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Weight Loss Diets for Dogs

Counting Calories: Obesity can shorten your dog’s life and impact quality of life as well.

Article by Mary Straus, published in the Whole Dog Journal, September 2009

Photo of Westie on scale

Introduction

When Ella, a five-year-old Norwich Terrier, first came to live with me a few months ago, she weighed a svelte 10.8 pounds. But within two months her weight had ballooned by almost a full pound, and there was no way you could call her anything but plump (see photo at right).Photo of Ella looking a little plump

How could this happen? How could I, perpetually preaching the benefits of keeping dogs lean, have let my new dog get fat? And what the heck was I going to do about it?

The answer is that it happened because I’d never owned such a small dog before, and it turned out I was massively overfeeding her, particularly when I counted all the treats she was getting. And I would do whatever it takes to get her back to the weight she should be, and keep her there. Here is what I learned during my struggle to help Ella lose weight.

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What’s the big deal?

Why worry about one extra pound? On a big dog, one pound wouldn’t matter, but for Ella, that’s 10 percent of her body weight, and it’s noticeable on her small frame. But it’s her health, not her looks, that concern me.

Lean dogs live longer, healthier lives than those who are overweight. A 14-year study showed that dogs fed 25 percent fewer calories than their free-fed littermates lived nearly two years longer, showed fewer visible signs of aging, and needed treatment for arthritis a full three years later. Health problems that are more common in overweight dogs include pancreatitis, diabetes, heart disease, disc disease, ruptured cruciate ligament, hip dysplasia and other forms of joint disease, surgical complications, compromised immune system, and even many forms of cancer.

As many as half of all dogs in the U.S. are overweight, but the majority of their owners are in denial. A recent study found that veterinarians considered 47 percent of their patients to be overweight, yet only 17 percent of the owners agreed. [only 28 percent of owners felt their dogs were overweight, while 79 percent of experts scored those same dogs as above their ideal weight.] If you can’t easily feel your dog’s ribs and shoulder blades, her waist is not discernable (a tuck behind the ribs), or there’s a roll of fat at the base of her tail, it’s time to face reality and put your dog on a diet.

Because we’re so used to seeing overweight dogs, many folks think a dog at his proper weight is too skinny, but as long as the hips and spine are not protruding, and no more than the last rib or two are slightly visible, he’s not too thin. If in doubt, ask your vet for an opinion, or go to an agility competition to see what fit dogs look like.

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What types of food are best for weight loss?

Most prescription weight loss diets are excessively high in carbohydrates and low in both fat and protein. The same is true of many commercial weight loss diets, though some companies have recognized that this is not the best way to help dogs to lose weight and have changed their tactics.

Protein and carbohydrates supply the same number of calories, but protein is preferentially used to build lean muscle, while carbs are more likely to be stored as body fat. L-carnitine, an amino acid derivative found in meat, fish, and dairy products, helps to burn fat. Dogs thrive on high-protein diets and find them more satisfying, while they have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. Diets to help your dog lose weight should be high in protein and low in carbs.

Fat has more than twice the calories per gram of protein and carbs, so the amount you feed should be limited. Fat, however, is also what satisfies the appetite best. A diet that is too low in fat will leave your dog feeling hungry all the time, making it harder for you to stick to the diet plan and potentially leading to food stealing or even poop eating. It’s better to feed a diet with moderate fat and reduce the portion size as needed rather than feeding a low-fat diet.

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How does that translate into what to feed?

If you are feeding kibble or other dry food, look for a minimum of 25 percent protein. More is better: generally, the higher the protein, the lower the carbs. There is no harm in feeding high protein diets to puppies, seniors, or healthy adult dogs; there are only a few specific health conditions that require protein to be limited (See “Diet and the Older Dog,” WDJ December 2006, for more information on this topic).

Look for fat percentage around 12 to 16 percent. Some dogs have had success losing weight with reduced portions of even higher-fat foods that are also very high in protein, probably because these foods are quite low in carbs.
Avoid foods with excessively high (more than 5 to 6 percent) fiber, the indigestible part of carbohydrates. Increased fiber will not help your dog feel satisfied, and too much can interfere with nutrient absorption. Hill’s Prescription r/d dry dog food has an astonishing 26 percent fiber, including 10.4 percent cellulose (essentially sawdust). Over one quarter of what you’re paying for is indigestible.

Examples of good food choices include Wellness CORE Original (34 percent protein, 14 percent fat, 4 percent fiber) and Orijen Adult (40 percent protein, 16 percent fat, 2.5 percent fiber).

For canned foods, subtract the moisture percentage from 100, then look for protein that is at least one third the remainder, and fat that is one quarter the remainder or a little less. Usually that means protein is at least 8 percent and fat is around 5 to 6 percent, but these values may be slightly lower for foods with very high moisture content (80 percent or more).

