If you’re looking for dog food for weight loss, selecting the right diet is essential to achieving a healthy body condition. If you’re thinking of simply feeding less, that may help, but there are more effective, and safer, choices for overweight dogs. The goal is to find tasty weight management dog foods (and treats) that will reduce calories while meeting your pet’s nutritional needs. By looking for a few key dog food elements and ingredients, and following science-based formulations and approaches, you can find the best weight management dog food for your best friend.
How to tell if your dog is overweight
According to my organization’s surveys, The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, approximately 56% of all US adult dogs are overweight or have obesity. That equals over 50 million dogs at risk for weight-related conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, skin issues and many forms of cancer. In addition, studies prove that dogs kept at a healthy body condition live up to 2.5 years longer than overweight dogs.
The danger of excess weight isn’t a number on a scale, it’s the harmful hormones and compounds produced by too much body fat (adipose tissue). That’s why it’s important to identify the signs of unhealthy weight and body condition score (BCS) at home.
The first step is to weigh your dog regularly. Identical to our own “battle of the bulge,” your dog’s body stores excess food energy as body fat. When an otherwise healthy adult dog gains weight, chances are most of that is fat. If you can safely pick up and weigh your dog once a month, you can get a good idea of how your dog’s weight is trending. Spotting body weight trends early is essential in avoiding excessive weight gain. Too often, I see pet parents completely unaware that their dog’s weight was creeping up. In addition, if you regularly weigh your dog, you’re more likely to spot inexplicable weight loss early, a common finding in dogs with cancer.
To gauge if your dog is within a healthy weight range, you can consult the breed weight charts on the petobesityprevention.org website or refer to American Kennel Club (AKC) and other breed standards. Don’t be alarmed if your healthy weight dog doesn’t fit neatly within these values. They’re only averages and may vary between organizations. Mixed breeds (including “Oodles and Oos”) can be tricky, so get your vet team involved to help.
Body Condition Score (BCS) for overweight dogs
Your vet will use a body condition score (BCS) and perhaps a muscle condition score (MCS) to determine if your pooch is at a healthy body composition. While the BCS is a subjective assessment of body fat percentage, it has proven to be a helpful tool for tracking progress over time.
At home, you can also perform a modified BCS by comparing your dog’s appearance to the charts and performing a few simple tests.
1. You should be able to easily feel – and count – your dog’s ribs when you lightly run your fingers across the side. If you can’t easily feel those smooth bones, that’s a sign your doggo is probably carrying extra weight.
2. When you look down on your pet from above, you should see an “hourglass figure” or an indentation near the midsection. If your pet looks like a blimp from above, he’s probably overweight or has obesity.
3. When you observe your dog from the side as he stands, you should see a slight tuck or upward slope of the tummy. If the abdomen hangs low and drags near the ground, that indicates the most dangerous and biologically active form of body fat, abdominal adiposity, is present. Time to get professional help.
Creating a weight loss program for your dog
When most dog owners think “weight loss for dogs,” they think “feed less and exercise more.” If only it were that simple.
The most important thing to do if your dog needs to lose weight is to make sure he’s healthy and a disease or drug isn’t to blame. Your vet will perform basic blood and urine tests and review any current conditions or medications. Hypothyroidism is common in many overweight dogs and needs to be controlled first. Arthritis, elevated blood glucose or diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and hormonal imbalances can be caused or exacerbated by excess body fat and require specific nutritional formulations to aid in weight loss.
Why feeding your dog less food can be risky
The problem with “cutting calories” by simply feeding your dog less “regular food,” is you risk reducing essential nutrients, creating additional problems to a dog experiencing chronic inflammation due to excess body fat. Most vets can share stories of misguided dog owners who created serious metabolic imbalances in their dogs by feeding a quarter or half of “normal.” In addition, a dog’s metabolism adapts or “resets” in response to reduced calories, resulting in less weight loss than you’d expect.
What to look for in a dog food for weight loss
For overweight dogs, therapeutic weight loss diets remain the safest and most proven method to reduce excess body fat. Keep in mind that marketing terms such as “weight management,” “healthy weight,” “weight care” and “weight control” have no regulatory or legal meaning and are not weight loss diets.
