have programs. You can call either or both companies to see if any veterinarians in your area participate. The benefit of referral to a veterinarian interested in weight control is that you know the vet will speak to the client about the dog’s weight. I can’t tell you how many vets and nursing staff purposefully avoid the topic. It’s uncomfortable (especially if the client also has a weight issue), the clients can become defensive, and the rest of the visit can be awkward. I think many vets, unfortunately, reserve comment for situations where the dog or cat has developed a related medical issue or one appears imminent. I understand their reticence and desire to choose their battles, but from my point of view, I’m only in that exam room for the animal’s sake. I’ve worked hard to figure out different ways to approach the topic with different clients, and I’m often successful. Patience can be the hardest part, admittedly.

If you regularly work with and refer to certain vets, call them and see if they speak to their clients about obesity. If they don’t do so regularly, they may not be as comfortable or successful as one who does. You’ll have to keep this in mind when you refer. By the way, if you find that you enjoy working with clients who are interested in slimming down their dog, seek out those clinics that have weight-loss programs and offer your services. I’m sure some veterinarians would love to have a trained behaviorist to take up the “lifestyle” changes needed to get the animal back to a healthy weight.

Once at the vet, the obese dog should be evaluated for a medical condition and then have weight-loss goals mapped out by the doctor or her technician. In many cases, specific weight-loss foods are helpful in terms of keeping client compliance—they get to feed an amount that looks more appropriate to them. Client compliance is the only way to achieve a better outcome for the dog, so this may be one area where concerns about diet content (or if you hate XYZ food company) should be weighed against the health concerns of the dog. A different diet can be put in place after the weight loss has been achieved.

Less-than-obese but still overweight dogs should get a vet evaluation before diet and exercise changes if they have any health issues (heart disease, intestinal disease, etc.), are a breed with markedly abnormal conformation (short-legged, flat-faced, or giant breeds) or are very young or over six years old. If they’ve had their annual check-up recently, perhaps just a phone call to the vet to see if she’s got any concerns would work.

Clients who readily admit their dog’s weight is an issue are uncommon, in my experience, and many of those who do often have a hands-in-the-air view that a change in weight is hopeless. They’ve cut his food down to X amount per day, they walk him X times per week, they’ve done everything. And the dog’s blamed as well, for always being hungry, for pestering them at dinner, for getting into the trash if he’s not fed an extra meal, for barking until he gets a treat, etc. The good news: These situations are ripe for behavioral intervention! The bad news: Client resistance—to the truth about how fat the dog is and how much they are really feeding and exercising him, to changing longtime habits, and to sticking to treatment plans—can be hard to overcome.

The first step: delivering the news

If you have a bit of relatable truth, use it. Start out by cushioning the statement you’re about to make. “I’ve worked with a lot of pit bulls/pugs/Pomeranians …” and add some sympathy “… so I know their weight can be hard to judge because they’re so muscular/boxy-shaped/fluffy. This can be a really hard breed/mix to keep at an ideal weight. Mr. Pickles does seem to be carrying a bit of extra weight around his middle…” and show them where you feel it “…and since we’ll be using treats as part of our program, let’s just talk about how we can do that without putting any extra strain on his body.”

One of my best friends is a veterinary specialist who has had her own weight struggles and she’s used this to her advantage. She starts off by saying that she’s still working at getting at her ideal weight, so she knows it’s not easy to make changes. By admitting to a vulnerability, she pre-emptively lowers defenses. Use whatever life and work experiences you’ve had to create a rapport and avoid embarrassing the client. Stay away from horror stories a la “my client’s fat dog had a heart attack” and anticipate your clients’ struggles if you can. For example, if they have an ambulatory disability, start off talking about how you can teach a dog to fetch for exercise. If they have young children, offer strategies for maintaining a dog’s caloric intake despite the potential for dietary indiscretions. Work out a script beforehand, if you can, so you can avoid having the client hear “you’ve done a bad job with your dog’s weight.”

Keep in mind that many clients are not aware of what a healthy weight looks like. There are dogs winning ribbons in dog shows who are overweight! A good friend who’s a canine orthopedist had a line that she’d tell clients with dogs who had hip, knee, or DJD issues: If someone at the dog park asks you which one is your dog, you should be able to point and say, “he’s the skinny one.” My late dog was short-legged (chondrodystrophic, or dwarf) and I had people on the street tell me he was too thin. He was a healthy weight, but many people mistake healthy for skinny.

