Updated: Mar 2
We all love our dogs and want the best for them, but one of the easiest ways to keep them healthy is so often overlooked: their fitness. Obesity is the number one contributor to health problems in dogs. Let that sink in. Your dog’s weight directly influences their health and lifespan. If you want your dog to live the longest, happiest, healthiest life it can, keeping them at an ideal weight and in peak physical condition should be a top priority.
Recognizing Obesity Many dog owners are unaware that their dog is overweight, let alone obese. In a society so hyper-focused on body image, a certain level of denial often accompanies the realization that we, or our canine companions, could stand to lose a few pounds. In many cases, that denial prevents a realistic view of what a healthy weight actually looks like in our dogs. Over 50% of the dogs in the U.S. are overweight¹, which means we are conditioned to seeing overweight dogs.
Like anything, the more we are accustomed to seeing ‘overweight’ as ‘normal’, the more skewed our perception of ‘ideal’ weight becomes. A healthy, fit dog is so taboo that the majority of people would classify a fit dog as underweight, when they are actually in top physical condition.
There are a few key areas to observe in order to classify your dog’s body condition:
1. Tuck (abdomen): This is one of the easiest ways to judge ideal weight. From the side, every dog should have a visible tuck from the back of their ribs to the beginning of their hind leg.
The degree of a tuck will be determined somewhat by conformation; a dog with a deep chest will have a more dramatic tuck. It is possible for a deep-chested dog to be overweight and still have a tuck, or likewise a shallow-chested dog to be at an ideal weight with only a small tuck. The tuck is an easy place to start, but more factors should be considered.
2. Waist: From the top, dogs should have an hourglass figure. When they get to the point that they are straight from their shoulders to their hips, or shaped more like a canoe, they are overweight/obese. This can be harder to judge on longhaired breeds, but very obvious with shorthaired dogs. By running your hands down the side of the dog, you should be able to feel the degree (or lack) of waist.
3. Ribs: Many people think that seeing a dog’s ribs means it is automatically underweight and I am here to bust that myth now! The last few ribs will be visible on a conditioned dog and all may be prominent when breathing deeply (so do not judge a dog’s weight based one photo of their ribs showing). Feeling your dog’s ribs is a very accurate representation of their condition. If you can easily feel the ribs by running your hand along the side of the dog, then the dog is in a good condition. If you have to press at all to feel the ribs, your dog is overweight. If you can’t find the ribs, your dog is obese. The fat covering over the ribs correlates to the fat present on the rest of the body.
4. Other indications, such as visible hipbones and spine might mean the dog is underweight. Conformation can also influence this aspect, so it is not to be used exclusively to judge a dog’s weight.
When using these checkpoints, it’s important to be as honest as possible. You aren’t doing yourself or your dog any favors by turning a blind eye to their current condition. It has become a sort of “trend” to lovingly joke that obese dogs are “chonky” and other cute names, but the difference between the life and death of your pet is no laughing matter. Being obese can kill your dog and it shouldn’t be downplayed. Acknowledging that your pet is overweight should not feel like you are insulting them, either. It is not their fault; they are at the mercy of their caregiver. Refusing to acknowledge a severe weight issue and instead pass it off as a cute cliché’ not only trivializes a lifetime of weight-related health problems, but also excuses the owner’s negligence that is doing their dog a disservice and shortening their pet’s lifespan.
Body Condition Score
The Body Condition Score is a scale of numbers from 1 to 9 that allows us to rate a dog’s fitness based on a set of standards:
1 – 2 Underweight:These dogs may have been neglected or sick. The majority of their bones are clearly visible because there is so little fat covering. They have an extreme tuck and the entire spine may be visible. Dogs in this category lack muscle.
3 - Fit/Conditioned: These are working dogs. They may appear to be skinnier than most because they are fit. You might see a few ribs or see their hipbones peeking out. They will have a significant tuck and a nice hourglass figure. The big difference between the 1 and 2 vs. the 3 is that fit/conditioned dogs have muscle and the underweight dogs do not.
4 – 5 Pet Weight: This is your average companion dog that is considered an ideal weight. They have more fat covering than the dogs in group 3, but still have a visible tuck and hourglass figure. They should also have some muscle, but it may not be as defined as the dogs in group 3.
