Obesity is a serious canine health problem. Studies have estimated that up to half of all companion dogs are obese and the proportion is getting higher every year. If you have concerns that your dog is overweight, you are certainly not alone.
You can get an idea of how over weight your dog is by feeling around their ribs and spine. If you cannot feel their ribs at all, it indicates that they may be overweight. However, the only way to have the problem confirmed is to visit your vet and get them accurately weighed.
Some breeds are more prone to obesity than others. It is rare for a Greyhound to be overweight but if you have a Dachshund, a Cocker Spaniel, a Labrador or a Golden Retriever you will need to be alert to this potential issue. Prevention is always the best approach.
Dog Health Issues Caused by Obesity
Dogs are no different to humans in that obesity causes them a whole range of health problems. They will find it harder to breath and the increased strain on the circulation can cause heart problems and high blood pressure. They are more likely to have orthopaedic problems with their joints as the excess weight takes its toll and they can develop skin conditions. Obese dogs are more likely to get mammary tumors and have a higher risk of suffering heat stroke in hot weather. Finally, there are several diseases that are more common in obese dogs including pancreatitis, diabetes and immune system disorders.
Helping Your Dog to Lose Weight
Weight loss can only be achieved through a combination of a healthy diet and exercise. Restrict food to meal times by cutting down on unhealthy food treats. You can use cuddles, games or a special toy as a reward instead. If you have to use food as an incentive for training, make sure that it is something healthy such as fruit or vegetables.
Feeding titbits from the table should also be banned and make sure that all bins and food waste are covered so that your pooch cannot go scavenging for extra calories when you are not looking! Be strong and do not give in to begging. Remember that this is for their own good and you are not being cruel.
Exercise is crucial for a weight loss program. Every dog needs at least 10-15 minutes a day and most breeds need a lot more. However, speak to your vet about the best way to start off an exercise program for a very overweight dog. You may need to start with short walks and build up. Many owners find that splitting the meals up into several portions a day works well.
If you have tried absolutely everything and your pooch is still not losing weight, it would be worth asking your vet to check for low thyroid levels and hormonal imbalances, such as Cushing’s disease, which is an excess of adrenal hormones and causes obesity.
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Weight Loss Diet for Dogs
There are many commercial prepared dog foods that are specifically designed for weight loss for dogs. Finding the best dog food for weight loss for your particular dog may take some research on your part. Weight loss programs for dogs are not just about the type of food that you give them, you can also think about weight loss dog feeders and weight loss dog bowls which slow down meal times.
A good weight control dog food will meet most of the following criteria:
- It will have a high proportion of protein. This will help to give your dog all the building blocks they need for cell growth and repair without putting on too much weight.
- It will have a low proportion of fat. Some fat is necessary but too much will lead to obesity.
- It will have less calories. Chat to your vet to find out exactly how many calories your pooch should take in each day and stick to it. Don’t forget that food treats deliver calories too.
Weight loss food for dogs may be described as ‘Healthy Weight Dog Food’, ‘Reduced Fat Dog Food’ or ‘Weight Management Dog Food’. It is available as either kibble or as canned food. Some owners avoid kibble because it tends to contain more carbohydrates which deliver a lot of calories. However, canned food can also contain fillers which adds to the carbohydrate intake. Kibble tends to be cheaper than canned food and it is really just a matter of personal choice.
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Here are some of the types of food that you may want to consider:
Low fat foods
Some weight loss products have a reduced proportion of fat, so there is only around 10 per cent. They often avoid artificial fillers and additives but contain whole grains so a dog will stay feeling fuller for longer. Fats are found in poorer cuts of meat and in meat by-products so the proportion of fat is reduced by using high quality lean meats. Deboned chicken and white fish are excellent sources of protein with very little fat content. Fish oils (for example salmon oil) and flax seed oils are a healthy source of fat for dogs and will keep their skin and coat healthy without contributing to their weight gain.
