It’s easy to overlook when our dogs need to lose some weight, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, their fur often covers up the extra pounds! And even if they are visibly a bit overweight, few of us can say we haven’t carried some extra pounds now and then in our lives. And of course chubby pups are still adorable!
But unlike us humans, dogs can’t really make choices for their own health – they depend on us to protect them from illness and injury, and provide the right diet they need to thrive.
If you’ve noticed your pooch packing on the pounds and decided that it’s time to do something about it, good! Not only will it be better for your dog’s immediate health and happiness, it will also reduce their chances of developing other, more serious health problems like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and more.
At a fundamental level, dog weight loss isn’t complicated. It’s a matter of just two components: more exercise, and a better, healthier diet. That’s all! If a few weeks of increased exercise and the right food in the right amounts doesn’t yield results for your dog, there may be another health issue at play, but that shouldn’t apply for the majority of dogs.
Of course, the details can get a little overwhelming, especially when it comes to diet. It’s one thing to add a couple more walks and a play session to the daily routine, but every dog’s tastes and dietary needs are different. It’s rarely as simple as just feeding a little less of their regular food – and in fact, their regular food may be contributing to the problem, by not providing enough of the right nutrients, and way too many unhealthy, calorie-rich ingredients!
But if you tackle your dog's weight loss one step at a time, your dog will be slim and trim before you know it!
Confirm Your Dog’s Ideal Weight
Of course, your first goal should be figuring out exactly how much your dog is supposed to weigh!
Because of the wide variety in body size and shape among different dog breeds, there’s not really a one-size-fits-all (pun intended) approach to determining ideal weight. In general, you should be able to easily feel your dog’s ribs and hip bones through their fur, but not see them, and there should be a noticeable hourglass tuck at their waist without any excessively bony bits, but even that isn’t always true for some stockier or more slender breeds.
That’s why I highly recommend consulting your veterinarian on your own dog’s ideal weight. A vet who has performed a physical examination and has access to your dog’s medical history can make the best possible determination about how much your dog should ideally weigh.
Be aware that this figure can and will change throughout your dog’s life, so if you haven’t gotten a weight assessment in a few years, it might be time to check in with your vet on your dog’s current perfect weight!
Rethink The Diet – From The Ground Up
Diet always plays a role in weight problems, so any time you’re working on weight loss, it’s worth taking a look at their usual food and snacks. Almost always, there's some room for improvement!
And if you’re feeling guilty about depriving your dog of their favorite junk food, don’t. Dogs don’t have the same relationship with food that we do, and generally speaking, the foods that are healthiest for them, are the foods that taste best to them, too!
First and foremost, if your dog is eating kibble, ditch it, if at all possible.
To be totally blunt, I don’t like kibble diets at all. Some kibbles are better than others, but kibble is the worst form of commercial dog food. First, it's a myth that kibble helps with dog dental health, so that’s not a good reason to choose it. More importantly, dry dog food has to contain a certain amount of carbohydrates just to maintain its shape with minimal moisture, and that’s far more carbs than dogs should be eating.
Because of this nutritional imbalance, dogs need to eat more of that dry food to get the minimum nutrients they need – and that excess of empty calories is so often the cause of weight gain for dogs eating kibble diets. All those unnecessary carbohydrates are also why dogs on kibble diets tend to poop a lot more often!
While a balanced dog diet can contain healthy carbs, the ideal dog diet should be at least 80% meat, with the rest made up of healthy, low-glycemic veggies, roots, and grains. Compare that to commercial dry foods, which typically contain 30% meat or less! Even the most premium and expensive dog dry foods rarely contain more than 40-60% meat.
What you feed instead of kibble is largely up to you and your dog, as long as it is as close as possible to that 80% meat minimum. High quality canned food is a convenient choice, though raw diets are usually best, whether frozen or freeze-dried. With a raw diet, the ingredients contain all their natural nutrients in their most digestible and natural form. That means your dog will get way more nutrition out of a smaller portion, in a form much closer to the natural foods their body evolved to process.
Home-cooked diets may also provide a great option, since they allow you to create fine-tuned recipes to meet your dog’s exact needs; just make sure you consult your veterinarian when planning the menu, to make sure you’re including everything you need to meet all of your dog’s nutritional requirements.
As for what is actually in that new food, in general, poultry and fish-based foods are often going to have less fat and calories than foods using beef or other red meats. However, it’s more important to choose a diet that is primarily meat and contains as few artificial ingredients as possible. So if your pup is absolutely in love with pork or beef, you should be able to find a healthy diet they enjoy that can still promote weight loss.
