Keeping an eye on your dog’s waistline is vital for his health and well-being, as Dr Jacqueline Boyd advises.
When was the last time you weighed your dog? Do you know what weight he is? Do you know what his ‘ideal’ weight should be?
These are three really important questions to ask yourself, especially when thinking about your dog’s health, wellness, and ability to exercise, as well as his lifespan.
One universal reality of living with dogs is that we typically outlive them. This fact is easily one of the worst aspects of sharing our lives with dogs, but for this very reason, supporting them to live long, healthy lives is so important. Indeed, the simple act of watching their waistline is one of the best ways to achieve this.
Scientific findings repeatedly demonstrate the link between maintaining a healthy weight and longevity, across all species studied. The simplest action you can take for your dog’s health (and even for your own) is to keep a lean body mass. But why is this important? What factors do we have to consider and, most importantly, how can we achieve this?
In this three-part series, we will be exploring weight management for our dogs — how to recognise less than ideal body weight, what it can mean for our dogs (and for us), and how to manage it practically, using an evidence-based approach.
Let’s start by looking at weight concerns, why body weight is something to be aware of, and what it means for our dogs’ health and well-being.
Overweight dogs will struggle to cope with heat effectively.
It is clear that body weight, and particularly excess body weight, can have significant effects on the health of many different animals. From humans to horses, zoo animals to our canine companions, science shows clearly that body weight can have profound impacts on well-being. We often regard animals of low body weight as being particularly problematic, and when images are shared of severely underfed dogs, it is clear that welfare has been significantly compromised. But what is sometimes less obvious is that excess body weight can be just as problematic. Indeed, it is suggested that the incidence of porky pets might be far higher than is widely appreciated. This should be a concern for anyone who wants dogs to have as healthy and as long a life as possible.
Why is weight an issue?
The apparent increasing problem of increasing waistlines in our dogs has a number of potential causes. In common with the human population, lifestyle is a major factor. Dogs leading more sedentary lives, with reduced exercise and activity levels, quite simply will not ‘burn off’ many calories! Many pet dogs spend a large proportion of their time indoors, in centrally heated homes and with restricted or limited amounts of exercise. Where freedom to exercise is further limited, perhaps because of local restrictions, ‘lead laws’, or even because a given environment might be unsafe to permit free-running, our dogs may inadvertently consume more calories than they expend through activity.
Too many evenings on the sofa can lead to weight gain!
The food factor
There is also the food factor to maintaining a healthy weight — in very simple terms, we can help to manage body weight by balancing calories taken in (via food) with calories burned off (via activity). When dogs consume more calories than expended, those calories are typically stored in the body as fat. By even slight, but regular, overfeeding we can significantly increase the amount of calories our dogs consume on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. Using treats and forgetting to factor those treats into our dog’s daily food intake might also mean excess calories. There is also the human effect of worrying that our dogs are hungry, or simply wanting to provide lovely meals for them. After all, our dogs are quite clever at encouraging us to fill that bowl, pretending they haven’t already been fed, or convincing us that a little extra treat is deserved! I’m sure I am not the only person to be taken in by some sad eyes staring at me!
It’s all in the genes!
Science has also shown us that our dogs’ genetics can have an impact on their waistlines too. A recent study identified a particular gene mutation in Labrador Retrievers that was also found in Flat Coated Retrievers. This gene mutation means that dogs with it are more likely to be food-orientated and, as a result, perhaps a little bit larger than they otherwise would have been! Especially interesting was that this mutation was particularly found in Labradors bred from lines intended to be highly trainable assistance dogs. This suggests that breeding programmes had selected dogs that were more ‘foodie’, possibly meaning they were more trainable through food-based rewards.
This result has interesting implications for our own dogs too — genetic factors could well be involved more widely in weight management!
A consistent exercise regime will help burn off the calories.
What about pandemic pounds?
An interesting effect of the recent lockdowns and social restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is the impact on our dogs’ waistlines. I have encountered two distinct trends: firstly, some dogs ended up gaining pandemic pounds due to limited exercise, more time spent indoors, and regular snacking — often in line with their human companions; however, other dogs have benefited from their people spending more active time at home, getting more walks from different family members, and sharing the trend for new healthy lifestyles. These dogs have ended up losing weight and care-givers have had to make nutritional changes to support their increased calorie expenditure! Critically consider the COVID impact on your own dog — do you need to make changes to keep a healthy waistline?
