Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

According to the most recent survey completed by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention6, almost 60% of dogs in the United States are considered overweight or obese.  That’s 50 million chubby pups which can result in more serious conditions in senior dogs as weight gain complicates normal age-related challenges.  That’s why the Global Pet Obesity Initiative7 (GPOI), consisting of 25 veterinary healthcare organizations, devised these 3 objectives:


  • We call for the veterinary profession to adopt uniform nomenclature for canine and feline obesity.
  • We urge the global veterinary community to adopt a universal Body Condition Score for dogs and cats of whole-integer, one-through-nine (1–9) scale.
  • We call for the veterinary profession formally to recognize canine and feline obesity as a disease.


Standardized Definition

Lack of a professional consensus makes it challenging for veterinarians to provide clear messages to clients, aka pet parents.  The GPOI recommends that the term ‘obesity’ be defined as 30% above a dog’s ideal body weight.


Universal Body Condition Score

A variety of scoring systems leads to inconsistency in interpreting the results of scientific studies. By adopting a universal 9-unit body condition score system8, the veterinary community can better interpret veterinary medical research, more consistently and accurately assess their patients’ body condition, and clearly communicate with colleagues and clients.


Recognize Obesity as a Disease

Many years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control (CDC) and American Medication Association (AMA) declared obesity a disease in humans.  By doing so, this accelerated innovation and treatments to the point that there are now tens of drugs and innumerable bariatric surgeries available. Sadly though, there are no approved obesity treatments in the United States for our pets.  Pharmacology won’t develop a drug to help dogs loose poundage because obesity or being over-weight is not considered a disease.


Does Obesity Adversely Affect a Dog’s Quality of Life?

YES!  Ernie Ward, DVM, and the author of “Chow Hounds:  Why Our Dogs are Getting Fatter, A Vet’s Plan to Save Their Lives,” and other books and papers, says, “I believe many pet parents are skeptical about the health benefits that come from their dog losing weight.  They feel, ‘So what if Fluffy has packed on a few extra pounds?  She’s happy. and I want her to enjoy whatever years she has remaining,’ but they are actually accelerating the demise of their beloved pet. 9”


Ward’s colleague, Alexander J. German10, BVSc PhD, of the University at Liverpool, has been looking at obesity vs. quality of life effects on dogs for decades, and believes that as little as a 6% weight loss shows demonstrable improvements in the pet’s quality of life.


When people have a dog with obesity, they see a big dog, an NFL linebacker or goalie for the hockey team, but veterinarians see a dog with obesity.  Extra fat means inflammation in the body, so to help your dog of any age live a longer, pain-free, disease-free life it is important to maintain a healthy body condition. According to Ward, “Of all things you do for your dog,

keep blood sugar stable cause spikes in sugar trigger an inflammatory cascade of adipose (fat) tissue.”


According to the Association of Animal Hospitals11, obesity leads to:

  • Reduced life expectancy and diminished quality of life
  • Skin disorders
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Orthopedic disease
  • Cancer
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Metabolic endocrine disorders (i.e. diabetes)


A 14-year Purina lifetime study monitored two colonies of Labradors from puppy hood until death, feeding the control group normal calories and the others, 25% fewer calories.  On average, the the dogs getting less calories lived 2 years longer, to age 13.  That is the difference between humans making it to 79 or 91 years of age!  We’re not talking deprivation, just feeding a little bit less.  Think ¾ cup instead of that full cup.


What Can a Pet Parent Do?

Says Ward, “Discuss your pet’s weight, body condition, food and feeding habits with your veterinarian, but have him rule out any medical conditions that could be causing increased weight.  Medical conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s can cause weight gain while medications for seizures and steroids for allergies are notorious for fat accumulation.”


Discuss mobility restrictions too.  If your dog blew out his cruciate ligament, this factors in to how to construct and formulate the best weight loss program.  Also share with your vet your own abilities, lifestyle, commitment, and motivation to help your dog lose the weight he should.


