Dog obesity

Obesity - or excessive body fat resulting in an overweight condition - is sadly an extremely common and preventable problem affecting our pets, with more and more cases seen every year.

Canine obesity is in fact the most common nutritional disorder seen in dogs.  As with humans, it's caused by an imbalance of taking in more energy than giving out. This can give rise to a persistent and potentially life threatening energy surplus.

How to know if your dog is overweight

Signs of canine obesity include owners struggling to see or feel their dog's ribs, spine or waistline; abdominal sagging; a bigger, rounder face; a reluctance to go for walks or lagging behind; excessive panting; and the dog appearing tired and lazy. Grossly overweight dogs may even need assistance getting up and down, in and out of vehicles, and often refuse to move or play games.

Problems associated with obesity

Vets see these problems all too often, with obese pets posing greater risks from anaesthetic and surgical complications, heat or exercise intolerance, complications from cardio-respiratory disorders, hormone problems, skin disease, cancer, urogenital disorders, even early death. Canine obesity may even contribute to tracheal collapse and laryngeal paralysis too.

Common canine problems suffered as a result of obesity include diabetes (where the pancreas fails to secrete enough insulin in order to regulate blood glucose levels); heart disease (caused by high cholesterol levels); as well as arthritis directly affecting mobility, making it even harder for your pet to lose weight.

Until fairly recently, fatty tissue was thought to be just a relatively lifeless energy store and insulator; but we now know it secretes hormones affecting appetite, inflammation, insulin sensitivity and bodily function, as well as influencing water balance and blood pressure leading to kidney disease and high blood pressure.

Factors contributing to canine obesity

Excess energy is stored primarily as fat but many other factors also contribute to canine obesity including age, sex, reproductive status, inactivity, owner's decisions on dog's food intake, diet and palatability, environment, lifestyle, and any underlying disease that impairs exercise and results in excessive weight gain. Some breeds, appear to have a higher incidence of obesity, indicating that genetics may play a major part, with unneutered adult dogs often weighing less than neutered dogs of the same breed too.

Neutering is usually carried out at a young age - the same time as a natural decrease in growth and energy needs. Oestrogen also slows down fat production, with predictably decreased levels post spaying, so owners who are unaware of this change and continue to feed their pets the same amount of food will usually see a weight gain in their dog.

Like us, aging dogs become less active needing less daily energy too, so it's no surprise that if food intake is not decreased proportionately, they can easily pile on the pounds.

Feeding table scraps and other fatty treats may encourage many pets to overeat and gain excessive weight; in some adult dogs, up to half the calories they need are supplied as human food, particularly in toy breeds.

Surprisingly, few owners are still unsure about how much to feed their dog, failing to measure food accurately, and sometimes in denial about how much they feed. The size of cup used to measure dry food and the size of bowl used for feeding also affect the amount of food fed to a dog; with owners given a large cup and bowl often providing more food than when a small cup and bowl are used.

The social setting of meals can also influence eating behaviour, with most dogs increasing their food intake when eating alongside other pets in what's known as 'social facilitation'. That said, being an 'only dog' has also been associated with the risk of obesity, which is probably due to being spoilt rotten by its owners.

Ways to prevent obesity

If your dog is overweight then carefully start changing his feeding habits; increasing exercise (e.g. more or longer walks, or take up a canine activity such as agility or flyball); looking at the type of food and his intake; creating a feeding plan; and incorporating regular visits to your vet for weight loss advice and to have free weight checks and record your success.

Diets rich in protein and fibre but low in fat are typically recommended for weight loss, as it gives the dog the feeling of being full, but also provides them with more energy. Replacing traditional treats with carrot sticks is a great healthy way to start.

Divide your dog's daily amount into several meals and try not to feed them too late, as they won't burn many calories when sleeping.

Ensure every family member is given their own pet feeding instructions and never leave any food lying around. Remember, when introducing a new food, do it gradually over a seven-day period, mixing new food with the old, and always check the daily recommended amount.

Avoid feeding scraps from the table or any leftovers, and always check the daily recommended feeding guide on the packaging and weigh out the daily amount at the beginning of the day. You can then give 'treats' from this amount during the day, so you don't overfeed.

When your animal starts to lose weight, you will notice he is happier, more inclined to exercise, and has a lot more energy. So don't hesitate to book an appointment with your vet for advice and a healthy eating plan that helps your dog battle the bulge.

Why not exercise with your dog, so you get fit together, find more information here.

This article was written by Marc Abraham and was originally published in the Crufts Magazine -

Marc Abraham is a vet based in Brighton.  He regularly appears on UK television.  For more information about Marc please visit

Who can I contact for further advice?

The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable to provide general or case specific veterinary advice.  If you have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this article then please contact your local veterinary practice for further information.



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