Can Overweight Dogs Be Put On a Diet

In recent years, dogs – just like their human counterparts – have become more and more overweight (1). In fact, studies show that canine obesity has become an epidemic, with the average weight of cats and dogs consistently on the rise. An obese dog is more prone to a variety of health issues, including early death (2), but can an overweight dog be put on a diet?

Yes, dogs can be put on a “diet” of sorts to help them lose weight, but there are more pet owners who need to know about helping a fat dog lose the extra pounds. Let's dig deeper.

What are the dangers for overweight dogs?

Canine obesity poses plenty of health risks for dogs. Extra pounds don't just affect your dog's health but his movement and overall quality of life (3).

Overweight dogs experience strain on their back, legs, and paws. Being obese also puts unnecessary stress on your dog's joints, resulting in earlier signs of canine arthritis (4).

Studies have also found that obesity results in heart disease in dogs (5, 6) and cancer, hypertension, respiratory problems, poor heat tolerance, and surgical complications (7, 8).

When are dogs considered overweight or obese?

Vets confirm that dogs are considered overweight when the weight is more than 15% above ideal. A canine is considered obese when its weight is more than 30% of ideal.

To establish a dog's ideal weight, usually, a Body Condition Score (BCS) chart is used, and ideally, you'll need to have a conversation with your veterinarian.

Can Overweight Dogs Be Put On a Diet

If your veterinarian tells you that your dog is overweight according to the BCS chart, it's time to help your dog drop some pounds, but do it in a safe and regulated way.

Dogs can be put on a diet, and there are many ways to do so. It's best to work with a canine nutrition specialist, whether it's your vet or a licensed canine nutritionist, to create a diet plan for an overweight dog that will meet all of your canine's nutritional needs without depriving him of any dietary requirements that his body needs to function.

In addition to your dog's diet, a well-structured exercise routine is essential. Studies have found how exercise regimes can effectively help dogs get in shape (9). In this article, I'll cover everything pet owners of overweight dogs must know, so read on.

READ ALSO: The Best Weight Loss Dog Food for Fat Dogs

Can Overweight Dogs Be Put On a Diet?
What owners of obese dogs must know

Can Overweight Dogs Be Put On a Diet

Should My Fat Dog Get On a Diet?

It is estimated that more than 50% of the canine population in the US is overweight or obese. However, most owners do not realize that their dogs are overweight because they are unable to judge their weight and body size accurately, according to studies (10, 11).

The “ideal” body weight for each breed and each individual seems to have been forgotten by pet owners. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that there are specific guidelines that apply to dogs of all breeds and sizes that pet owners must follow.

The above-mentioned Body Condition Score chart provides accurate measurement for a dog's body assessment, as long as pet owners understand how to follow it (12, 13).

Speak to your veterinarian about your pet’s weight, and ask for their assistance if you're having trouble following the guidelines from the Body Condition Score chart.

Two scoring systems exist: a 1-9 scale and a 1-5 scale. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends using the 1-9 scale (PDF). It's important to stress that you must follow the chart rather than judge the dog yourself since most dog owners are unable to accurately assess what a healthy weight and body size is for their dogs (10, 11).

Vets see this all the time:

In clinical practice, when I show owners examples of “ideal” body weights for particular breeds, they usually think that the “ideal” is “too thin.”

Your veterinarian can determine if a medical condition is causing your dog to be overweight through routine screening, blood tests, and a physical examination.

For example, low thyroid hormone levels, known as hypothyroidism, and Cushing’s disease, known as hyperadrenocorticism, can cause dogs to become overweight. There are many other factors that come into play here, but too many to mention in the article.

INTERVIEW: The Risks of Canine Obesity & How To Keep Your Dog Fit

How Do I Put My Overweight Dog on a Diet?

The most difficult part for owners is to refuse food for their pets. It's understandable, but just remember that you're doing this for their own health and lifespan.

If your dog is clinically overweight or obese, your veterinarian or canine nutritionist will make a specific recommendation for his weight loss diet. Prescription dog food is not necessary for weight loss, and even well-designed homemade dog food recipes can work.

Occasionally, a veterinarian may recommend a prescription dog food diet for overweight dogs if there's a metabolic or endocrine disorder, which obesity is known to cause (14); however, I recommend getting a second opinion on this and doing further due diligence.

There are some regular commercial dog food brands available over the counter to help your dog lose weight that will be lower in calories yet contain all necessary nutrients.

