How to Put Your Dog on a Diet
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Obesity is more common among dogs than you might think. An estimated 56% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. Like humans, dogs face serious health consequences due to excess weight or obesity. Unfortunately, dog obesity often goes underrecognized. That’s why, as a pet parent, you must pay close attention to your dog’s weight.
In this article:
What to do if your dog begs or whines because they’re hungry
What to do in a multi-dog household when only one dog needs to lose weight
Below, you can discover how to help your dog lose weight by modifying their habits and diet. The rules guiding weight loss diets for dogs are likely familiar, as they follow many of the same general principles as weight loss for humans. The goal is to reduce the number of calories consumed while maintaining balanced nutrition.
Ensuring that your dog maintains a healthy weight is one of the best ways to protect your dog from disease and help them enjoy a long and happy life.
Carrying around excess weight affects your dog’s life expectancy. As the American Veterinary Medical Association notes, dogs who are overweight or obese pass away on average 2 or more years before non-obese dogs.
There are also several health consequences associated with obesity in dogs. Overweight dogs are more likely to develop the following conditions:
High blood pressure
Heart and lung disease
Being overweight can cause significant harm to your dog’s quality of life. Shouldering all that excess weight affects your dog’s ability to stay active and can put pressure on their joints and bones, resulting in pain.
As a loving pet parent, you can learn the tools to help your dog maintain a healthy weight so that they live a healthy life without unnecessary suffering and disease.
An initial assessment of your dog, using your eyes and hands, can help you begin to figure out if your dog may be overweight:
Look at your dog from above and consider the figure of their body. Ideally, you should be able to make out a slight “hourglass” shape. Is your dog’s belly area (just behind the ribs) slightly narrower than the front legs, torso, hips, and back legs? If so, this is a good sign.
From the side view, you shouldn’t be able to see belly fat hanging down from your dog’s midsection. Can you feel the last three ribs at the bottom of the rib cage with a light touch? If so, this is a good sign.
If your dog has evident belly fat, you can’t feel their ribs through the skin, or they don’t seem to have an hourglass figure, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian and start thinking about dietary changes or checking for medical conditions that could be causing the weight gain. A veterinarian can establish the severity of your dog’s weight problem, determine how much weight they will need to lose, and devise an individualized weight loss program.
A veterinarian may start the process by determining your dog's body condition score. Body condition scores are usually on a scale of 1 to 9. (Some veterinarians use a scale that scores from 1 to 5. Below we’ll use the 1 to 9 scale.)
Based on factors including the breed, body fat percentage, and muscle mass, your doctor will figure out their ideal weight, and that number will be considered a 4 or 5 on your dog’s personalized scale.
Then, your dog will be assigned a score based on their current weight. If they receive a 6, they are about 10% to 15% heavier than the ideal weight and are considered overweight.
A body condition score of 7 indicates that they are about 20% to 30% heavier than the ideal weight and are considered obese.
In general, a score under 4 means that your dog is underweight, while a score greater than 5 suggests that your dog is overweight or obese.
Knowing your dog’s ideal weight enables you and your veterinarian to make a weight loss plan.
There are also signs and symptoms associated with excess weight that some dogs exhibit, such as:
Waddling or difficulty walking normally
Lack of interest in or ability to exercise
Labored or loud breathing
Initiating a weight loss program for your dog usually starts at the veterinarian’s office. There are many questions to consider, such as:
Should you switch to a new dog food? And what dog food should you switch to?
Should you reduce how much you feed your dog? If so, by how much?
Should you change your dog’s feeding schedule?
Should you cut out treats entirely? If not, what treats are allowed, and how many?
Oftentimes, these questions are best answered by your veterinarian, who has a personalized understanding of your dog. Each dog has different needs, depending on their breed, size, age, exercise level, and health history.
Once you decide on a weight loss program, you can take steps to prepare:
Any family or household members who share a house with your dog should be aware and committed to the plan. Let them know of any changes to your dog’s eating routine and ask them not to deviate from the program by providing extra food, such as table scraps, or any other unscheduled treats.