High protein foods
Dogs do well on high protein diets so many weight management dog food products have higher protein content than regular dog food. The protein proportion of the food could be as high as 50 per cent and this is 40 per cent more than in some commercial dog foods!
The protein must come from high quality sources like lean meats and fish and not from meat by-products. If the recipe is rich in vegetables, then they will provide some protein as well as will eggs and dairy products.
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High fiber foods
Fiber is needed in all diets because it helps the digestive system to function correctly and prevents constipation. Fiber also makes a dog feel full up for longer so they are more satisfied and do not beg for more food but it does not add to their calorie intake. As a result, fiber is an important part of any weight management for dogs program.
Some weight loss foods for dogs contain up to around ten per cent of fiber. This can be provided by grains but they can cause allergies in some dogs. Other foods are grain-free and the fiber is provided by the vegetable content of the food.
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Foods with added probiotics
When you put your pooch on a weight control diet, it is very important to maintain the health of their digestive system. Probiotics are increasingly used in weight loss products for dogs. They are essentially live microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) that are included in the food. The theory is that they will colonise the dog’s gut and that these ‘friendly’ micro-organisms will help with digestion. They are endorsed by organisations such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) as being beneficial to a dog’s health but what about their role in obesity?
Research into the benefits of probiotics in weight control in dogs is in its infancy but the early studies are encouraging and indicate that friendly bacteria in the gut could help with a number of canine chronic conditions like obesity as well as some behavior disorders.
Typically, you will see the probiotics printed in the ingredients list as:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus casei
- Enterococcus faecium
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium animalis
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The taste of the food is also important. Your dog needs to enjoy it and to feel satisfied when they have eaten it. Obviously, dogs cannot tell you if they like it or not but it should be pretty obvious. Many are described as ‘delicious’ so you can expect your pooch to be very pleased with it. Artificial additives are best avoided so you should look for a product that contains natural flavorings provided by meat and vegetables.
Essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants must be maintained in the diet even though the amount of calories and the volume of food is being reduced. Many foods have added calcium for healthy bones and phosphorous for many natural chemical reactions that go on in the body. Vitamins A and E are also often added for helping the immune system and vision and for repairing damage to cells.
Switching to a Weight Loss Diet
You may be keen to switch your pooch onto a weight loss diet as soon as possible to help them get to a healthy weight but it is important to exercise caution. Sudden changes in diet are not good for dogs and can cause adverse health reactions. Even switching from a poor diet to a healthy diet can cause problems because the gut will have to adapt to working in a different way. It is best to make the move gradually by mixing in a small quantity of the new food with the old food. Then, over a period of a few weeks, increase the proportion of the new food and reduce the proportion of the old food.
If you are really struggling to get your pooch to eat the new healthy food, you could try a different feeding bowl to see if that suits them better of feed them in a different place. Some owners find that warming the food makes it more palatable or you could try adding a little natural flavoring (such as salmon juice) to begin with and then reducing it once the diet is established.
It may help to break the feed up into two meals a day instead of giving one big meal. Always provide plenty of fresh, clean water as this will fill up a dog’s stomach and may help them to stop thinking about food. Snacks and treats have to be added into the day’s calorie intake. It’s a good idea to switch to healthy treats such as baby carrots, green beans and broccoli.
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Weight Loss Medication
You may have seen adverts for weight loss medication for dogs. One such product is called Dirlotapide and it works by preventing the gut from absorbing some of the fat in the food. Your pooch feels full even though they are not and this has the effect of supressing the appetite.
The body is not getting what it needs from its diet and so it breaks down the fat stores and the dog loses weight. It must only be used under the supervision of a vet and in combination with a healthy diet and exercise program so that healthy muscle is created to replace the fat.
Reasons for Rapid Weight Loss in Dogs
Whilst healthy weight loss for dogs is gradual and part of a controlled eating and exercise regime, rapid and unexplained pet weight loss is always a cause for concern and is something that you must discuss with your vet. They will be able to tell you what the safe weight loss rate for dogs is and check on your dog’s overall health.