Popular Commercial Dog Food for Weight Loss

Some of the more popular dog foods for weight loss include:

1. Hill’s Science Diet Metabolic

Hill's Prescription Diet Metabolic Weight Management Chicken Flavor Dry Dog Food, Veterinary Diet, 7.7 lb. Bag This diet is formulated with high fiber levels from fruits and vegetables, as well as antioxidants. With appropriate feeding, the company claims that 96% of dogs lose weight within the first 2 months at home. Many dry kibble “diet foods” are less tasty, but this does not seem to be an issue with this particular food in customer reviews.

If your dog prefers canned food, a moist vegetable-beef stew is available. Overweight and obese dogs with joint problems, like arthritis, can benefit from the Metabolic + Mobility formula, which contains glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate.

When your dog is on the Hill’s Metabolic diet, he does not have to “go without,” as prescription dog treats are available too. The treats are made with whole grains and veggies like carrots, but make sure that your dog really needs this; otherwise, avoid it.

2. Hill’s Science Diet r/d

Hill's Prescription Diet r/d Weight Loss Chicken Flavor Dry Dog Food, Veterinary Diet, 27.5 lb. Bag Hill's Science r/d diet has been on the market for decades and is still a good high-fiber, low-fat dog food for overweight and obese pets. Dry and canned formulas are available. Hill's Science r/d is often less expensive than the Metabolic diet as well.

The company claims that this formula has been proven to reduce fat by up to 20% in just 3 months; however, I have yet to see any evidence of this in the form of a well-designed study. Nevertheless, the natural high fiber content helps to keep your pet feeling satisfied even though he's eating fewer calories.

3. Royal Canin Satiety Support Weight Management

Royal Canin Canine Care Nutrition Large Joint Care Dry Dog Food, 30 lb bag Royal Canin’s prescription weight loss diet contains a special blend of fiber to keep your pup fuller for a longer period of time. It is also higher in protein and lower in fat, helping to preserve lean muscle mass while avoiding an increase in calories.

If your dog prefers canned food, a wet formulation is available from the same Royal Canin brand. Dogs with mild to moderate issues of canine arthritis may benefit from this dog food, as it contains the joint support compounds glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, but in extremely small amounts.

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Is weight loss-friendly dog food really necessary?

No, not really necessary. The only reason to feed one of the above-mentioned weight loss dog food diets is if you're worried that you may miscalculate the nutrition and calories for the dog.

Regular, well-rated commercial dog food brands are just as good, as long as you ensure that your pet gets all the nutrition he needs while keeping the calories at bay as per your veterinarian's or canine nutritionist's recommendations and guidelines.

A few top-quality over-the-counter dog food options include:

There are some dog food brands that vets recommend, and they usually like them better for a specific set of nutrients. But no dog food brand is perfect for all dogs. Therefore, you must assess your own dog's needs, his current weight, and goal weight and go from there.

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Is a homemade dog food diet okay?

Yes, you can feed your overweight dog a homemade diet to help him lose weight. However, the main disadvantage of feeding your dog homemade food is having a significantly harder time accurately calculating calories and nutrients.

In fact, since dogs are much smaller than people, and precision in calorie counting is key, I would say that accuracy here is next to impossible unless you truly dedicate yourself to this dietary and lifestyle change.

Studies have shown that homemade diets always lack nutrients for dogs, resulting in many different health problems. There are a number of other dangers associated with a homemade diet. Add to that calorie counting, and you got yourself a job.

Portion Control for Overweight Dogs

Portion control for overweight dogsAll dog owners love their pets and often like to show their love by feeding them the extra serving. Sadly, showing our love this way leads to overfeeding and obesity. This causes poor health and low energy and predisposes pets to tons of obesity-related diseases.

Poor portion control when feeding dogs, as well as feeding humans food from the table and too many snacks, all contribute to the problem.

If you want your dog to lose weight, start by understanding dog food labels and nutrition, and commit yourself to do these three things:

1. Feed your dog according to the label recommendations.

The dog food will have a guideline on the side of the bag recommending a certain number of cups or grams to be fed per day for a certain body weight. Each dog food brand is different, so this recommendation will change based on the brand and type of dog food.

It's best to speak to your vet or canine nutrition expert to devise a weight loss plan for your canine, and then use a few dog food brands as examples for feeding.

2. Measure everything correctly. 

Use a standard 1-cup dry measuring cup to measure out the food. If you have a small dog, use a ½ cup measure or ¼ cup measure for greater accuracy. For the best accuracy, switch to metric and weigh out your dog’s food in grams on a kitchen scale.