Many, though not all, grain-free foods are high in protein and low in carbs, though a number of them are also high in fat. The majority of senior and light diets are still high-carb and low-protein, but some newer formulas now use higher protein, which means fewer carbs, and are lower in fat than adult maintenance foods. Canned foods are usually higher in protein and lower in carbs than dry foods.

If you feed a homemade diet, feed lean meats, low-fat dairy, and green vegetables in place of most grains and starches. Remove the skin from poultry, but feed the dark meat rather than very low-fat breast meat. Remove separable fat from meats, and avoid fatty meats such as lamb, pork, and high-fat beef, or cook them to remove most of the fat. It’s okay to include eggs in the diet in moderate amounts. You can also use these foods to replace part of a commercial diet, which will increase the amount of protein and decrease the amount of carbs in the overall diet.

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How much to feed

Update

A recent study done on cats found that cats who were fed 75% of needed calories for two weeks alternating with 100% of calories for two weeks lost the same amount of weight over six months as cats fed 75% of needed calories all of the time. Alternating the amount fed may help stop changes in metabolism that make it harder to lose weight. We don't know how that might apply to dogs, or whether it will help pets to keep weight off or not. See Chronic vs. Intermittent Weight Loss in Cats (third item in article) for more information.

Reduce the amount you feed gradually rather than making drastic changes all at once. Cutting the amount of food too dramatically will change your dog’s metabolism, making it harder to lose weight and easier to gain it back. Slow, steady weight loss is more likely to result in long-term success.

If you continue to feed the same food you’re feeding now, start by reducing the amount you feed by about 5 per cent, or around 1 ounce per pound of food, or 1/8 of a cup per two cups of food, depending on how you measure what you feed. Weigh your dog in one to two weeks. If your dog has not lost weight, reduce the amount of food by another 5 per cent. Continue to reduce the amount of food you feed every week or two until your dog begins to lose weight, then continue feeding that amount.

If you switch to a new food that is considerably higher in protein and fat than your current food, cut the quantity of food by up to one third, as these foods are more nutrient dense and will provide more calories in smaller portions. Even though the total amount of food your dog gets is less than before, you may find he is more satisfied.

It’s critical to accurately measure the amount of food that you feed. I learned the hard way that when I try to eyeball my dogs’ food, they gain weight. The only way I’ve found to achieve consistent weight control is by using an electronic postal scale to weigh everything I feed. You can find these scales at office supply and kitchen supply stores, departments stores such as Target, and online at places like Amazon. Most can handle up to 5 pounds with accuracy to the tenth of an ounce, and will also allow you to switch to grams when needed for more accuracy with very small measurements.

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Monitoring your dog’s weight

You must weigh your dog frequently, especially when first starting a weight-loss program. Aim for weight loss of 3 to 5 percent of body weight per month, or one percent per week. A 50-pound dog should lose about half a pound per week, or 2 pounds per month.

Because Ella is so small, I couldn’t get an accurate weight by picking her up and weighing us both on my bathroom scale, then subtracting my own weight. Instead, I bought a shipping postal scale that weighs up to 55 pounds. I put a box on the scale and zero it out, then put Ella in the box to measure her weight to the nearest half ounce (a small treat afterward makes her a willing participant). A baby scale also works well.

If your dog is too heavy to pick up, you’ll need to go to your veterinarian’s office in order to get an accurate weight. This is also a good time to help desensitize your dog to vet visits, by feeding small bits of low-calorie, high-value treats while you’re there.

Once your dog begins losing weight steadily, you can go longer between weigh-ins, but recheck at least monthly to make sure you’re still on the right track. It’s easy to slip back into giving too much food and undo much of the good you’ve done if you rely solely on how your dog looks and feels. By the time you notice a difference, your dog could have gained a lot of weight back. Caloric needs can also change over time as your dog ages, after neutering, or if his activity level varies seasonally. If you’re weighing your dog regularly, you’ll be able to catch any weight gain early and react before you have a bigger problem.

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What about treats?

When Ella continued to gain weight even with reduced meals, I realized that I needed to consider the calories she was getting from treats, particularly since, like any new dog, she needed a lot of training. I fed her cooked chicken breast to counter-condition her shyness around strangers that we met on our walks. I put treats in a Kong toy when I had to leave her alone, to reduce any anxiety she might feel about my leaving. I used clicker training to improve my communication with Ella. Altogether, those treats were adding up to a lot of calories.

Dogs care more about the number of treats they get than the size of each treat: it’s more rewarding for a dog to receive several small treats than one big one. Using small treats allows you to reward your dog without adding too many extra calories.