6 – 7 Overweight: Using body weight as a guide, dogs are considered to be overweight when they weigh 10-20% above their ideal body weight². These dogs will not have visible ribs and they may be difficult palpate. Their tuck is becoming flat and they are becoming more of a canoe shape than hourglass. It will be difficult to see any muscle on these dogs because of their weight.
8 – 9 Obese: Dogs are considered obese when they weigh 20% or more above their ideal body weight². These dogs will have no waist, be difficult to palpate their ribs and have excess fat in most areas, including around their neck, loin, abdomen, and tail. These dogs are at a high risk for weight-related health problems.
The Dangers of Obesity
As with humans, being overweight can cause a variety of health conditions. In a 2018 press release, Nationwide reported the top obesity-related conditions found in dogs and cats based on 630,000 insured pets¹:
Other potential weight-related conditions include: Damage to joints, bones and ligaments, digestive and reproductive disorders, difficulty breathing, decreased stamina, heat intolerance, hair and skin problems, decreased immune function and increased risk of cancer. This leads to a decreased quality and length of life³. There is no denying that overweight dogs are suffering.
Take a moment to think about that: excess weight affects our pets in virtually every aspect of daily living.
On June 1, 2017, Pinky had TPLO surgery for a torn Cranial Cruciate Ligament (similar to a torn ACL in humans). One of the leading contributors to ACL tears is being overweight. The surgery cost us over $3k for one knee and the odds are that 30-50% of dogs will tear the other within one year of surgery.
After surgery, she was on crate rest for a solid 8 weeks (nothing but potty breaks and coming back in), then had an additional 4 weeks of limited leash walking. Due to Pinky's injury and surgery, we have made some significant changes to her lifestyle. She was switched to raw in October '17 and is kept very lean now. She gets plenty of exercise and has good muscle, which means she is not underweight. It is more important for her health to be lean than have any excess fat. We are grateful that she is more active and healthy now than ever.
From Fat to Fit: Food If you observe that your dog is overweight and are ready to make some changes, the first step is to schedule an appointment with your vet. Your vet can help you confirm that your pet does not have underlying health conditions and is healthy enough to start more physical activity. Just like in making changes to our own lifestyle, we must couple our dietary changes with appropriate exercise.
When it comes to changes in diet, there are a variety of ways to improve what we are feeding our dogs. For one, familiarize yourself with the caloric needs of your dog. We often get hung up on how many cups of kibble to feed a day, often without acknowledging how many calories there are per cup. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (link) recommends the following:
Therefore, if your pet weighs 50 lbs. and you are feeding a kibble that is 400 kcal/cup, 2 cups/day = 800 calories which falls right in the middle of the 700-900 recommendation. Please keep in mind that these calorie recommendations are a starting point, so your dog may require less. It’s always important to remember that we feed dogs based on what they should weigh, not what they currently do. If you have a 70 lb. dog that should weigh about 50 lbs. you need to be feeding in the 700-900 calorie range for a 50 lb. dog.
Not only is how much you feed important, but what you feed is essential for good health. For humans, we know that there isn’t the same value in eating 2,000 calories in fast food as eating 2,000 calories in fresh, whole foods. It is recommended to cut out processed foods as much as possible. Fresh, whole foods are packed with healthy nutrients that will keep us full and energized. It’s the same with our dogs! Good health starts with what they eat.
I always recommend raw diets when possible, but they can be especially beneficial for weight loss. Many kibble (dry dog food) varieties are full of carbohydrates (starch, sugar and cellulose), which can result in weight gain. Kibble has to use starchy foods, like rice or potatoes, to bind the food together for processing. These cheap ingredients offer little nutrient value but can cause significant inflammation, leading to disease. For more information on feeding raw, you can check out my blog post here.
From Fat to Fit: Exercise
If you’ve picked out a good food and are feeding the appropriate amount, you can now focus on exercises. For obese dogs, simply walking is going to make a huge difference. Start with short durations and work up to longer distances. If you have your vet’s approval, there are a variety of other exercises to get your pet in shape:
· Swimming: swimming is a low impact exercise; if your dog loves to swim, take advantage of this fun way to get them fit.
