Older dogs, like older people, have an easier time getting around if they aren’t overweight. Losing weight can be a challenge for dogs at any age, but more so as dogs grow older. Still, weight loss for dogs is worth the effort. Slender dogs not only get around more easily, but also actually live longer. A 14-year study showed that dogs fed 25 percent fewer calories than their free-fed littermates lived nearly two years longer, showed fewer visible signs of aging, and enjoyed an extra three years of pain-free mobility before developing canine arthritis.
Health problems that are more common in overweight dogs include pancreatitis, diabetes, heart disease, disc disease, ruptured cruciate ligaments, hip dysplasia, other forms of joint disease, surgical complications, compromised immune systems, and several types of cancer. And sadly, studies show that more than half of America’s dogs are overweight – and nearly all of their owners are in denial! If you can’t easily feel your dog’s ribs and shoulder blades, if her waist is not discernable (a tuck behind the ribs), or if there’s a roll of fat at the base of her tail, it’s time to face reality and put your dog on a diet.
As WDJ contributor Mary Straus explains, “Because we’re so used to seeing overweight dogs, many folks think a dog at his proper weight is too skinny, but as long as the hips and spine are not protruding, and no more than the last rib or two are slightly visible, he’s not too thin. If in doubt, ask your vet for an opinion, or go to an agility competition to see what fit dogs look like.”
Here are 10 tips for helping your dog lose weight:
1. Feed your overweight dog more protein and less carbohydrates.
When it comes to weight loss, the ratio of carbohydrates to fats and protein matters more than calories do. Most prescription weight-loss diets are high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and low in protein, a combination that makes it difficult to lose weight. Dogs thrive on a high-protein diet, which builds lean muscle, and they don’t need carbohydrates at all. The ideal canine weight-loss diet is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and moderate in fat, which satisfies the appetite.
2. Avoid feeding your dog high-fiber foods.
Increased fiber, the indigestible part of carbohydrates, will not help your dog feel satisfied, and too much can interfere with nutrient absorption. Grains are a common source of fiber, and many grain-free foods are high in protein and low in carbs, which can make them effective foods for weight loss (as long as they don’t contain too much fat).
3. Make your dog’s food.
Another option is to make your own high-protein, moderate-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (see “Easy Home-Prepared Dog Food,” WDJ July 2012, for guidelines).
“If you feed a homemade diet, use lean meats, low-fat dairy, and green vegetables in place of most grains and starches,” Straus suggests. “Remove the skin from poultry (except for breasts) and remove separable fat from meats. Avoid fatty meats such as lamb, pork, and high-fat beef, or cook them to remove most of the fat. It’s okay to include eggs in moderate amounts. You can also use these foods to replace up to 25 percent of a commercial pet food, which will increase the total amount of protein and decrease carbohydrates in the diet.
“There’s a common misconception that replacing a large portion of the diet with green beans will help your dog not feel hungry,” she adds. “While there’s no harm in adding some green beans or other non-starchy veggies to your dog’s diet, the extra bulk won’t help your dog feel satisfied if you’re feeding too few calories or too little fat. It is fat that most helps to satiate your dog; just adding bulk isn’t enough. Replacing too much food with green beans can also lead to a protein deficiency, causing the loss of lean muscle rather than fat.”
4. Feed your dog the right fats.
Recent human and canine studies show that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from fish oil promote weight loss and help dieters feel more satisfied. Straus recommends giving fish oil that provides 1 to 1.5 mg combined EPA and DHA per pound of body weight daily for healthy dogs, or up to 3 mg for dogs with health problems (such as heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, arthritis, allergies, and other conditions causing inflammation or affecting the immune system). Some cod liver oils, such as Carlson Norwegian Cod Liver Oil with Omega 3s, provide vitamins D and A for additional health benefits (see “Vitamin D for Dogs,” WDJ July 2016).
When adding oils to your dog’s diet, keep in mind that oils are pure fat, adding more than 40 calories per teaspoon. Label directions for many liquid fish-oil products are higher than they should be, adding too many calories to your dog’s diet. If your dog needs high doses of EPA and DHA, look for more concentrated softgels. Other oils, such as coconut and olive oil, should be carefully measured to be sure you’re not adding too much fat.
5. Reduce your dog’s food portion size.
Instead of making drastic changes all at once, cut your dog’s food back by about five percent and feed that slightly smaller amount for a week or two. This reduction is about 1 ounce per pound or 1/8 cup per two cups of food. Weigh your dog today and again in one or two weeks. If she doesn’t lose weight, reduce the food by another five percent and continue at that amount for one to two weeks. Keep gradually reducing the amount of food until your dog begins to lose weight, then continue feeding that amount.
This strategy helps because reducing the amount of food too suddenly will change your dog’s metabolism, making it harder to lose weight and easier to gain it back. Slow, steady weight loss is more likely to result in long-term success.
If you switch to a food that’s considerably higher in protein and fat than your current food, cut the quantity by up to one-third, as foods that are more nutrient dense will provide more calories in smaller portions. Even though the total amount your dog receives is less than before, he may be more satisfied.