3. Eliminate “junk” snacks and human food.

No more pieces of cheese, hot dogs or other high-fat, high-calorie human foods. Switch from ‘puppy pepperoni' to something a little more wholesome. Your dog will still enjoy getting a snack even if it isn’t something salty, fatty or meaty.

Homemade dog food for overweight dogsSome healthier choices of human food for dogs include:

Most dogs love the crunch of raw fruits or veggies. These are all high-fiber, low-calorie treats that won’t pack on the pounds and will provide plenty of nutrition for your dog.

There are healthy dog treat options as well. They are usually higher in fiber, lower in calories, and contain more nutrients. But it's best to avoid dog treats altogether.

No matter how healthy human food treats are, always remember to feed your dog the correct portion of snacks because they still contain calories that you must count.

For example, a thumb-nail-sized piece of carrot 2 to 3 times a day is enough to let your dog know that he’s a good boy without sugar or calorie overload. It is very likely that your dog won’t care how much of a snack he’s getting – he will just be thrilled to be getting one.

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Click here to see study citations and references

Footnotes, study citations, and further reading:

  1. German AJ1. The growing problem of obesity in dogs and cats. J Nutr. 2006 Jul;136(7 Suppl):1940S-1946S.
  2. Laflamme DP1. Understanding and managing obesity in dogs and cats. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2006 Nov;36(6):1283-95, vii.
  3. Yam PS1, Butowski CF2, Chitty JL2, Naughton G2, Wiseman-Orr ML3, Parkin T2, Reid J2. Impact of canine overweight and obesity on health-related quality of life. Prev Vet Med. 2016 May 1;127:64-9. doi: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2016.03.013. Epub 2016 Mar 28.
  4. Marshall, W. G., Hazewinkel, H. A. W., Mullen, D., De Meyer, G., Baert, K., & Carmichael, S. (2010). The effect of weight loss on lameness in obese dogs with osteoarthritis. Veterinary Research Communications, 34(3), 241–253.
  5. Thengchaisri, N., Theerapun, W., Kaewmokul, S., & Sastravaha, A. (2014). Abdominal obesity is associated with heart disease in dogs. BMC Veterinary Research, 10, 131.
  6. Weeth LP1, Fascetti AJ, Kass PH, Suter SE, Santos AM, Delaney SJ. Prevalence of obese dogs in a population of dogs with cancer. Am J Vet Res. 2007 Apr;68(4):389-98.
  7. Zoran DL1. Obesity in dogs and cats: a metabolic and endocrine disorder. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2010 Mar;40(2):221-39. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2009.10.009.
  8. Wynn, S. G., Witzel, A. L., Bartges, J. W., Moyers, T. S., & Kirk, C. A. (2016). Prevalence of asymptomatic urinary tract infections in morbidly obese dogs. PeerJ, 4, e1711.
  9. Markwell PJ1, Butterwick RF, Wills JM, Raiha M. Clinical studies in the management of obesity in dogs and cats. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1994 Jun;18 Suppl 1:S39-43.
  10. Bland IM1, Guthrie-Jones A, Taylor RD, Hill J. Dog obesity: owner attitudes and behaviour. Prev Vet Med. 2009 Dec 1;92(4):333-40. doi: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2009.08.016. Epub 2009 Sep 18.
  11. Eastland-Jones, R. C., German, A. J., Holden, S. L., Biourge, V., & Pickavance, L. C. (2014). Owner misperception of canine body condition persists despite use of a body condition score chart. Journal of Nutritional Science, 3, e45.
  12. Sapowicz, S. A., Linder, D. E., & Freeman, L. M. (2016). Body Condition Scores and Evaluation of Feeding Habits of Dogs and Cats at a Low Cost Veterinary Clinic and a General Practice. The Scientific World Journal, 2016, 1901679.
  13. Dorsten CM1, Cooper DM. Use of body condition scoring to manage body weight in dogs. Contemp Top Lab Anim Sci. 2004 May;43(3):34-7.
  14. Clark M1, Hoenig M2. Metabolic Effects of Obesity and Its Interaction with Endocrine Diseases. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2016 Sep;46(5):797-815. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2016.04.004. Epub 2016 Jun 11.

How to Put an Overweight Dog on a Diet

In the last 8 years, Dr. Shores has worked as a clinical veterinarian for dogs, cats, small mammals and non-human primates as well as a writer on the subject of pet health. Her passion is breaking down the intricacies of proper dog health care and dog nutrition.