Obesity in dogs is a life-changing and life-shortening illness. 51% of dogs in the UK are overweight or obese, with older dogs, females and certain breeds at greatest risk.
Weight gain and obesity develop when your dog takes more energy (food) into their body than they burn up. Obesity in dogs is a complex disease and multiple factors may combine to cause it. Unmanaged obesity damages both the quality and length of life of affected dogs. But the disease is preventable. And even dogs who’ve suffered from obesity for years can regain a healthy weight with the right treatment and ongoing care.
What is obesity in dogs?
All puppies start life with the potential to maintain a healthy weight. But, over time, a combination of factors turns the ‘chunky’ puppy into the ‘cuddly’ adult dog. And the cuddly adult into the ‘stately’ senior. But whatever words we use to describe weight gain, the underlying process and risks are the same.
If your dog consumes more calories than they use up in exercise or body functions, they will gain weight.
- The excess is stored as a type of fat called white adipose.
- Fat cells grow in size and number to store more and more fat.
- Blood supply to the fat worsens as size increases.
- Other cells in adipose include defence cells and inflammatory cells.
- As fat increases, the number and activity of inflammatory cells increases.
- Cells release harmful chemical signals which cause inflammation and damage throughout the body.
- Health conditions like arthritis, kidney disease, pancreatitis, heart disease and diabetes develop or worsen.
Obesity: why does it happen?
Obesity is a complex illness. Lots of things acting together can cause obesity in dogs.
Possible factors include:
- An unsuitable or unhealthy diet
- Too many treats, especially high-fat, sugary human food
- Lack of exercise
- Gut dysbiosis: diet in overweight dogs causes long-term changes in the bacteria/microorganisms that live in the gut (the gut biome). These changes change the way nutrients in your dog’s food contribute to weight gain.
- Inherited gene defects: some Labradors lack the gene which tells them when they’re full. So they’re always hungry!
- Other illnesses may affect mobility, appetite and/or metabolism.
- Boredom: lack of mental stimulation can cause overeating.
Symptoms and clues of obesity in dogs
- You may struggle to see or feel your dog’s ribs or backbone.
- Their tummy may be getting rounder.
- Their face and neck appear chubbier. Collars get tight.
- They have pads of fat on either side of their lower back and at the base of their tail.
Your dog may be:
- Less willing to go for walks or becoming slower
- Panting a lot more than other dogs
- Acting more tired and sleepy
- Becoming unable to get up on the sofa or needing help to get in and out of the car
- Refusing to move and disinterested in play
The risks of obesity in dogs
What factors make your dog more likely to develop obesity?
- Belonging to certain breeds: Pugs, Beagles, Golden Retrievers, English Springer Spaniels, Border Terriers and Labrador Retrievers
- Having an existing joint problem, such as arthritis, that limits mobility
- Suffering from other illnesses
- Increasing age
- Being neutered
- Being female
Being overweight and inactive ourselves makes our dogs three times more likely to be obese. This may be because we’re less able to exercise and/or we may struggle more to recognise obesity in our dogs.
What are the health complications of obesity?
- Reduced life expectancy by as much as 2 years.
- Stiffness, lameness and joint problems.
- Loss of energy, fun and curiosity.
- Increased risk of heart disease.
- Poor ability to cope with heat, a major risk for short-faced breeds.
- High levels of fat in the blood (hyperlipidaemia) and pancreatitis
- Breathing difficulties.
- Kidney disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
How can I tell if my dog is obese?
It’s very hard to see gradual weight gain in your dog. Often the first thing any of us realise is when somebody else (often a vet) comments that our dog is overweight or even obese. It’s an unpleasant shock.
Overweight or obese, is there a difference?
- Dogs who are 10% above their healthy weight are classed as overweight
- Dogs who are 20% or more above healthy weight are obese.
There’s not a clear cut-off. Overweight to obese is a continuum. And it’s a path half of UK dogs will follow.
Body condition score
Vets use body condition score to assess whether your dog is overweight or obese.
Body Condition Score (BCS) is a scale that gives a practical evaluation of the fat coverage of your dogs body. By checking how easy or not it is to feel certain bony areas of the body, a score is then produced. There are several scales, from 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. The ideal body condition lies in the middle, so either 3/5 or 5/9.
The body areas normally checked for fat coverage are:
1. ribs and spine
2. hips and shoulders
Here are a few tips on how to do it.
With your pet in a standing position:
- Place your hands on the rib cage and gently feel for each rib, without pressing too hard
- Feel the waist and look from the top and the side (if you have a very furry breed, it may be harder to assess)
- Feel the spine, which runs down the middle of the back
- Feel the top of the hips and shoulders
The ideal body condition score
- You should be able to see and feel the outline of your dog’s ribs without excess fat covering.
- You should be able to see and feel your dog’s waist.
- Your dog’s waist should be clearly visible when viewed from above.
What’s the treatment for obesity in dogs?
Increasing exercise or short-term diets alone won’t cure obesity. Keeping your dog at a safe and healthy weight is a long-term joint effort between pet health professionals and pet parents.
Tackling obesity involves:
- Committing to long-term changes in eating habits, diet components, and lifestyle
- Hill’s Prescription Diet metabolic® promotes steady weight loss. It will also keep your pet feeling fuller for longer. Hills Prescription Diet r/d® is another effective option.
- Probiotics to improve gut health and restore the gut biome.
- Regular rechecks at a vet clinic for weight management support are essential
- Keeping records of your dog’s eating habits, appearance and energy levels. Take photos!
Key facts to remember:
- Obesity is a serious disease that won’t just disappear when the weight comes off.
- The damaged gut biome (gut dysbiosis) and old habits will quickly re-establish without ongoing care.
- Obesity and all the health problems associated with it will come back.
- Monitoring and managing this disease will give your dog the best possible outlook for a longer, healthier life and a far better quality of life.
Home care to help a dog with obesity
Your dog’s weight clinic appointment will provide information and guidance. But the real changes happen at home.
Tackling the disease at home means:
- Increasing exercise: going for longer or more frequent walks; taking up a canine activity, such as agility.
- Being careful with the type of food your dog eats, as well as their intake. Create a feeding plan.
- Using slow feeders or snuffle mats to stop dinner from disappearing in a few milliseconds.
- Seeing your vet or weight clinic nurse for regular weight checks, once or twice per month.
- Checking your dog’s body condition score, fortnightly or monthly is ideal
- Recording your successes with photos and records. Share them!
Our Joii nurses run weight management clinics which you can access from the comfort of your home.
Preventing obesity in dogs
- Feed your dog a high-quality food that’s suitable for their age, breed, sex and lifestyle
- Measure out your dog’s food accurately, avoid guessing or using scoops
- Give only natural high-quality treats and adjust the amount you give in a main meal if your dog’s had treats.
- Keep to a regular programme of exercise.
- Weigh your dog every 1-3 months and act on any changes.
When to worry
When to worry about your obese dog
Obesity can trigger or worsen critical illnesses because of its wide-reaching effects on the body.
Call a vet immediately if your dog is:
- Collapsed and unable to stand.
- Having breathing difficulties, particularly short-faced breeds.
Joii can help with:
- Assessing your dog’s health and body condition
- Weight clinics and expert advice with our experienced and highly-trained vet nurses.
- Advice on managing obesity and the illnesses that contribute to it.