Weight management for dogs

Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Just as it is for us, keeping our dogs within an ideal weight range is important for their health and wellbeing. Overweight dogs are at an increased risk of a number of illnesses and problems with their organs and joints. Being overweight, even by a relatively low proportion, can potentially shorten a dog’s life expectancy.

A dog that is losing weight unexpectedly or consistently failing to put weight on despite feeding for weight gain could have one of a number of conditions as an underlying cause. For a wide range of reasons, being aware of a dog’s weight and condition is very important.

To judge whether your dog is under or overweight, you need to know what your dog’s ideal weight is, and how they should look at that weight. Your vet can give you details of the ideal weight range for your dog’s breed type, and it is a good idea to weigh your dog at least a couple of times a year.

Assessing your dog’s physical condition at home takes a few simple steps that can be done regularly to ensure they stay as fit as possible.

  • Run your hands over the ribs. They should be easy to feel under the coat. A significant fat covering means action needs to be taken.

  • Looking at the dog’s back from above, a definite waist should be visible. If there is a straight line running from the ribs to the hips with no inwards curve, then the dog is overweight.

  • Look at the dog from the side. The line of the stomach should lift upwards as it moves towards the back legs. If this line is straight then the dog is overweight.

  • Obviously protruding hipbones or visible vertebrae or ribs show that the dog is underweight.

What is weight gain in dogs?

It is not unusual for our dogs to pile on a few extra pounds if their diet and exercise regime is not quite up to par. Weight issues and obesity are widespread and growing problems in our pets and something with which a large number of dog owners struggle.

Being overweight increases the chances of a number of medical conditions developing with serious implications for a dog’s health, even life-threatening. These include osteoarthritis due to the extra pressure put on the joints, urinary stones, diabetes mellitus and heart disease. Being overweight impacts a dog’s quality of life, as it can interfere with their happiness and ability to lead a normal life.

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A few medical conditions can cause weight gain, so if there is no obvious reason for your dog’s weight to have increased, a trip to the vet to rule out these issues should occur before adjusting their lifestyle.

If your dog is normally fit and a good weight but suddenly has a distended, bloated stomach, this is a medical emergency and the dog should go to a vet immediately.

What causes weight gain in dogs?

The most common reasons for weight gain are the same for dogs as for humans – too many calories in compared to calories out. The dog is eating too much or the wrong kinds of foods and not getting enough exercise to burn them off, leaving an excess to be stored as fat.

Poor quality foods can be full of salts and fat, which may encourage the dog to eat more, but the nutritional content in the food is not good.

Some dogs find exercise difficult. Older dogs are generally less active and less mobile, and the short-nosed breeds like pugs and bulldogs can become short of breath very quickly meaning they may not be active enough.

Some breeds are more prone to gaining weight. Examples are dachshunds, beagles, golden retrievers, pugs and bulldogs.

Spayed or neutered dogs have a difference in their metabolism according to clinical studies, meaning that they require fewer calories.

Chronic medical conditions can sometimes cause weight gain and will need management in consultation with a vet. These include hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism, better known as Cushing’s disease.

A sudden bloating of the stomach in a usually healthy dog could be GDV (gastric dilatation and volvulus) also known as bloat. This is an extreme emergency and requires immediate veterinary treatment.

Signs and symptoms of weight gain in dogs

The most obvious sign of a dog gaining weight is the increase in their fat layers. Initially, the ribs become harder to feel, and the waist thickens when viewed from above until the dog is a straight line either side from ribs to hip joints.

The abdominal tuck – the lift in the line of the stomach from behind the ribs to the front of the back leg – also disappears and becomes another straight line.

An overweight dog will have a lower tolerance for exercise. They will move much slower than when fit and healthy and get out of breath very easily.

They may sleep a lot more and could be a bit grouchy and bad-tempered because of how the extra weight is making them feel.

If a collar is worn, it may become tight and need loosening.

How to treat weight gain in dogs

Once any medical conditions have been either ruled out or brought under control, lifestyle changes can start being implemented, including an increased exercise programme and selecting a quality weight loss dog food. The best dog food for weight loss is one that is full of quality ingredients and nutritionally balanced.

It is important that the dieting dog still receive all the vitamins and minerals that they need, even at lower levels of food going in. A number of pet food manufacturers include on their websites a dog feeding calculator by weight, and you can use this to find out how much your dog needs, both when at a fit weight and to lose weight steadily and safely.

An idea for dogs that eat quickly is to give their food in ways that slow them down and make them work a little harder for it. There are a number of commercially available feeding toys and sites that give advice on homemade enrichment toys that will make the speedy eater have to slow down and take longer over their food.

When it comes to weight control dog food is not the entire solution. Start your overweight dog on an increased exercise programme. Be careful not to overdo things at first, but start gently and increase the intensity as your dog starts to be visibly slimmer and fitter.

What is weight loss in dogs?

If your dog is overweight, a controlled steady weight loss will be beneficial to return them safely to a healthy weight. If you suddenly discover your dog losing weight, particularly if in conjunction with other symptoms or that continues despite the dog eating well, this could mean an underlying medical condition that requires treatment or management is present.

This is also true if you have taken action to try putting weight on a dog yet they are still losing more. A dog losing weight but eating a good diet is a definite concern. A loss of more than 10% of the dog’s body weight is concerning and should result in a vet visit to identify if there is a medical issue.

If a dog cannot properly digest and utilise the nutrients in their food, either because of a health condition or because the food is poor quality, they are malnourished.

What causes weight loss in dogs?

There is a wide range of things that can cause a dog to lose weight. The most basic of these is that the dog is not absorbing enough calories from their food to meet their energy requirements.

