So Your Dog is Fat — What Now?

First, let me say it once: this is not about you, the human. This is about your dog.

You probably have seen the commercials for reduced fat or low-calorie dog food. Your vet might sell prescription weight-loss food for dogs. There’s a reason for that. A lot of dogs are overweight, and that’s not good.

Overweight dogs have been in the news over the past year. Most recently, there was controversy in the breeding/dog show world about the fact that the Labrador Retrievers shown at Westminster were overweight, some of them substantially. The ensuing debate illustrated the chasm that has developed between those who espouse “field” Labs and those who have “show” labs. (I had never heard of this until then; I’d always referred to the two kinds of labs as “natural” labs and “coffee table” labs.)

This is a fairly common illustration of dog weight ranges. Appearance and feel are always more important than the scale. (Photo credit: Association for Pet Obesity Prevention)
This is a fairly common illustration of dog weight ranges. Appearance and feel are always more important than the scale. I know nothing about this association, except that this chart is accurate. (Photo credit: Association for Pet Obesity Prevention)

There are a lot of health problems associated with your dog being overweight. The worst one, in my book, though, is the impact on their joints, because we are talking about chronic pain. Dogs become unable to walk without discomfort, and eventually, unable to walk at all when they are older. This is compounded by the fact that certain breeds have been bred to be larger and larger (Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Chow Chows are three that come to mind). Unfortunately, when you play Dog God like that, you end up with new health problems, like dogs whose joints can’t support their weight.

I know chubby dogs can look adorable, but best to leave them in the realm of art.  (Photo credit: Karen Fincannon's Etsy Shop)
I know chubby dogs with silly proportions can look adorable, but best to leave them in the realm of art. (Photo credit: Karen Fincannon’s Etsy Shop)

It is your responsibility to make sure that your dog doesn’t remain overweight. Your dog cannot understand the consequences of overeating and under-exercising. He doesn’t make the connection that the ache in his hips is because he’s carrying extra weight. He doesn’t know his family history. He can’t confer with his vet. The only way you’ll find out that your dog has a problem is when things have already started to go wrong.

I don’t want you to think that I’m a hardliner about this. I’ve taken in starved dogs before, and I’ve found that if you keep them perfectly lean, they can have personality problems and become food protective or aggressive (like humans, dogs don’t seem to ever forget being starved — there’s a desperation there that never quite goes away). In cases like that, a pound or two of fat can make a huge difference in your dog’s personality. Hounds in particular seem to have this problem. I think it’s because they were bred to experience significant fluctuations in weight. During hunting season, they are running miles and miles, and they can become quite lean, sometimes even slightly underweight. (It also doesn’t help that some hunters keep their dogs a bit underfed to make sure they are cued into the animal they are hunting.) In the off-season, they put on a few pounds and hang out a lot more. However, that’s been a judgment call I’ve made after working with these animals for a while, and it’s definitely been case-by-case.

Another thing to consider is that your mutt dog might have a very weird build, so you need to figure out whether she is overweight or just lumpy. This can definitely be the case with mutts. We had a lab/beagle mix (that’s a blab) who came to us at well over 80 pounds. She had lived in a home with other dogs, and her owner free-fed. The other dogs were Siberian Huskies and not food-motivated, so they would just leave their food until they felt hungry. Gingerella, a combination of the two greediest, most food-motivated breeds, chowed down like every day was an all-you-can eat buffet (because it was). The result of this constant feasting was that she looked like a balloon animal. This impression was exacerbated by her breed combination: she had the Lab’s barrel torso on top of the beagle’s short, spindly legs.

When we got Ginger, we painstakingly got her weight down to about 60 pounds, and often slightly under. She still looked fat, but we knew she wasn’t. (She always had a strange little pad of fat on her back over her shoulder blades, though.) We still got some flack for her appearance (I remember at a rescue picnic overhearing someone commenting that it wasn’t good for a dog to be that overweight. I had the good grace not to ask her to come over and palpate Ginger’s ribs because I knew the volunteer’s heart was in the right place.) Our vet said she was fine, though.

So I’m not talking about perfection here, really. I’m talking about getting the stress off your dog’s joints and reducing the load on her cardiovascular system.

The Easy Solution

First, let me do the standard disclaimer. If your dog is seriously overweight (fatter than the #5 dog in the chart above), has major health problems or is quite old, please contact your vet to come up with a plan.