It's also a good idea to avoid high-glycemic foods, meaning those rich in unhealthy sugars which contribute to weight gain, diabetes, and other nutritional disorders. Rice, potato, tapioca, and corn are all examples of high-glycemic ingredients commonly found in dog foods. Opt instead for their healthier, lower-glycemic counterparts: sweet potato, oats, legumes, and leafy green/orange veggies, for example.
If your pup is especially picky about flavors, when choosing the new food, try selecting one that uses the same kind of meat as their old food. Many picky dogs are just mistrustful of new flavors, even if those flavors are good, so using meat ingredients as close as possible to their old food can reduce the likelihood that they reject it.
And don’t forget the treats! Switching to healthy treats is as important for your dog’s health and weight as finding a healthier food. You might be surprised by the number of dog owners I’ve encountered who feed their dogs healthy, natural diets, but still use the same fatty high-carb treats, and are surprised that their dogs are overweight! Choosing a healthy, natural, meat-first treat free of any yucky artificial junk is often by itself enough to correct an overweight dog’s weight problems.
Portion size can vary greatly, and feeding the right amount for your dog is usually a matter of trial and error as you regularly review your dog’s weight loss progress.
Recommended feeding guidelines on commercial foods are usually inflated a bit, and are intended to be appropriate for very active dogs that need more calories, so many dogs will be better off with a little bit less than the recommended feeding amounts, especially while on a diet.
Your dog should be losing weight steadily, but not too quickly – the ideal rate of dog weight loss is generally around 1-2% of their total body weight per week. So, a 100lb Labrador can safely lose 1-2 pounds per week, while a 20lb terrier shouldn’t be dropping more than a pound or two over a whole month. If your dog is losing weight faster than that, increase their portion size.
Transition To The New Healthy Diet
Of course, choosing the best diet, and actually getting your dog to eat it, are two very different prospects. The healthiest and best diet in the world isn’t going to do your dog any good if they won’t eat it or can’t keep it down. Some dogs can and will eat whatever you put in front of them, but others may be picky, or have delicate digestion that is easily disrupted by dietary change. And worse, dogs can actually get addicted to high-fat, high-carb diets, the same way humans get addicted to junk food!
The good news is that among the tens of thousands of dogs I’ve treated, I haven’t met one who couldn’t be weaned off an unhealthy food to a newer, better diet. While it can take some time and trial-and-error to find and introduce the right food to your pup, every dog can and should be eating a healthy, biologically appropriate diet.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be consistent with your dog’s meals, and not let them call the shots. If every time your dog turns their nose up at their food, you replace it with something they want more, they’ll learn that being picky will be rewarded!
On the other hand, showing a picky pup that they need to eat the meals you give them, or they won’t eat at all, is necessary to change those picky behaviors, and broaden your dog’s tastes. Missing one or two meals won’t hurt them - at a certain point their instincts will overtake their pickiness, and they’ll eat that new food, and realize that, hey, it’s actually pretty good!
When introducing a new food to your pup, it’s important to start slow. Instead of replacing their entire meal with the new food, try a mix of no more than 20% new food, 80% old food. If your dog eats that without any trouble, and doesn’t show any significant signs of digestive upset like vomiting or diarrhea, increase that ratio to 40/60 a day or two later, then 60/40, and so on, until your dog is only eating that new food. If at any point they start turning up their nose at their meal, or it makes them sick, reduce the amount of new food, and gradually work your way back up again.
Mixing in a bit of your dog’s favorite snacks, or sprinkling them on top of the new food, can also encourage them to try it out. Foods that are especially flavorful and strong-smelling, like cooked fish, low-sodium broth, or goat’s milk, are great options, because they hide any new and unfamiliar smells from that new diet. Gradually reduce the amount of mix-in you add to their meals over the course of a few days or weeks, and eventually they won’t need any help!
It’s not unusual for dogs to get upset tummies when they eat food they aren’t used to, and if your dog does have some trouble keeping a new food down, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with that food. Taking it slow as I suggested above can help reduce digestive upset, and if your dog struggles with digestive problems in general, or if you just want to be extra careful, include a digestive supplement during dietary transition, such as probiotics, digestive enzymes, and fiber.
Because excess weight also places strain on the joints, feeding foods with joint-boosting properties can also help with the exercise portion of weight loss, by making it easier for your dog to get up and go! Bone broth, shellfish, and marrow bones contain lots of collagen, glucosamine, and other joint-health compounds, as do many natural nutritional supplements.
Once your dog reaches their ideal weight, you should have a much easier time keeping the extra pounds off than it was for your dog to lose them in the first place! What’s more, your dog will be healthier and happier in general, with more energy and less discomfort. And you’ll feel good, knowing that you’ve protected your dog from a variety of potential serious problems.
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk
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