For a dog Ella’s size, this means using really tiny treats. I cut already small Zuke’s Minis into four pieces and a single Zuke’s Jerky Naturals into 25 to 30 pieces to use for clicker training.

Avoid treats that are high in fat and calories, such as cheese, hot dogs and peanut butter. Raw vegetables and some fruits make excellent treats. I give baby carrots to my small dog. Broccoli, celery, zucchini slices, or any other crunchy vegetable your dog likes can be used, as can small slices of fruit such as apple, banana, and melon. Don’t feed grapes or raisins to dogs, though, as these can be dangerous to their health.

You can make your own treats out of low-fat meats such as heart and liver. Add anise seed for a flavor that dogs love. Never use xylitol, a lower-calorie sugar substitute used in baking that can be fatal to dogs.

Feeding part of your dog’s meals as treats is another option, but be sure to reduce the meal size accordingly.

Remember that affection and exercise can be used to reward your dog and show your love. Going for a walk, playing a game of tug, and throwing a ball are great substitutes for treats.

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Don’t forget chews

Ella loves to chew, and she surprised me by completely consuming smaller chews, such as dried tendons and steer sticks, in a single session. But when she found a 12” bully stick that my old dog had left behind, it lasted almost two months, even with her working on it every night. This provided chewing pleasure without adding a lot of calories.
Avoid chews that are high in fat, such as pig ears, and look for chews that last your dog a long time. Bully sticks (or the thinner steer sticks, for dogs who are less aggressive chewers) are mostly protein with little fat. Himalayan dog chews are made from yak and cow milk and have less then 1 percent fat. Deer antlers are another low-fat, long-lasting option. If you use rawhide, look for high-quality, thick, unbleached or lightly bleached (not white) rawhides without added flavorings or smoking, made from one solid piece, and preferably made in the U.S., such as those made by Wholesome Hide. See “Finding the Right Rawhide,” May 2009, for more information on how to choose healthy rawhide chews.

Fresh bones can also be used for chewing. Bones, like any hard chew, have the potential to break teeth, particularly in older dogs whose teeth are more brittle. Bones such as knuckles, however, that are too big for the dog to get between their molars and chomp down on, are less likely to cause problems than marrow bones, which are also filled with fat and therefore not a good choice.

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Other extras you may not be counting

I’ve always shared my food with my dogs, giving them a little bit of anything good for them when I’m done (never while eating, as that encourages begging). I realized this was another way that Ella was getting extra calories, particularly since I was used to sharing with larger dogs and was giving her too much.

Share only foods that are not high in fat, and keep portions small. If your dog gets extra “people” food, cut back on his next meal to help balance things out. Make sure other family members understand how important it is to control the amount of food that your dog gets so they don’t subvert the process. Watch out for visitors and neighbors who may be feeding your dog snacks you don’t know about.

Could your dog be eating the cat’s food (or worse, raiding the cat’s litterbox)? Keep cat food up high and the litter box behind a baby gate where the dog can’t reach it. If your dog raids the garbage, get a locking can, cabinet locks, or a motion-activated alarm to keep your dog away from the trash.

Try writing down every piece of food that your dog gets in a week, including from other family members. You may be surprised at what you find.

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Exercise

Diet is not the only way to help your dog to lose weight. Regular exercise is also an essential component. Proper exercise not only burns calories, but also helps to convert fat into muscle, improving body condition. As your dog loses weight and gains muscle, he will become more active, which will further speed up the process.

If your dog is a couch potato, don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with very short sessions tailored to your dog’s capabilities, such as on-leash walks that gradually lengthen as your dog’s exercise tolerance increases. Safe areas where your dog can run off lead will provide even more benefit.

Moderate exercise is good for dogs with arthritis, as muscles help to hold the joints in place and reduce the amount of wear, but don’t exercise your dog to the point where he is more sore afterward. Non-weight-bearing exercise, such as swimming, is ideal for dogs with joint problems, and for other dogs as well. Again, start slowly, using a dog life jacket if that helps him to feel more comfortable in the water.

Chasing a ball is great exercise, but sudden stops and turns can be hard on joints, so don’t overdo games of fetch, especially while your dog is still overweight. Remember to keep sessions short until he’s is in better shape.

If your dog is older or has health problems, consult with your veterinarian before beginning an exercise program. If your dog really doesn’t want to exercise, it could be a sign that something’s wrong. A trial of pain medication can help you figure out whether your dog’s lack of activity is related to discomfort.

Ella is athletic despite her small size. We walk two miles every day, and she gets more strenuous exercise chasing her lure: a real raccoon tail (from cleanrun.com) tied to the end of a lunge whip. At least I was doing something right.

