One of the most awesome things about dogs is that we don't judge (or love) them according to how they look—and we don't torture them with constant scale monitoring the way we humans do. But being overweight—and not being aware of it—is more serious than a little more belly chub to rub: It can lead to diabetes, heart conditions and even cancer in dogs. Obesity could shorten your pup's life by two to two and a half years, says Ernie Ward, veterinarian and author of Chow Hound: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter. We talked to Ward about why an increasing number of dogs are obese, how to figure out if yours is overweight, and what you can do to help them drop some lbs.
Why are so many dogs overweight?
Fifty-four percent of dogs in the United States are obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity, so there's a fairly good chance that your pup may have a weight problem. But why? The reason is simple, and it’s the same reason why many humans have a major weight problem: “They eat too much and exercise too little,” Ward says. In fact, in one survey published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine, vets reported that 97 percent of obesity cases could be traced to how owners fed and played with their pets.
Also just like humans, some dogs can laze around on the couch all day, eat a ton and not gain a pound, while others will run around the house chasing invisible squirrels, and they’ll still be obese. Some breeds in particular, like Dachshunds and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, are naturally prone to obesity, while Greyhounds and German Shepherds tend to stay slim. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that Labs are genetically predisposed to be overweight because they carry a genetic mutation that makes them unable to sense their stored fat. So they can overeat without realizing it. Ruh roh.
How can I tell if my dog is overweight?
The simplest test is the finger test, Ward says. First, feel the tiny bones on the back of your own hand. Then, feel your dog’s ribs and hips. “That’s how your dog’s ribs should feel,” Ward explains. “Many times, they feel like an inch of Jello. That’s the first sign that your dog has extra fat.” Next, feel the bones in your dog’s hip. You should be able to feel the pointy bones in the sides of the hip. If you’re poking through an inch of fat, that’s a problem. The final test is to check for belly fat. Look at your dog from the side when he’s standing upright. If his belly is dragging, that’s a sign of excess belly fat, Ward says.
What’s the best way for my dog to lose weight?
Portion size is definitely important—and it can be tricky to figure out the exact amount of food your dog should be eating, unless you take their breed, age, weight, activity level and body composition into account. But "you can’t just cut back the calories, you have to cut out certain ingredients while maintaining certain proteins and fats,” Ward says. Carbs, for example, prompts dogs to produce insulin, which causes them to store fat. You could also try switching them to a fresh food diet, or one with higher quality proteins and fewer fillers in it. Giving your pup healthy natural snacks like carrots instead of processed treats can also help.
There could be a thyroid issue or other medical issues contributing to weight gain, so before you start any diet, be sure to speak with your vet, who can run blood tests.
Ward says vets will usually put overweight pets on a therapeutic diet, a meal plan that controls the intake of foods with adequate nutrition, to help your dog lose weight. Your dog’s diet will probably plateau, Ward warns, but don't give up: A study at Ohio State University found that weight-loss programs for dogs were successful as long as the people involved stuck with them. We're talking to you, humans!