If you dog is not quite that extreme, here’s the best way for your dog to lose weight: exercise and food reduction. That will work for most dogs. Exercise is more important than food intake, in my experience. Even a slow walk for an extra 1/4 mile will make a difference. Remember to start very, very slowly, just like you would for a person increasing their activity level. For food intake, you can get a low-fat dog food, or you can simply substitute unsalted canned green beans for a portion of your dog’s kibble. If your dog is eating 3 cups of food a day, try making a half-cup of that green beans. The green beans will help keep her feeling full and are good for her digestion, too.

A few tips to help you through this:

  • Be careful that your dog isn’t running a con, or a series of them, either. At one point, we were watching Ginger’s intake carefully and we noticed that she was not losing any weight. It turned out that the house painter was giving her part of his breakfast sandwich AND his lunch because she looked so sad. Talk to everyone in the household. Compare notes. Who’s putting out? You might find that simply reducing the amount of scammed food will make a difference.
  • Expect some attitude. I have heard a lot of pet owners comment that their dogs are extremely dramatic when they are put on diets. Don’t be surprised to see some moping, sulking, dramatic sighs and even some depression. Pet them instead.
  • If your dog loses a dramatic amount of weight quickly, up her food a little bit. This should be incremental. Moving slowly will give your dog a chance to get used to her increased activity level and adjust to the changed volume of food. If your dog isn’t losing weight, play with the amount of green beans to see if that helps. If that doesn’t make a difference, it’s time to go to your vet. For most dogs, though, this will do the trick.

Now, here’s some advice for you, the human. Don’t beat yourself up about this or overthink. This is just about dogs liking food a lot and wanting to eat all of it. It’s the way most dogs are. As a matter of fact, one of our adopters asked her vet how he could get his beagle to stop trying to eat everything in sight. His response? “Cut off her head.” (Something about beagles’ greed inspires mordant humor in their owners.) It’s in their nature to want to greed out, and some of them are absolutely brilliant at getting what they want.

You can do this!


By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

16 replies on “So Your Dog is Fat — What Now?”

I really feel bad about overweight dogs. People can say “But she just loves to eat!” as often as they want, I think your dog likes to run/breathe/move around with pain even more. An old lady in our neighborhood has an obese Dachshund and I wish I could intervene somehow.

In our own home it’s my father who can’t say no to the dog while we yell “Bad for her!” “We want a slim dog!” “She had enough!” “She will get something at [time]!” because he’s too much of a softie.

My parents’ lab goes to his bowl at 5 pm, ready for 5:45 dinner. Mom always says, “No, Thor, it’s not time yet,” so he takes himself off and lays down somewhere else. And then as soon as she says, “Who’s hungry?” he RUNS for the bowl with crazy eyes, but won’t eat until the other dog takes a first bite. I swear to God, Loki takes FOREVER coming to his bowl, just to make Thor sad. He really does live to eat, rather than the other way around. (He was starving when we found him, just skin and bones. I don’t think he believes food is always available.)

Oh gosh! This reminded me of when we wondered why Juniper Puss was looking a little rounder. Not long after, Mr. Juniper asked why I was giving the cat another breakfast… It turned out that the cat had been getting a breakfast from both of us. Every day. Lesson? Definitely make sure everyone is on board with pet eating plans!

Lola and I just took a nice long walk. Well, long for a 12-year-old severely overweight chihuahua. In my defense, she has a few health issues contributing to the weight, but if I’m being totally honest, we’ve been really bad about making sure she got enough exercise over the winter, because tiny dogs turn into popsicles very quickly in freezing weather. Now that the sun is (sort of) out, we’re leash walking at least one block a day instead of just letting her meander in the backyard.

The tiny dogs are a real challenge on both ends of the spectrum. A week of overeating can make a substantial gain, and a week of undereating can make them sick for a month. Also, a lot of our little hothouse flowers don’t like the cold and it’s nearly impossible to get them to go outside at all, let along go for a walk.

I also really recommend a food dispensing toy, or some other way to make your dog forage for food. Our dogs eat noticeably less when they have to work for their kibble and they enjoy it. I love the Kibble Nibble and the Kong Wobbler, but some people toss their dog’s kibble out in the grass and let them forage or hide it around the house and make them sniff it out.

A friend has a beagle, and that dog is so VERY food motivated. It doesn’t matter what the food is — I could make ramen and his face would be in my lap, big sad eyes on my face. He was also a wizard. His food was in timed-dispensing contraption (only with the day’s food) that was duct-taped shut (he figured out how to unlock and unscrew the lid), his bagged food had to be put into a rubbermaid tub and put in a high-level cabinet in the basement, where the cat didn’t let him spend much time, AND he could get to a bag of chips or other snacks that were (I thought) safely concealed in a bag within a bag within a box under another box. AND he opened the door to that room. Burt Reynolds is a wizard.

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