Feeding smaller portions more often will help your dog feel less hungry. Replace some dry food with canned or fresh, high-protein food so he thinks he’s getting something special. Put his meals in a Kong, Buster Cube, or other food-dispensing toy so he has to work for them, leaving him feeling more satisfied. Freeze his wet food, or dry food mixed with nonfat yogurt, in a Kong toy to make a meal last even longer.
6. Measure everything your dog eats.
“It’s critical to accurately measure your dog’s food,” says Straus. “I learned the hard way that when I try to eyeball my dogs’ food, they gain weight. The only way I’ve found to achieve consistent weight control is by using an electronic scale to weigh everything I feed. You can find scales at office and kitchen supply stores and online. Most handle up to five pounds with accuracy to one tenth of an ounce, and they can switch to grams for very small measurements.”
7. Make your dog’s weight loss a family project.
Measuring everything and writing it in your dog’s diet book or food log helps family members realize just how much the dog is eating. Feeding a small dinner won’t help if Fido is getting breakfast leftovers, afternoon snacks, and training treats all day. Discuss the diet plan with everyone who feeds your dog and get their cooperation. You can give each family member a specific number of small training treats to reward the dog with, and encourage everyone to focus on games, walks, playing fetch, and favorite activities as calorie-free rewards that will keep your dog motivated.
8. Weigh your dog.
If your dog is small, you can weigh her on a baby scale or a postal scale designed for packages. Your veterinary clinic has a walk-on scale that accommodates dogs of all sizes, so if your large dog is willing, take her there every one or two weeks. If your dog associates the clinic with unpleasant experiences, use low-calorie, high-value treats to help change her attitude. Most dogs respond well to short visits that include treats, eagerly hopping on the scale, and sitting or standing still for a minute before going home.
“Aim for weight loss of three to five percent of body weight per month, or one percent per week,” says Straus. “A 50-pound dog should lose about half a pound per week, or two pounds per month. Once your dog begins losing weight steadily, you can go longer between weigh-ins, but recheck monthly to make sure you’re still on track. It’s easy to slip back into giving too much food and not notice until your dog has gained back a lot of weight. Caloric needs can also change over time as your dog ages, after neutering, or if his activity level varies seasonally. If you’re weighing your dog regularly, you’ll be able to catch and correct any weight gain before you have a bigger problem.”
9. Rethink the treats you feed.
When Ella, her Norwich Terrier, gained weight even with reduced meals, Straus realized that she had to consider the calories Ella received from training treats. “I fed her cooked chicken breast to counter-condition her shyness around strangers that we met on our walks,” Straus says. “I put treats in a Kong toy when I had to leave her alone to reduce any anxiety she might feel about my leaving, and I used clicker training to improve my communication with Ella. Altogether, those treats were adding up to a lot of calories.”
Fortunately, dogs care more about the number of treats they receive than the size of each treat, so it’s more rewarding for a dog to receive several small treats than one big one. For a dog Ella’s size, Straus switched to really tiny treats. “I now use treats for nose work training, where I need high-value treats. I cut slices of turkey bacon (17.5 calories per slice) into 35 pieces that are just half a calorie each. Zukes Lil’ Links (16 calories each) are cut into 16 pieces, one calorie each. Happy Howie’s beef and turkey rolls have 52-60 calories per ounce and can be cut into small cubes of no more than one calorie each (note the lamb variety is much higher in calories). Slice treats in half or quarters lengthwise before dicing to create lots of small pieces.”
Treats that are high in fat and calories, such as hot dogs and peanut butter, can pack on the pounds. Instead, try raw baby carrots, zucchini slices, other crunchy vegetables, or small slices of apple, banana, or melon. Make your own treats out of low-fat organ meats like heart or liver. Grapes, raisins, and anything containing xylitol (a sugar substitute) should not be used, as they can be toxic to dogs.
Another strategy is to feed some of your dog’s dinner as treats during the day. Just be sure to reduce her meal size accordingly.
10. Find the right edible dog chew.
Dogs love to chew, and if you can find a low-fat, long-lasting chew, it can keep your dog busy, satisfied, and out of caloric trouble. Dried tendons, steer sticks, and similar chews work well unless they’re small enough for the dog to swallow.
If you use rawhide, WDJ recommends high-quality, thick, unbleached (not white) rawhides without added flavorings or smoking, made from one solid piece, and preferably made in the U.S., such as those from Wholesome Hide. See “Finding the Right Rawhide Chew for Your Dog,” WDJ May 2009, for information on healthy rawhide chews.
Fresh, raw bones can also be used for chewing, but Straus adds an important caveat, “Bones, like any hard chew, have the potential to break teeth, particularly in older dogs whose teeth are more brittle. Bones that are too big for dogs to get between their molars and chomp down on, such as knuckles, are less likely to cause problems than marrow bones, which are filled with fat and therefore not a good choice.”
Freelance writer CJ Puotinen is the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and other books.