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Weight Control: Provide healthy foods and exercise to slim down your pudgy dog.

Image of Dog World Magazine's October 2010 issue

Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, October 2010.

One of the simplest ways to help dogs live long and healthy lives is to keep them lean from puppyhood through old age. However, more than half of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese, conditions that are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, ruptured cruciate ligaments, pancreatitis and other health problems.

A 14-year study showed that Labrador Retrievers that ate 25 percent less than their free-fed littermates lived an average of two years longer and experienced less trouble with hip dysplasia (Kealy, et al. “Effects of Diet Restriction on Life Span and Age-Related Changes in Dogs,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. May 1, 2002).

Is your dog fat?

Many owners don’t know their dogs are overweight, or argue that their breed is supposed to be that way, but the same rules apply to all dogs. You should be able to feel their ribs quite easily, and see the last rib or two on a smooth-coated dog. A distinct tuck up at the waist should be seen when viewed from the side or the top.

As long as your dog’s hips and spine don’t protrude, your dog is not too thin. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian’s opinion.

The best way to lose weight

Traditional commercial weight-loss diets are high in carbohydrates and low in fat, with indigestible ingredients added to “fill up” the dog.

This approach has several problems, however. Protein and carbohydrates contain the same number of calories per gram. Protein helps build lean muscle, but carbohydrates are more likely to be stored as fat. Low-fat diets leave dogs feeling hungry all the time, and adding high amounts of fiber doesn’t usually satisfy their appetites (“Effect of Amount and Type of Dietary Fiber on food intake in energy-restricted dogs,” American Journal of Veterinary Research, March 1997). This can lead to food stealing and garbage raiding.

Recent studies have shown that dogs lose weight faster and are more satisfied on diets that are high in protein and low in carbohydrates, with moderate amounts of fat (“High Protein Diets Enhance Weight Loss in Dogs,” Journal of Nutrition, August 2004; “Weight Loss in Dogs: Evaluation of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet,” Journal of Nutrition, June 2002). One study done on cats showed that they lost more weight on high-protein diets even when the high-carb diets had fewer calories (“Protein Intake during Weight Loss Influences the Energy Required for Weight Loss and Maintenance in Cats,” Journal of Nutrition, March 2009).

If you feed a homemade diet and your dog is overweight, feed lots of high-protein foods, such as meat, eggs, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy. Remove the skin from chicken, but feed dark meat rather than ultra-low-fat breast meat. Use low-fat red meats, or cook the meat to remove some (but not all) of the fat. Eliminate or greatly reduce starchy carbohydrates, such as rice, oatmeal, potatoes and pasta, replacing them with green vegetables.

If you feed a commercial diet, or a combination of homemade and commercial, look for foods that are high in protein with moderate amounts of fat. Some companies make senior and weight-loss diets that fit these criteria. Avoid diets that are low in protein, high in fiber, or contain indigestible ingredients such as powdered cellulose (sawdust) and peanut hulls. Even if you feed mostly commercial, you can add some of the high-protein foods listed above to increase the protein and reduce the carbohydrate content of the diet. Reduce the amount of commercial food when adding fresh food to your dog's diet.

How much to feed

Don’t suddenly cut the amount you feed dramatically; this can change your dog’s metabolism and make weight loss more difficult. Instead, reduce the amount gradually, cutting back about 10 percent every two weeks until your dog begins losing weight. Then continue feeding that same amount as long as weight loss continues. Aim for weight loss of 3 to 5 percent of body weight monthly; a 50-pound dog should lose about 2 pounds per month.

It’s best to weigh food using a kitchen or postal scale in order to control portions. Weigh your dog regularly to ensure your weight-loss plan is working. For large dogs, this may require a trip to the vet’s office to use their scale every couple of weeks. For medium-sized dogs, weigh yourself with and without the dog, then calculate the difference. Smaller-size dogs can be weighed accurately on a baby scale.

Treats and chews

Account for everything your dog eats, including treats, chews and leftovers. Make sure your whole family is on board with the weight-loss plan and is not giving food that you don’t know about.

Keep treat sizes small. Dogs don’t differentiate between small and large treats – they’re happier getting two or three small treats than one larger treat. Avoid feeding high-calorie fatty treats, such as cheese, peanut butter, hot dogs and pig’s ears.

Many dogs enjoy raw vegetables, such as carrot sticks, broccoli and zucchini slices. These can be fed in any amount because they are low in calories.

Stuff Kongs or other hollow toys with low-fat or nonfat yogurt, then freeze the toys to make long-lasting treats. Bully sticks are a good choice for low-fat chews.

It’s fine to share leftovers with your dog, but limit amounts and make sure they’re healthy foods, not fatty scraps. Decrease the size of your dog's next meal you feed to account for the extra calories.


Gradually increase the amount of exercise your dog receives. For obese dogs, this might be starting with just a slow walk to the corner and back, building up the distance and pace as your dog loses weight and is better able to move around. For more active dogs, throw a ball or take them to an off-leash area to run. Be careful not to overdo it to the point where the dog is sore afterwards.

What if nothing works?

If your dog fails to lose weight despite eating less and exercising, schedule an appointment with your vet. Hypothyroidism can lead to weight gain and lethargy, which decreases your dog's desire to exercise. Other signs of hypothyroidism include cold intolerance, hair loss, dry and scaly skin, oily coat, skin infections, a “tragic” expression, and behavior problems (such as aggression or fearfulness). This condition can be easily treated.

Cushing’s disease and diabetes can cause increased appetite and thirst. Talk to your vet if your dog seems famished all the time, despite eating a high-protein diet that's not excessively low in fat.

Keep it up

Once your dog has reached the proper weight, continue to monitor on a regular basis by feeling the ribs and weighing regularly. Weight gain is easier to reverse when you catch it early.

Any dog will be happier being able to get around more comfortably. Older dogs may become rejuvenated when extra pounds are shed. Dogs with arthritis who have trouble getting up may do so easily once they aren’t packing around excess weight. Too often, food is given as a sign of love, but the real way to show your love is to keep your dog at a healthy weight.

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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.