As part of their examination, they will check if your dog has been ill and if so, how long they have been ill for. Prolonged illnesses indicate that organs like the pancreas or liver are failing and rapid treatment is needed to reverse the damage. They will also be looking at the condition of your dog’s coat and checking to see if they are on any medication. You will need to let them know if your pooch has been involved in any accidents that could have caused a head trauma.
Here are the main causes or rapid weight loss in dogs:
As in humans, diabetes in dogs is caused by low levels of a hormone called insulin which means that the body cannot absorb sugar from food in the way that it usually does. It causes increased appetite and weight loss at the same time. Older dogs are more likely to suffer from it as are those that are over-weight to start off with. However, it can also be genetic. If your dog is diabetic, they will need a carefully controlled diet and exercise regime. They may also need daily injections of insulin which you can do at home.
A malnourished is defined as one that has lost more than 10 per cent of its total bodyweight. Their ribs and shoulder bones will be easily visible, they will not poop regularly and their gas will smell more foul than normal. You will notice that their energy levels are low and that they get one illness after another. There are occasions when this is caused by abuse but it can also be down to a lack of knowledge on the part of the owner. If you need guidance on how to feed your dog, it is important that you consult a vet.
If anxiety is the cause of the weight loss, it will be accompanied by other symptoms such as pooping and peeing inside your home, continual howling or barking, excessive chewing, digging or other destructive behaviour. If dogs don’t feel safe, they will not eat and they will lose weight. Separation anxiety is one common form of anxiety in dogs and it is something that you can work on with support from your vet.
When a dog has intestinal parasites such as tapeworm, they don’t get the nutrition from the food that they have eaten because the parasite is absorbing it. They appear to be eating normally but lose weight rapidly. Vets can carry out tests for parasites. Hookworms, roundworms and tapeworms can be contracted from contaminated water and soil. Tapeworms are also by fleas. An untreated tapeworm can grow to a length of 28 inches and rob your dog of a huge proportion of the nutrients in their diet. A dog with intestinal worms will often excessively lick their anus and scoot drag their rear end on the floor.
Disease of the Liver
The liver is responsible for breaking down many complex food molecules and turning them into a form that the body can use. When the liver is not working properly, a dog cannot use a lot of the sugars and other carbohydrates that they need to make energy. When a body cannot get the energy that it needs from food, it starts to break down its fat stores and its muscle instead. This leads to drastic weight loss. You should talk to your vet about the possibility of liver disease if your dog has lost a lot of weight and they seem to be off their food, have diarrhoea or vomiting, seem very thirsty and have blood in their poop or pee.
Just like humans, doggies can suffer from problems with their thyroid gland. This is the organ that produces a hormone called thyroxine. If the thyroid gland is overactive, there is too much thyroxine in the body and this is called hyperthyroidism. The body’s metabolism is too fast and your dog will suffer from rapid weight loss as well as an irregular heartbeat and irritability. No matter how much food they eat, they cannot keep up with the rate at which their body is using it up. This condition requires veterinary treatment.
Unfortunately, dental problems are common in dogs and this could be the reason that your pooch is losing weight. If they have a mouth lesion, a dental abscess, tooth decay or gum disease that is making it difficult or painful to eat, they will soon lose weight. You may also notice that they have red or bleeding gums, bleeding from around the teeth and bad breath. A trip to the vet is needed to further investigations and treatment.
Addison’s disease is a hormonal condition where the adrenal gland does not produce enough steroid hormones. It is quite rare in dogs but you are most likely to come across it in younger and middle-aged females and in particular breeds including the Bearded Collie, Standard Poodle, West Highland White Terriers and Rottweilers. As well as weight loss it causes vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, shaking and causes the dog to drink and pee a lot.
Female dogs can suffer from nausea and vomiting in the early days of their pregnancy just like humans. It is caused by changes in the levels of hormones. This stage should pass within a week or so and the resulting weight loss should be temporary. If it goes on for longer, it is worth chatting to your vet about it.