As far as exact numbers, remember that every dog is a unique individual so all of the above should be discussed with your veterinarian who can determine your dog’s goal weight, number of proteins vs fiber vs fat that he should consume daily.  Tools exist to help you approximate daily caloric needs for the average pooch.  If your dog has been spayed or neutered however, he or shell will require a 20-30% reduction in calories since their energy requirements have been diminished by not going through cycles and no longer a need to nourish tissues that have been removed.  Says Ward, “With 95% certainty, I can predict that weight gain will occur in most pets around 9 months of age since most get altered at 6 months and their caloric intake is not decreased.”


As a very basic guideline for average lightly-active, adult spayed or neutered dogs:

10 lbs. dog should consume    200-275 calories daily

50 lbs. dog                              700-900 calories

90 lbs. dog                              1,100 – 1,350

But to lose weight, approximately 80% of those calories should be consumed and close to 30% should be protein.


Move slow, or in Dr. Ward’s words, “Step down the weight.  Determine a conservative monthly weight loss of 3-5%, so a 90 lbs. Labrador, who ideally should weigh 75 lbs., should lose no more than 3-5 lbs. per month and will take about 4 months to achieve goal.”  Your dog will pester and beg if you cut calories too drastically.  Adds Ward, “Never reduce calories below 70% of your dog’s RER (Resting Energy Requirements) as you can run the risk of nutritional deficiencies.”


As for the best food to feed, “There is no perfect food for every dog cause all dogs are individuals,” Ward chimes in.  “Find what your dog likes.  If he won’t eat it, it won’t help him.  Also find a food you like and that has a low caloric density (less than 350 kcals/cup) with higher protein and fiber.”  Keep in mind that it must be convenient for your lifestyle as convenience equates to consistency, so you will be more likely to stick with the routine for your dog’s sake. Ward cautions though, to reassess at 90 days, and if you’re not getting demonstrable improvement, talk to your vet and switch it up.


Also, treat no more than 10% of daily calories, but less during weight loss.  And make those treats functional:  the tasty supplement your pooch needs for joint health or for skin and coat; crunchy veggies that  provide satiety (cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, carrots) not formulated to provide all the fats, carbs and micronutrients for dogs diet.


Dr. Ward’s predictors of success are:

  • You diligently keep at least a 1-week feeding and activity log. Pet parents have the best of intentions but often fail without a strict regimen.
  • Weigh the food as a measuring cup of kibble can vary by 10% so feeding as few as 10 extra pieces of kibble daily can cause weight gain.
  • Talk with your pet about what aerobic activity your dog can do daily. 30 minutes a day, walk or play.  Swimming might be best for canines with joint issues.
  • Your motivation to make a difference.

A final recommendation of Dr. Ward’s is fitness feeding.  “Rotate food puzzles to keep your dog mentally stimulated and engaged, which is particularly important when they are seniors.  Make them ‘learn to earn’ by making your dog do a ‘sit’ or ‘down stay.’  It becomes a learning opportunity, so your dog gets a two-fer.  You can even make your dog find the food by splitting it up in bowls in different rooms, using a snuffle mat or hiding kibble under a blanket.”  Make it fun, but make sure what you are feeding is not ‘extra,’ but rather part of your dog’s daily calorie allowance.


It isn’t just about how your best friend looks, it’s about how he feels and the inflammation and other problems exacerbated by fat.  Do your best to keep your senior dog, or dog of any age, as close to his ideal weight as possible for a longer, healthier life by your side!




6 Association for Pet Obesity Prevention does bi-annual surveys.  There will not be one for 2020 due to COVID19 and not wanting to add to veterinarian’s workload when they are already shuffling curbside medical visits, so the 2018 survey is the most current information at time of writing.

7 The Global Pet Obesity Initiative Position Statement, October 2019.

8 Example of the Universal 9-point Body Condition Scoring System.

9 Author attended a LIVE Webinar with Dr. Ernie Ward, September 24, 2020, so all Ernie Ward quotes are attributable to this encounter.

10-11“Overweight Dogs Live Shorter Lives,” Tony McReynolds, AAHA, April 4, 2019.

12 First-Ever Study Proves Diet Restriction Can Add Nearly Two More Years Of Healthy Life for Canines,” PR Newswire, May 2002.