Fitness Tips for Combating Canine Obesity

(Dr. Iulia Miha, DVM) Obesity in dogs is a serious disease that must be treated as such. Otherwise, it can lead to severe health problems over time like heart disease or diabetes.

In the USA, almost 60% of dogs are obese. We can all agree that fluffy dogs look cute, but this cuteness comes with a price - your dog's health. Obesity not only affects your pet's quality of life but also their life expectancy.

How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Overweight?

To find out if your dog is overweight, weigh them regularly. If you notice an increasing value on the scale, it means that something in your dog’s life may be out of balance. The only exception to not be alarmed at weight gain is if your dog is in their growth period.

You can also evaluate your dog's body mass index (Body Condition Score – BCS). This evaluation method is based on a visual evaluation of your dog and the palpation of body fat (waist, chest, and spine). 

BCS has 5 classes:

  • Classes 1 and 2 – If your dog falls into these classes, it means that they are in poor nutritional condition.
  • Classes 3 and 4 – If your dog falls into these classes, it means that they are in optimal condition.
  • Class 5 – Your dog is overweight or obese, which is not optimal.

In general, your dog is overweight if you cannot feel their ribs and the waistline is no longer visible. When you look at your dog from the side, you should be able to see the lower part of the abdomen going up from the ribs to the hips. Additionally, fat deposits at the base of the tail are another indicator that your dog is overweight.

How Does a Dog Become Overweight or Obese? What You Should Do?

A dog can become overweight for many reasons including:

  • High calorie intake
  • Certain health problems
  • Certain medications

High Calorie Intake

Most of the time, the road to obesity starts when your dog is still a puppy. A diet too high in calories in the first year of life can lead to the formation of more fat cells than a properly fed dog will have. You cannot change the number of these cells later, so the risk of obesity as an adult is higher.

An increase in calorie intake is the most common cause of obesity in dogs. Pet owners often feed their pets too much food, very fatty food (mostly home-cooked), give them unlimited access to food, or choose food with an energy value that is too high per serving. In addition, dog treats can contain many calories - a fact not taken into consideration by some owners. A late-night treat can lead to extra pounds in the long run.

Some dog breeds also tend to gain weight easier than others even if they consume the same amount of food. These breeds need a diet with fewer calories. Among the breeds prone to obesity are:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • English Cocker Spaniels
  • Pugs
  • Beagles
  • Basset Hounds
  • Dachshunds

What To Do

The excess weight can be compensated with physical activity and various forms of exercise. A regular daily exercise routine can help your dog get rid of unwanted pounds. In addition to exercise, your dog’s diet is important because quality food that has fewer calories will also help them lose weight.

Take your dog's size into account when offering treats. For a dog weighing 25 pounds, a treat can cover 20% of their daily caloric need. But for a dog of only 10 pounds, the same treat represents approximately 40% of the daily amount of calories needed.

Neutered and spayed dogs also need a lower caloric intake even if they have an increased appetite (as happens in most cases). Dogs who have undergone such procedures can see their appetite increase by up to 60%. They can also see their energy requirement simultaneously decrease by approximately 30%. This is something to consider if your dog has been spayed or neutered.

Certain Conditions

Certain diseases can also be determining factors for obesity in dogs. Conditions such as hypothyroidism or Cushing's disease can lead to obesity even if your dog does not eat much.

In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones. These hormones play a role in a dog's metabolism. Due to the lack or insufficient production of thyroid hormones, the body's cells work too slowly and do not consume as much energy. As a result, the affected dog becomes lazy and does not exercise as much. This leads to weight gain, even if they consume a small amount of food.

Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is a medical condition that affects the adrenal glands, eventually leading to obesity. The adrenal glands of dogs suffering from Cushing's disease produce too much cortisol, a stress hormone. When too much cortisol is produced in the body, the dog will have an increased appetite and a decreased desire to exercise. As a result, the affected dog will store fat on their abdomen. Dogs affected by Cushing's disease have abdominal obesity but the rest of the body stays slim.

In addition to these diseases, there are other conditions that can lead dogs to exercise less (cardiac, respiratory problems, etc.). Dogs suffering from osteoarticular problems will be in pain and move less. It will be difficult for affected dogs to exert themselves and they will choose to lie down for long periods of time. This in turn will lead to weight gain which puts more stress on their bones and joints.

What To Do

If your dog shows signs of illness or has behavioral changes, take them to the vet for an evaluation. Likewise, if your dog seems to be gaining weight but consumes the same amount of food (or even less), seek help from a vet. A correct diagnosis is important because there may be other conditions at play that are affecting the weight of your dog.

Certain Medications

Some conditions require medication that increases the appetite as a side effect. This in time will lead to weight gain. Some examples are antiepileptic drugs and glucocorticoids.

What To Do

If your dog is taking medication and they are gaining weight in a way you cannot control with food or exercise, contact your veterinarian. They can tell you if your dog is gaining weight due to medication or if there is another cause.

Fitness Tips for Combating Canine Obesity

There are several categories of exercises for overweight dogs. These activities can be divided into:

  • Low-impact activities: walking, swimming, or hiking
  • Transitional activities: using a treadmill, playing fetch
  • High-impact activities: running, walking with a pack on their back

Low-Impact Activities: Walking, Swimming, Hiking

Overweight dogs need regular physical activity to stay healthy. Unfortunately, many dogs cannot do much physical exercise due to being out of shape.

If your dog is overweight or obese, try activities that do not require too much effort. These include activities like walking, swimming, or hiking. You can start with a simple walk around the block. As your dog gets used to the pace and begins to lose weight, you can increase the walking distance.

If your dog likes water, swimming will be a treat for them! It will both help them lose weight and provide them with unforgettable fun. Swimming is an easy and low-impact sport that also cools your pet down on hot days.

If you like hiking, bringing your canine companion is a low impact activity that they might also enjoy. Start with a short hike to see how your dog's body reacts. If everything is fine, you can start to gradually increase the distances to make it more impactful.

Transitional Activities: Treadmill, Fetch

If your dog is ready for more challenges and physical effort, you can make them run on the treadmill or play fetch with them.

If you want to teach your dog to run on the treadmill, start with a low speed. You will gradually want to increase the speed according to your dog's ability and adaptability.

Fetch is a fun game you can play that also strengthens your bond with your dog. You can use a frisbee, a ball, or another toy. Increase the intensity of the game as your dog becomes more fit and their endurance increases.

High-Impact Activities: Running, Walking With a Pack On Their Back

Running will help your dog burn calories, but the transition to this exercise must be done gradually. Never start a dog who is not used to exercising with a high-impact activity as this will lead to other problems.

If you want to try something new, you can add a pack that represents 10-20% of your dog's body weight on his back. This will help them burn calories. Always consult the veterinarian before choosing this type of exercise. With this type of activity, the transition must be done gradually so your dog's body can get used to this type of effort.

Dr. Iuliana Mihai, DVM, Masters In Small Animals And Equines Pathology

Iuliana graduated from the University of Agronomical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in 2012, Romania. She has a Master’s degree in Small Animal and Equines Pathology and a strong affinity for Veterinary Parasitology and Laboratory. In 2013 she started her Ph.D. in epithelial cancer in dogs and cats. She volunteered at the faculty’s clinic in her 3rd year of study, and continued her career in small animal pathology and laboratory. She has one cat and eleven rats. Her interests outside of work include traveling, writing, and crafting.


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