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Weight Loss for Dogs: Homemade Food
Many dog owners and animal health professionals believe that the best weight loss diet for dogs is a homemade diet that contains only fresh, unprocessed, protein-based ingredients. If you are worried about weight loss for dogs, homemade food may be the best option for you. However, it is essential that you talk to your vet about what you plan to feed you pooch to make sure that it is safe for them and will provide them with all the nutrients they need.
You are in complete control of your dog’s intake of calories with a homemade diet and you know that they will not be ingesting any additives or preservatives. You can also eliminate foods your dog is allergic to and which contribute to weight gain (typically soy, wheat, corn, dairy) and you can remove high-fat meats such as beef.
Dogs are natural carnivores (meat eaters) and so their guts have evolved to cope with a high-protein diet. Homemade, unprocessed foods slow down the digestive process and puts a lower metabolic demand on the body which, in turn, promotes weight loss. Keep the diet as varied as possible to stop your dog getting bored with their diet.
The best diet for weight loss in dogs that you can make at home should include the following:
- 40 to 80 per cent protein – preferably high-quality animal protein unless your dog is allergic to it. Try including skinless chicken and small amounts of red meat. Fish is a healthy source of protein and can be fresh or canned but must not be canned fish in oil. Eggs are a good alternative to meat as is low-fat cottage cheese and you can include small amounts of offal (heart, liver etc). Avoid any sort of processed meat like ham and sausages. When putting together a diet for weight loss for dogs green beans are a great source of vegetable protein as is soy.
- Fats and oils can be provided by a combination of meat fat, fish oil and vegetable oil. Fish oil is very useful in conditions such as arthritis and heart disease. Many owners like to include some linseed oil and olive oil which are also healthy choices for dogs.
- Carbohydrates and fiber need to make up less than 50 per cent of the diet. Grains, especially corn, should be kept to a minimum because many dogs are allergic to them. Fresh vegetables are a good source of fiber and nutrients. Try pumpkin, spinach or kale which you can steam, bake or boil. They make your pooch feel full up without ingesting loads of calories. You can also use the pulp left over from juicing fruit. If you are finding it hard to incorporate fiber into the diet you could try a fiber supplement.
- Vitamins and minerals are an essential part of the diet and vitamins that help with weight loss are a useful addition to the diet. Dogs need plenty of calcium and phosphorus in their diet. Raw bones can provide a proportion of the vitamins and minerals that dogs need and promote good dental health at the same time.
Some owners who are looking for diets for weight management for dogs have found great success with the Paleolithic Diet. This weight loss diet for dogs tries to eliminate all processed food. A typical example of a Palaeolithic diet for a 23kg dog would be:
- 285g cooked or raw meat
- 185g mixed seasonal vegetables (no potato or corn)
- 6 tsp fish oil or olive oil
- 1 tsp iodised salt
- Calcium citrate supplement
- Vitamin supplement
If your dog has an allergic skin or gastrointestinal disease and also needs to lose weight they may do well on an auto-immune disease. Here is a typical example for a 16kg dog:
- 340g meat (rabbit, venison, quail, goat) or fish
- 230g cooked millet, amaranth or organic potato with skin left on
- 120g mixed seasonal vegetables (no corn)
- 4 tsp olive oil
- Calcium citrate supplement
- 1 tsp iodised salt
- Vitamin supplement
Always talk to your vet before attempting these home-made diets to check that it is safe to your particular dog. Weight loss diets work best in conjunction with a healthy exercise regime.
- Dr. Sarah Lim, Seasonal Weight Gain in Dogs: How to Avoid Those Pesky Extra Pounds, The MSPCA–Angell
- Dr. Deborah E. Linder, How Fast Is Too Fast For My Pet To Lose Weight?, Clinical Nutrition Service
- Dog Nutrition Tips, ASPCA