Look for foods labeled:
- Low calorie
- Less calories
- Reduced calories
- Lean fat
- Low fat
- Less fat
- Reduced Fat
These are approved and proven dog weight loss formulations.
In general, feed a food containing the fewest calories per cup or can your dog enjoys. Most therapeutic weight loss formulations will contain less than 260 calories per cup compared to maintenance diets that range from 325 to 500 calories per cup.
I typically start my dog weight loss patients on a higher protein and fiber weight loss diet. Protein and fiber have been proven to help with satiety and make your dog feel fuller, longer, resulting in less begging and pestering behaviors for food. If a dog doesn’t like the weight loss diet, don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for another recommendation. There are many well-researched therapeutic diets with a wide variety of nutritional formulations to choose from, so your dog can get healthy while still savoring their meals.
A good rule-of-thumb is to transition your dog to a new food over a seven to ten-day period by adding an additional 25% of the new diet every two to three days. If you’d like to compare nutrition levels between pet foods, my colleagues at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, have created an excellent Pet Food Calculator.
How much food should you feed overweight dogs for weight loss?
You’ll first need to have your dog examined by your veterinarian and an ideal weight calculated based on his current BCS. Based on your pet’s degree of excess weight, your veterinarian may choose a target weight higher than the ideal weight to start (Step Weight Loss). You can visit PetObesityPrevention.org for caloric recommendations or use this basic formula for weight loss in dogs:
Weight in pounds divided by 2.2 gives you weight in kilograms (kg)
Calculate your dog’s Resting Energy Requirements (RER) in calories (kcals) based on ideal or target weight:
30 x (ideal or target body weight in kilograms) + 70 = Daily RER calories
For weight loss in healthy adult, inactive, indoor, spayed or neutered dogs, feeding the RER calories for the step-weight loss target weight (or ideal weight in some cases) should be adequate. In cases that fail to respond to this number of calories, your veterinarian may further adjust the total.
How fast should my dog lose weight?
Whatever weight loss dog food you feed, it should help your dog reach his ideal weight safely and quickly. My general guidelines for weight loss in dogs are 3 to 5% body weight loss per month. For a 95-pound Labrador Retriever that needs to lose 20 pounds, that’s about 4 to 5 pounds per month for five to six months. Most of my canine weight loss patients will be on a weight loss program for three to 12 months.
If a dog isn’t achieving his weight loss goals every 30 to 90 days, you should either reduce calories 10% or try a different diet. I’ve seen too many dogs being fed the same food for months without losing adequate weight. Change the amount, formulation or brand at least every 90 days if your dog isn’t losing weight. Metabolic adaptation is real; changing the diet periodically may be required to keep your dog’s weight loss on track.
How much should I exercise my dog for weight loss?
Exercise is important, but the majority of fat loss begins — and ends — at the food bowl and treat jar. In general terms, canine weight loss is about 70-percent diet and 30-percent activity. Aim for at least 20- to 30-minutes of walking or structured play daily.
What about dog treats for weight loss?
Take stock of the treats you’re giving. Many of these “calorie grenades” pack an awful lot of energy into an irresistible flavor bomb. For doggie weight loss, try switching to wholesome, low calorie veggies such as baby carrots, sliced cucumbers or zucchini, broccoli, celery or any crunchy greens that charm your canine.
|Baby carrots||2-3 calories per carrot|
|Cucumber||1 calorie per ¼-inch slice|
|Apple||16 calories per slice (1/8) large red apple|
|Asparagus||3-5 calories per spear|
|Celery||6 calories per 7- to 8-inch stalk|
|Broccoli||5-6 calories per floret|
|Banana||7-9 calories per ½-inch slice|
|Pumpkin||21 calories per ¼ cup (canned, without salt)|
Dog weight loss is a journey
Good health is a journey. Losing excess body fat takes time. Stay on the weight loss path your vet maps out, and you’ll be rewarded with a healthier, happier doggo when you reach your destination.