Obesity in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Obesity in dogs is the excessive accumulation of fat (adipose) tissue due to caloric intake exceeding caloric expenditure. 

• In some cases, obesity is caused by endocrine disorders

• Obesity appears as a layer of fat over the ribs, along the backbone, and/or a thickened waistline

• Diagnostic tools include physical examination and blood work to rule out underlying endocrine disorders

• Veterinarian-directed treatment plans that focus on reducing caloric intake are more likely to be successful

• If left untreated, obesity often leads to a number of serious health conditions including diabetes, cardiopulmonary diseases, orthopedic disorders, and premature death

• Prognosis for dogs who have recovered a normal body weight is excellent

A Closer Look: What is Obesity in Dogs?

Obesity is defined as body weight ≥20% over ideal. Overweight is defined in dogs as weight at least 10% higher than ideal body weight. Obesity and being overweight are the most common nutritional health problems in dogs. Some reports suggest that over half of the dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. 

Weight gain in dogs is a complex issue. In many cases, dogs are highly motivated by food, and patterns form that eventually lead to weight gain. Considerations that can lead to overfeeding include:

• Using a non-standardized scoop rather than a measuring cup • Reinforcing begging behavior • Insufficient exercise

• Households with family members who do not comply with treating and feeding rules

• Using food as the only or the main reward during training • Following package guidelines without veterinary input 

• Redundant feeding due to miscommunication between caretakers 

Symptoms of obesity are a result of both added weight being carried around by the body and the proinflammatory nature of adipose tissue. The higher the level of obesity, the more severe the health risks. Symptoms commonly associated with obesity include:

• Reduced activity levels •Exercise intolerance • Intolerance to hot weather

In cases where an underlying endocrine disease is the cause of obesity, other symptoms occur. Symptoms of endocrine diseases include:

Lethargy • Lack of playfulness • Intolerance towards cold • Increased thirstIncreased urination • Increased appetite

• Excessive panting • Hair loss or poor hair growth

Risk Factors

Obesity requires prompt veterinary assessment to ensure appropriate weight loss measures are taken to improve overall health. If left untreated, obesity decreases life expectancy and leads to other medical conditions, including:

Diabetes mellitus • Heart disease, including hypertension • Osteoarthritis and other orthopedic disorders

• Urinary conditions, including bladder stones • High blood cholesterol • Tumors and cancer

Possible Causes

In most cases, obesity is the result of eating too much without sufficient exercise. Dogs who take in more calories than they expend store the excess calories as fat. Fatty tissue is considered an endocrine organ, and the expansion of this tissue produces a chronic inflammatory response.

In some cases, obesity may indicate underlying diseases such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, which alter the body’s metabolism leading to excessive fat accumulation. Other factors that influence a dog’s propensity to gain weight include:

• Breed  • Age • Metabolic rate • Whether they are neutered • Underlying endocrine disorders 

• Use of drugs such as phenobarbital and corticosteroids

Main Symptoms

The main symptoms of obesity are:

• Weight gain • Layer of fat over the ribs • Rounded or bulging abdominal tuck • Rectangular or oval waistline

Testing and Diagnosis

Assessment by a veterinarian determines whether the dog is obese. Diagnostic tools include physical examination and blood work to rule out endocrine diseases. BCS (body condition score) is the most common, simple, and expedient metric to determine if a dog is obese. BCS is determined by:

• Feeling the ribs - obese dogs have a layer of fat over the ribs

• Feeling the abdominal tuck - obese dogs do not taper between the end of the rib cage and the hips

• Observing the waistline from above - obese doges have an oval or rectangular waistline instead of an tapered one

Steps to Recovery

Treatment for obesity is aimed at lowering caloric intake. Veterinarian-recommended diet dog foods have lower calorie density and the appropriate nutrient balance. Nutrigenomic diets are also available, which alter the body’s metabolism to burn more calories. Many options exist, so veterinary guidance is essential for developing the best plan for an individual dog.  

General strategies for the ongoing management of the dog’s caloric intake include: 

• Portion control • Monitoring and recording progress • Slowing the eating process with special bowls or food puzzles

• Elimination of feeding anything not permitted by the restricted diet, including table scraps

• Replacement of high calorie treats with low calorie treats like carrots, cucumber, or apples

• Replacement of food as a reward with play, cuddles, activity, walking, or ball work

• Addition of activity around meal times, including placing the food bowl in new locations to encourage movement

• In homes with more than one dog, separation of feeding locations and removal of uneaten food before reintroducing the calorie-restricted dog

• Delegation of a single family member to feed and treat the dog, or introduction of other systems that ensure the dog is not receiving extra calories

Consultation with a veterinary nutritionist is advised in challenging cases or where underlying health issues exist.

The length of time it takes to return to a healthy weight depends on the severity of the obesity. A reasonable goal for healthy weight loss is 1% of body weight per week. Most weight loss plans take 4-5 months to achieve an optimum body weight. Prognosis for dogs who have recovered a healthy body weight is usually excellent.


The prevention of obesity requires determining an appropriate feeding schedule, food portions, snack and treat regimen, and exercise program early in a dog’s life and continuing to adjust it as the dog ages. Consulting a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist is recommended. Maintaining annual veterinary check-ups helps to detect endocrine disease in early stages, which minimizes the risk of weight gain in these cases.

Is Obesity Common in Dogs?

Obesity is the most common nutritional health problem in dogs. A large proportion of dogs are overweight or obese.

Typical Treatment

• Restricted caloric intake using specialized food • Increase in exercise

• Regular monitoring and recording of weight

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