· Hiking: Walking up and down hills is perfect for building endurance and strength. Be sure to work up to more difficult hikes.
· Flirt pole: A flirt pole is a long stick with string attached to toy at the end (think of a fishing pole). By moving the stick, you can encourage your dog to chase the toy. This is a fun game that can improve muscle tone.
· Hydrotherapy: water treadmill is a low-impact exercise where a little goes a long way! Hydrotherapy is often associated with rehabbing injuries, but can be used as a conditioning tool, as well. Look for local vet clinics that offer it; it’s surprisingly affordable.
· Conditioning exercises: Thepossibilities are endless when it comes to methods for conditioning. Beyond just walks and swimming, weighted vests (like the XDOG Vest), bikjoring, dragging weights, or walking on the treadmill can provide an additional source of conditioning to your daily routine. Other options include joining a canine conditioning workshop (such as the K9 Conditioning Course through Fenzi) or scheduling a session with a Canine Conditioning Fitness Instructor or a FitPAWS instructor.
Being Skinny Isn’t Everything When reviewing studies on human health relating to physical activity and obesity, it’s well known that obese and inactive people have an increased risk of mortality and morbidity. But these studies also show that people considered obese and fit actually had a lower risk compared to people who were ideal body size but unfit⁴. Therefore, cutting back your dogs food is an excellent step in the right direction, but it’s imperative to give them plenty of physical activity, as well. Allowing your dog access to a fenced in area is often not enough. Without motivation, simply having access to a space to run does not mean they are getting the activity they need. Short, frequent walks can make a world of difference.
Other activities that could be fun for you and your dog are: joining an agility class, participating in local training groups, like for obedience and rally, going hiking with dog friends, finding dog-friendly water activities such as canoeing and paddle boarding, working up to running a race together, and more. What’s important is that you find something you both love and that you stick to it. Being a “weekend warrior,” meaning being sedentary all week then doing lots of exercise on the weekends, can lead to injuries. Aim to do at least a little bit every day!
Here are a few extra notes to consider:
· Just because your dog is a certain breed, such as an English Lab or a French Bulldog, does not mean they are “supposed” to be fat. That’s like saying it’s healthy for some ethnicities of humans to be obese. Percent body fat is percent body fat: it’s equal across all breeds and races. Sure, we might have different structure, but we can all have a healthy percentage of body fat.
· Just because your dog ‘acts’ hungry, does not mean it needs to eat. Think about this in terms of our own diets, as well. We limit ourselves to 2-3 structured meals per day, and regulate our portions accordingly when maintaining a healthy diet. Try incorporating your dog’s meal portions into their training sessions as a reward instead of using addition treats, and therefore extra calories in their diet. A little tough love is necessary here.
· It is the owner’s responsibility to make sure their dog is the happiest and healthiest they can be. We often show our love through food, but this can be detrimental. Dogs have no idea how dangerous it is to be obese; they eat what we feed them and exercise when we ask them to. It is never the dog’s fault for being overweight. Taking personal responsibility for your dog’s weight could be the difference between significant weight-related health issues and an early death, or several more active years with your pet.
· There's a myth that puppies should carry extra weight because they need it for growing. While it's extremely important for puppies to receive all the nutrients they need, a fat puppy is also unhealthy. Puppies, especially large breed puppies, should be lean to keep the least amount of stress on their growing joints. A fat puppy turns into a fat adult and increases their risk of health problems, such as hip dysplasia. "One study of puppies at-risk for hip dysplasia found that when fed as much as they wanted to eat, two-thirds of the puppies went on to develop hip dysplasia, while only one-third of puppies fed measured meals suffered from hip dysplasia. A study of German shepherds found that overweight puppies were almost twice as likely to develop hip dysplasia as their normal-weight counterparts."⁵
· There are a variety of health conditions that can cause weight gain. You should always consult with your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s health.
In order to have a better understanding of what fit and conditioned dogs look like, here are a variety of fit dogs of different breeds:
Thank you to everyone who allowed me to share their gorgeous, healthy, fit dogs! No photos may be used from this article.