For stylist Marissa Gimeno, 32, of Brooklyn, N.Y., it didn’t take help from a rocket scientist -- or even a veterinarian -- for her to realize that her 8-year-old dog, Lolita, needed to slim down. "She was about 2 pounds overweight," she says. "For a Chihuahua, that’s hard to miss."
Is Your Dog Overweight?
To tell if your pet could shed a few pounds, feel around their ribs and spine. You should be able to locate both with only a thin layer of fat separating the skin from the bones. If you can’t find the ribcage, you have an overweight dog.
Ask your veterinarian to evaluate your pooch’s size at every check-up. Once your canine reaches maturity, ask for their optimal weight. As a rule of thumb, 15% above that weight is obese; zero to 15% is overweight. If your dog falls into either category, they are not alone. According to a 2011 study, 53% of dogs are overweight or obese.
Tips for Weighing Your Dog
Hit the scales periodically (weekly or monthly) to make sure your dog is on track.
"Your vet will be happy to let you use the scale at the office," says Louise Murray, DVM, director of medicine for the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.
If that’s not convenient, step on a scale at home. Then step on again, this time holding your pet. The difference between the two weights is how much your dog weighs. For small breeds, invest in a baby scale.
"Regardless of the method, it’s imperative that your pet is weighed on the same scale consistently," says Todd R. Tams, DVM, and chief medical officer of VCA Antech.
Overweight Dogs: Blame the Breed
Some breeds are prone to obesity, while others (Greyhounds, German Shepherds, Yorkshire Terriers), are typically slim. Small breeds with a propensity for heftiness include:
- Cairn Terriers
- Scottish Terriers
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Cocker Spaniels
- Basset Hounds
- Golden Retrievers
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Saint Bernards
Are You Making Your Dog Fat?
Another, non-genetic reason for an overweight dog is more obvious: YOU, the owner, may be overindulging your pet, most likely with treats or people food.
"Food is love, and people want to make their pets happy," Tams says. "Very often, it is not the dog’s official food that is causing the weight problem; it is all the additional treats or snacks between meals," Murray says.
Portion Control Is Key
Knowing the correct serving size of food for your overweight dog is imperative for success. Companies often place information on labels or include charts on their web sites. But because many variables, such as size, are factored into the equation, get advice from your veterinarian on how often and how much to feed your dog.
Putting Your Dog on a Diet
After you’ve verified that your furry friend needs to slim down, consider everything they eat on a daily basis. "Do an honest assessment, covering all treats and snacks, including those given by other family members, neighbors, dog sitters, and dog walkers," Murray says. "You may find all you need to do is cut these out."
You don’t need to nix treats altogether. "Be realistic -- if you or your family likes to give them, it's unlikely that a no-treat policy will succeed," Murray says. "Choose healthy alternatives, such as veggies or rice cakes, and decide at the beginning of each day exactly how many the dog is allowed; put this amount in a bowl, and when they're gone, they're gone."
Another tactic to try is reducing portions. Murray recommends immediately cutting daily food intake by 15% to 20% for a six- to eight-week period, then analyzing the results. Additionally, your veterinarian can calculate the exact amount of calories your pet needs per day to lose weight based on their current size, ideal body weight, energy level, and general health.
Don’t Give In to Begging
If your overweight dog whines and cries for more food, hold firm. "That causes a lot of owners to buckle," Tams says.
Murray says: "Your dog will certainly whine if he knows that will get him more treats and snacks." If you’re serving the correct portion, more food will only contribute to weight issues.
Diet Dog Food: Making the Switch
If you've tried all these things and they haven't done the trick, it may be time for diet dog food.
Gimeno attributes certain brands of chow and lack of exercise to Lolita’s weight problem. And because smaller breeds are more susceptible to heart failure, she decided to visit her veterinarian and take action.
With a diet of organic brands, such as Newman’s Own and AvoDerm, and more walks in the park, Lolita shed her excess weight. Both Murray and Tams advocate this type of dog diet.
Consult your vet on the right food for your canine. Factors such as size, age, and overall health dictate the type or brand. Your vet may even suggest a prescription dog food.
"Some diet foods that are higher in certain types of fiber can help a dog feel fuller while ingesting fewer calories," Murray says. If you decide to switch to diet dog food, do so slowly, each day mixing in more and more of the healthier fare.
Get Your Overweight Dog Exercising
Exercise is as important for pets as it is for people. If you don’t have the time, hire a dog walker or a teenager looking for some extra cash.
"Doggy day care centers are a great option if everyone is gone during the day," Tams says. "Your dog can run and play all day long."
Tams advocates 10-15 minutes of activity several times per day. If you live in a hot area, exercise early in the morning or late at night. For heavier dogs with joint problems or those that overheat easily, swimming is a great alternative.
When to Try an Rx for Your Overweight Dog
If diet and exercise aren’t working, medication could help, but only as a last resort.
Tams recommends Pfizer Animal Health’s prescription drug Slentrol. "We always try exercise and diet modification first," he says. "But some animals have seen weight loss with Slentrol, which helps to decrease appetite and fat absorption."
Still Not Losing? Maybe it’s Medical
If cutting out unhealthy snacks and table scraps, serving diet dog food, increasing physical activity, and medication don’t do the trick, an underlying health condition likely triggered the weight gain. "That’s why consultation with a vet who can perform blood work is so important," Tams says. Your vet will check for:
- Low thyroid level
- Hormonal imbalances, such as Cushing’s disease, an excess of adrenal hormones
Just like people, overweight dogs can face a litany of health issues, so a diet may save your pet’s life. The potentially devastating consequences of obesity include:
- Trouble breathing
- Greater risk for heat stroke
- Orthopedic concerns
- Compromised immune system
- Reduction in life span
- Mammary tumors (particularly in un-spayed females)
- Skin conditions
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
How Long Will It Take to See Results?
Aim for gradual weight loss and expect significant improvement to take several months. "The ideal would be a loss of 1% to 2% of the initial weight per week," Tams says.
Once you’ve achieved success, maintain the weight loss by sticking to what you know. "Hopefully while achieving your dog’s weight loss goals, you both developed some healthier habits," Murray says. "Stick to these: avoiding between-meal snacks and treats, regular exercise, and controlled food portions. Getting the whole family into healthy-dog habits is essential for long-term weight management."