This could be because the food that the dog is offered does not contain the right nutrients for them, or they do not like the taste of it. Some dogs are also quite fussy in what they will like to eat and can be very selective.

Intestinal parasites can divert nutrients from the dog to utilise themselves. Some worms can be present in huge numbers and severely reduce the amount of nutrition left for the dog’s body to use. Large infestations, particularly of parasites that burrow into the gastrointestinal lining, can leave behind damage that will affect the dog’s digestive capability.

A number of medical conditions can cause weight loss, because either they make the dog feel unwell and not want to eat, or because they interfere with the way the body processes and uses the food they eat. These conditions include pancreatitisgastroenteritis, colitis, cancer, long-standing kidney disease or advanced heart disease. In the case of the last two on the list, weight loss comes after the disease has been present for some time.

Dental pain can be an issue, particularly in dogs fed dry food as attempting to crunch hard kibble with sore gums or abscesses could be extremely painful.

Dogs with sensitive stomachs or those with intolerances and allergies to ingredients in their food can have persistent gastrointestinal problems. Vomiting or diarrhoea, particularly if frequent, means that a lot of the nutritional value of food is wasted as it passes through or is ejected too quickly for the dog to benefit fully.

Other gastric conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome can also both lead to dogs having an inability to digest food effectively as damage to the intestinal wall decreases the number of calories they can absorb.

Weight loss combined with vomiting and diarrhoea could indicate that there is a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract, such as a foreign object that has been swallowed.

Ageing can bring on conditions that will result in an old dog losing weight. Weight loss combined with increased drinking and increased appetite could be a sign of diabetes.

Signs and symptoms of weight loss in dogs

If you weigh your dog regularly, the first sign of weight loss is likely to come from the scales.

If your dog is not weighed at frequent intervals, the first thing that you notice may be the physical signs of weight loss, with the dog losing their fat layer, over time hipbones and ribs becoming visible.

Dogs that are malnourished for some time may have dull, brittle coats and have dry, flaky skin making them prone to dandruff. Some dogs may shed hair and can end up with bald patches.

Vomiting and/or diarrhoea can be a sign of an underlying illness or other problem.

Loss of appetite can be a sign that the dog is unwell, or that they dislike the food on offer.

Lethargy can become evident, as the dog is losing weight and does not have the energy to move and play as they would when at a healthy weight and feeling well.

They may be slow-moving, reluctant to go for a walk or become tired and not want to continue after a short distance.

Depression can be a sign of feeling unwell, either from an underlying problem or from having insufficient energy to behave normally.

How to treat weight loss in dogs

Sudden unexplained or persistent weight loss or weight loss associated with symptoms of persistent vomiting, diarrhoea or abdominal pain should trigger a visit to your vet. They can identify any underlying causes and prescribe medication or management of the condition if required.

Once satisfied that there is no medical issue, or the condition has been brought under control, it is time to turn your attention to how to put weight on a dog. When selecting dog food for weight gain, choose one that is highly digestible and full of good quality ingredients.

Low grade bulking agents will not help an underweight dog to put on an ounce. High-quality food for active dogs can be a great option. Look for high protein to help your dog build healthy muscle as they gain weight.

Try feeding small meals throughout the day. If you would normally feed twice a day, split your dog’s meals into four. This can help increase the amount they eat, without overloading in one meal and making themselves sick. To encourage a fussy eater you can add something extra tempting to their bowl-like one of our tasty meat toppings.

Make sure that exercise is taken into account, to help your dog gain weight as muscle and not fat. Start gently so that your dog is not burning all their calories in exercise, but up the intensity slowly as your dog gets closer to their ideal condition.

What is the best weight management dog food?

Firstly, the best weight management dog food will provide your pup with calories proportionate to their activity level, age, breed, size, and neutering status. Because all of these factors influence their metabolism and dietary needs, a personalised diet that is tailored to your pet’s individual needs is by far the best way to ensure they’re going to get all the nutrition they need to maintain a healthy weight and body.

Pure personalises recipes for your dog, providing them with human-quality, all-natural dog food that delivers all the nutrition they need to stay happy and healthy. We’ll also advise you on how much to feed your pup because even on a tailored diet it’s important to prevent over and underfeeding by knowing what volume of food is right for your dog.

If your dog is overweight, cutting their calories and their fat and carb intake should help them shed some weight. The best food is low in fat and sugar but has plenty of complex carbs, protein, and fibre. This will cut down their calories while still providing them with slow-releasing energy and ensure they feel fuller for longer. Pure’s recipes contain lots of protein and fibre, but are low in fat and fully personalised, making it a filling food without the fillers.

Meanwhile, an underweight dog may not be absorbing enough calories and nutrients from their food. This could be due to parasites or illness affecting their digestion, or because the food they are eating is low-quality or low-digestibility. Either way, they will require a highly-digestible food that provides plenty of nutrients and is easy to digest. If they are ill, this will prevent overworking their gut and give it time to recover.

Pure is perfect for helping underweight dogs too, as all our recipes are made using a limited list of highly-digestible ingredients designed to minimise irritation to the gut and prevent flare-ups while providing a healthy, balanced diet.

Underweight and sickly pups like Oscar have made a great improvement on Pure, gaining energy and filling out to a healthy size, while the natural, nutritious food has helped prevent sickness. Little Oscar is now “a much happier healthy pup”.

On the other hand, another “healthier and happier dog” Ralph lost weight thanks to his new tailored diet. Whether your pup needs to lose or gain a few pounds, we can create the perfect tailored diet for their needs.