If you’re planning to use a new type of dog food, be sure to ask your veterinarian about the best way to transition. Dogs are sensitive to dietary changes, and their stomachs may react poorly when a new type of food is introduced abruptly. To avoid stomach problems, you should always switch your dog’s diet gradually over about 3 to 4 days. Some dogs are more sensitive than others and may require more gradual diet changes. However, most veterinarians will recommend a transition diet that looks something like this:
Day 1: 75% old food, 25% new food
Day 2: 50% old food, 50% new food
Day 3: 25% old food, 75% new food
Day 4: 100% new food
You’ll also want to create a feeding schedule for your dog and prepare to change old habits. Feeding schedules and routines may vary depending on the circumstances, but the key is that you will need to tighten your control of when your dog eats, what they eat, and how much.
Tips your veterinarian may recommend:
Switch to designated mealtimes and take away leftovers when your dog is finished.
Feed your dog twice daily or provide multiple smaller meals each day.
Consider switching to lower-calorie, diet dog food.
Consider getting a special dog bowl, called a slow feeder bowl, that prevents your dog from guzzling their food if they tend to eat rapidly.
How much to feed your dog to help them lose weight
The amount of food to provide during a weight loss program will vary depending on the individual circumstances, such as your dog’s size and activity levels. That’s why it’s best to consult a veterinarian to help you decide.
You may be told to feed your dog a reduced amount of their current dog food or switch to a lower-calorie dog food.
Dog food packaging should come with a feeding guide that tells you how much to give your dog, depending on their size. While adhering to these guidelines is a good starting point, you should ask your veterinarian to provide more precise instructions and make sure your dog is getting the nutrients they need.
You’ll need to be consistent and always measure how much food you’re giving to make progress.
Do you need special diet dog food?
When putting your dog on a diet, you may need to start using special diet dog food. If you continue using regular dog food that is not meant for weight loss, you’ll need to reduce the amount. However, this approach may not provide adequate vitamins and nutrients, and it often inspires begging.
Before choosing a diet dog food, check with your veterinarian to see if they have any recommendations. Look for products that are approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). There should be a statement on the packaging that says the food “meets the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.” This statement reflects that the product contains all the nutrients necessary for dogs, according to the AAFCO’s standards.
Diet dog food is labeled for weight loss. The packaging may have the words “light” or “lite.”
The dog food options for weight loss may have different qualities, such as added fiber, high protein, or additional nutrients. Added fiber and high protein may help stave off hunger. Foods with fortified vitamins and minerals may help prevent your dog from developing nutrient deficiencies that restrictive, low-calorie diets can sometimes cause.
Remember to gradually transition your dog to a new diet by slowly adding more of the new food and less of the old food into their bowl.
What treats can you give your dog when they’re on a diet?
Restricting treats is one of the most important aspects of weight loss for dogs. While you can measure how much food you give your dog in daily meals, it may be more difficult to track treat consumption, especially when other household members may also be giving out treats.
As recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association, treats should account for less than 10% of all the calories your dog consumes in a day. However, caloric intakes vary widely depending on the dog, so you will need to know the number of calories your dog should take in during their weight loss program and then calculate 10% of that number to determine the proper amount of treats. For example, if your goal is to only feed your pet 300 calories per day (according to your veterinarian’s recommendations), no more than 30 calories can come from treats.
Beyond limiting the number of treats your dog receives in a day, you’ll also need to think about the type of treats:
Dog treats should not be big; they should be about the size of your index fingernail.
If you don’t have low-calorie treats on hand, you can try cutting a small piece of a carrot or cucumber to use as a snack. Besides certain fruits and vegetables that are safe for dogs to eat, don’t go to the fridge to find treats or use table scraps, as human food will quickly rack up calories.