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Helping your dog feel satisfied

Update

Recent studies in both humans and dogs have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in fish oil, promote weight loss and help dieters feel more satisfied. I recommend giving an amount of fish oil that provides about 300 mg EPA and DHA combined per 20 to 30 pounds of body weight daily. See Omega-3 Fats May Help with Weight Loss in Pets for more information.

There’s a common misconception that replacing a large portion of the diet with green beans will help your dog not feel hungry. While there’s no harm in adding some green beans or other non-starchy veggies to your dog’s diet, the extra bulk won’t help your dog feel satisfied if you’re feeding too few calories or too little fat. It is fat that helps the most to satiate your dog; just adding bulk isn’t enough. Replacing too much food with green beans can also lead to protein deficiency, causing loss of lean muscle rather than fat. 

Feed smaller portions more often to help your dog not feel hungry. Replace some dry food with canned or fresh, high-protein food so he thinks he’s getting something special. Put all his meals in a Kong, Buster Cube, or other food-dispensing toy so he has to work for them, leaving him feeling more satisfied. Freeze his wet food, or dry food mixed with nonfat yogurt, in a Kong toy to make a meal last even longer. Give long-lasting chews and low-calorie treats such as carrot sticks to prevent your dog from feeling deprived.

Exercise will distract your dog from focusing on food, and relieve stress that can drive some dogs to overeat.

If your dog acts very hungry but is losing weight slowly or not at all, then try changing foods. A diet that is higher in protein and possibly fat, particularly if you’re currently feeding a low-fat or low-protein diet, will help your dog feel satisfied with fewer calories.

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Diet Aids?

Update

A recent study showed that a diet high in antioxidants and l-carnitine helped "up-regulate" fat-burning genes. See New Research into Nutrigenomics and Managing weight loss in dogs and cats (Proceedings): "Dietary supplementation of L-carnitine improves nitrogen retention, increasing lean mass and reducing fat mass. Incorporation of L-carnitine at a level of 50–300 ppm [50-300 milligrams l-carnitine per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of food on a dry matter basis] in weight reduction diets has been shown to reduce lean tissue loss during weight loss." Meat, particularly beef, is a good source of l-carnitine. More info on l-carnitine and l-arginine for weight loss: Fat Loss Supplements for Pets

Another study showed that isoflavones found in soy promoted increased activity levels and weight loss in dogs. See Isoflavones May Reduce Body Fat in Dogs for more information.

In 2007, the FDA approved Pfizer’s Slentrol (dirlotapide), a drug that suppresses the appetite and blocks fat absorption. If your dog is severely overweight and you just can’t make the changes needed to help him lose weight, or you need to get weight off very fast due to an orthopedic emergency or similar situation, this drug may be an option, but it’s not a substitute for proper diet and exercise. The safety of Slentrol has not been evaluated beyond one year. Once you stop the drug, your dog may regain all the weight he lost even with continued reduced caloric input. Slentrol is also quite expensive.

Many supplements are touted for helping people to lose weight without diet or exercise, but none have proven to be both safe and effective. There is no way to know if weight loss supplements sold for people are safe for dogs. Some common ingredients, such as caffeine, are dangerous for dogs. To be safe, avoid supplements that claim to help with weigh loss, and stick to the tried and true: diet and exercise.

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What if nothing works?

If you’ve done everything recommended and your dog still is not losing weight, or if you have to feed even less than your dog’s “Resting Energy Requirement” (RER; see “Counting Calories” sidebar) to achieve weight loss, have your vet check your dog for underlying health problems. Hypothyroidism can lead to weight gain despite consuming few calories. Both diabetes and Cushing’s disease can cause increased appetite and weight gain accompanied by excess thirst and urination. In rare cases, a tumor of the pancreas called an insulinoma can also cause increased appetite.

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My chubby little dog

Yes, it sounds funny to say my dog is pleasingly plump, or cute and cuddly, or any of the other euphemisms we use to describe our overweight pets, but the health risks from Ella’s extra weight are real. Ella is now losing one to two ounces per week, a steady, gradual weight loss that should soon return her to her original weight. I weigh her every week, and continue to cut back on the number of treats and extra food she gets if she hasn’t lost any more.
I have no doubt that Ella will reach and maintain her ideal weight, as I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that she leads a long and healthy life. I love her too much to let her suffer from all the problems caused by being overweight.

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If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me, but I have less time to answer questions than I used to, and it may be several days to a week before I can respond. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or

   


Rocky is a Yorkie-Poodle mix who had suffered from digestive problems his whole life. Click on his image to read about the diet his owner finally found to help him.
Pashoshe Fisher, a Chihuahua, was a wonderful, joyful companion to his owner for 19 & a half years. He was on a high quality raw diet for over half his life.
This is Ella, my Norwich Terrier.