Second step: how to help

Addressing client’s concerns about the dog’s behavior around food (begging, barking, trash-tipping, resource-guarding) is a big help. Getting the dog to walk on a loose lead (that Holy Grail) can go a long way to getting her out on walks more often. Changes in household habits that may also help include assigning “treat times” for the dog, if there are children in the house who are in the habit of giving treats. Keeping only low-calorie (vet prescription diet treats can help here) biscuits can help, as these can be more readily given than having household members go to the fridge for a baby carrot sliver. A dry-erase chart showing walk times, and meal and treat amounts can also show everyone in a household what’s happening with the dog, as some dogs make excellent arguments of hunger despite full bellies. A pedometer can be worn while dog-walking (and shared between family members) so the dog’s exercise can be tracked. Making a definite plan with the client for the dog to get (for example) 5,000 (human) steps 3 times per week for the first two weeks, then increasing, can motivate the client to follow through.

Then there’s the food. Again, if the dog has a prescription diet or other health issues, vet advice prevails here. For the overweight dog with no other health concerns, there are lots of ways to cut calories and make food last longer. When I was doing a lot of training with my late dog, I used KixÔ cereal as treats. They are crunchy, a decent size, they roll well, don’t disintegrate in a pocket, and are low calorie for volume. These aren’t going to work for counter-conditioning, but even then you have options for lower calories. Many dogs are crazy for bread, and tiny scraps of bread or crust (rolled up, if too soft) can work for some dogs. Choose part-skim cheese if you can, and use smaller pieces. Give clients a visual idea of how big a treat should be (half a dime, a pencil eraser, etc.).

Making the dog’s meals last longer is good for the client as well as the dog. I used Kongs to feed my dog’s morning meal, and would break it into a larger and smaller Kong. Both Kongs were prepared by filling it up with kibble and then spooning unsweetened applesauce or canned squash/pumpkin into the large opening. Pounding it on the counter got the applesauce or pumpkin to move through the kibble which, when frozen, made it take a while to empty. Neither the applesauce nor pumpkin dripped out of the top hole, either, so it was easy to freeze upside down without a mess. The first Kong was devoured while I got ready for work, and the second smaller Kong was for when I left for the day. That one got a smear of peanut butter on the top to sweeten the fact that I was leaving.

My dog’s second meal was the one I’d adjust if we’d been doing a lot of training. As I tell clients, it’s okay to give treats, but you have to reduce their meal if you do. If we were using Kix, I’d maybe give my dog a little less kibble. If he’d had something more substantial during the day, he’d get less kibble and I’d often replace a bit of the meal with something low calorie like cooked peas, pumpkin, or string beans. The canned varieties have a ridiculous amount of salt, so I’d use frozen. I’d put some frozen veggies in a bowl, cover it with a plate, and “steam” it in the microwave until thawed and warm. (Tip: You can also roast frozen veggies to make low-calorie, cheap treats.) My dog got to eat more, I didn’t have to feel bad giving him a smaller ration of kibble since he’d eaten so much during training, and our training sessions didn’t put any extra weight on those little dwarf joints of his. An alternative to adding veggies, if the client’s in a time crunch, is to use a food puzzle that takes longer, or scatter or hide the kibble so there’s scent work involved.

Kibble or any other formulated diet, is meant to be a complete meal, and many veterinarians will caution against “diluting” the diet with other food. Some dogs have health issues (diabetes, liver disease, allergies) that benefit from strict adherence to diet, and your client should be encouraged to speak to his vet about any concerns.

While obesity and its physical consequences can be a veterinary issue, the trainer or behaviorist can have a key role in creating lifestyle changes that the dog and her family need to succeed. Being well-versed in the identification and consequences of excess weight can become part of offering a holistic approach to clients.


Jess Elliott, LVT, has spent most of her career in veterinary technology working in critical care and cardiology. She has been published in The Bark, the APDT’s Chronicle of the Dog, and in the peer-reviewed journal Veterinary Technician. She has also given accredited lectures in her field.