Remember: your dog does not need food-based treats to survive and thrive. Many dog owners enjoy dishing out treats because of the perceived happiness it brings to their pets. While it’s true that dogs love treats, the practice can often become habitual and take the place of other fun things, like playing fetch.
Changing dietary habits is the key to weight loss for dogs, but exercise is essential for overall physical and mental health. There is considerable variability when it comes to workout needs between different breeds. Typically, your dog will show you how much exercise they desire by laying down when they're tired or exhibiting lots of energy at the end of a walk. Exercise needs also change over time, with puppies requiring lots of movement to aid their development, while older dogs may slow down a bit.
While initiating an intense workout schedule for your dog isn’t likely to move the needle much on weight loss, it’s never a bad idea to offer more opportunities for your dog to exercise. Like humans, dogs who exercise more will:
Curb their appetite
Improve muscle mass
Boost their metabolism
Burn more calories
However, be cautious of exercising your dog in hot weather, especially if you have a brachycephalic (short-nosed) dog breed, such as a bulldog, pug, or Boston terrier, or an older dog. These types of dogs tend to become overheated more rapidly than others.
Dog owners should make time to exercise their dog 2 or more times each day. Rather than walking idly, try to engage your dog in physically engaging games to increase their energy output. Providing opportunities for safe off-leash exercise is often more beneficial, as the freedom allows dogs to exercise at their own pace rather than adhering to a human’s pace.
Try to weigh your dog frequently throughout the weight loss process – about every 2 weeks to once a month. Regular weigh-ins are the most beneficial if you have formulated a monthly or weekly weight loss goal along with your veterinarian’s advice. With preset goals, you can ensure that your dog is on the right track or adjust the plan if it’s not working as expected.
You may or may not have a scale at home to weigh your dog. Various floor scales are sold online to weigh large dogs at home. If you don’t have a scale or you’re not sure what number to look for on the scale, try making regular appointments with your veterinarian for weigh-ins.
As an alternative, you may be able to use a human scale if your dog is small enough. Start by weighing yourself alone and then get back on the scale while holding the dog in your arms. Then, you can subtract your weight from the combined weight of you and your dog to calculate your dog’s weight.
Making a plan and checking in with your veterinarian will also ensure that your dog is not losing weight too fast. Progress should be consistent, not speedy. A weight loss of 1% per week is considered safe.
It can be hard to say no when your dog is begging, whining, or flashing those well-loved “puppy eyes.” However, these behaviors do not necessarily indicate that your dog needs to eat, and may be used to attract your attention.
Instead of giving in and offering a treat, try playing with your dog or giving them a satisfying belly scratch. Maintaining a record of when your dog is fed can help you distinguish between legitimate hunger and attention-seeking. Giving in to your dog’s begging will stifle weight loss progress and encourage more begging to occur.
Initiating a weight loss program for your dog is especially complicated when you have other dogs in the household. The key is to separate the dog that is dieting from any other dogs during mealtime. You can accomplish this in whatever way makes the most sense considering the circumstances, but a simple option is to put the dogs in separate rooms and close the doors. You will need to commit to feeding your dogs according to a schedule and take away any leftover food after a certain time so they can reunite without the presence of food.
You will also need to be diligent about doling out treats. If you’ve decided that your dog’s weight loss program does not include any treats, you should refrain from providing treats to the other dogs. If some treats are allowed, try to give the same amount of treats to the overweight dog and the other dogs for the sake of fairness. Ask your veterinarian if you should increase the amount of mealtime food given to your non-dieting dogs if you’ve had to cut back on their treat consumption.
Putting your dog on a diet starts with paying attention to your dog’s weight, recognizing when there might be a problem, and consulting a veterinarian for advice. Remember that carrying around excess weight is harmful to your dog’s health, happiness, and longevity. It’s important to take the process seriously and adhere to the weight loss program enacted by you and your dog’s veterinarian. Figure out what type of food to feed your dog, how much to feed them, and how to monitor progress. Throughout the process, consistency is key.