Check your dog’s weight regularly.
Watch that waistline
What is clear is that the effects of excess weight can range from the simple to the serious. Exercise can become problematic and dogs carrying extra weight can also struggle to deal with heat effectively. Joint issues can result from added weight, as well as other musculoskeletal problems, and even some injuries can become more likely. There is also an increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer, and a whole range of other possible health concerns. Fat (sometimes called adipose) tissue is also known to be a pro-inflammatory tissue; this means that it is a metabolically active tissue that produces many substances, including some that are linked with inflammatory conditions in the body. These substances can also make existing conditions worse, such as osteoarthritis, some sensitivities, and allergies.
Weigh it up!
We’ve established that helping your dog to keep a trim waistline and a healthy body weight is critical to his overall health and happiness. It can even help him live longer, and remain fit and active in his more senior years.
If, however, your dog has been piling on the pounds, it can affect his ability — or even desire — to exercise; his joints have to cope with all the excess weight, and this can increase
the potential problems from painful conditions such as osteoarthritis. Even carrying just a little extra weight can affect your dog’s ability to regulate his body temperature and increase his chances of developing certain diseases.
So, let’s explore and review some of the tips and techniques we can use to monitor and manage our dogs’ weight.
Weigh in with body weight guides
There are guides that provide estimated body weights for particular breeds, from puppyhood to grown adults. They are a useful starting point for what might be typical for your dog. However, if you have a mixed breed, it can be more difficult to find accurate guides of this sort, so sometimes you have to work on estimates based on your dog’s size or possible ancestry.
Regular weighing remains the best way to track what is actually happening with your dog’s weight. Keeping regular records of body weight is also critical and can quickly highlight even small changes in weight, long before those changes would be visible. This is important because early management changes will be much more effective than waiting until there is a really significant problem.
What about body condition scoring?
One tool that can be really effective in assessing your dog’s overall shape is body condition scoring (BCS). A number of BCS charts are available and provide diagrams or photos as well as written descriptions to help you assess what ‘number’ your dog is. There are even now breed-specific BCS charts that are really useful for breeds and types that are traditionally difficult to score, such as Pugs.
Using BCS charts means that you score your dog visually, based on his overall shape. Typical advice is that he should have a visible abdominal ‘tuck’ when viewed from the side, and when viewed from above, he should have a clear ‘waist’.
It is also useful to actually get your hands on your dog when condition scoring; this means that you can feel their condition and get an idea of how muscular they are, or if they are a little ‘softer’ than ideal! If you can feel your dog’s ribs with just light pressure, then he is likely to be in good condition. If, however, you need to prod deeply, there could be a layer of fat that might signal a larger potential problem. Getting into a routine of visually and physically scoring your dog’s condition can help monitor his weight AND form part of your everyday health checking, looking for lumps, bumps, or even injuries.
Why does weight vary?
Weight can be an issue for many reasons. In simple terms, excess body weight occurs because more calories are consumed than are burned off through activity. Where there is low body weight, more calories are being burned off than eaten. And we are often one of the biggest problems in managing our dogs’ weight because, for many reasons, we overfeed them.
The problem is that when overfeeding is combined with low levels of activity, then it is surprisingly easy for our dogs to pile on the pounds. This means it is really important that we balance our dogs’ food intake with their activity, even amending it on a daily basis in some cases. It is now possible to get an idea of your dog’s calorie expenditure using activity monitors on their collars. These can be a valuable part of your armoury in weight management.
Your dog’s basic biology can also affect his likelihood to have weight ‘blips’. Younger animals can sometimes struggle to maintain weight — lots of activity and playing, combined with growing, sometimes means they simply burn calories off! Active breeds and personalities are similar. One of my own young, male spaniels is consuming twice the calories that one of my older girls of the same size is eating. This can also work the other way too — more relaxed breeds or types might naturally be less active and more likely to gain weight. It is also important to remember that spaying and neutering also reduces the daily calories needed by a dog, so dietary amends should always be made afterwards to limit the potential for weight gain.
Two of Jackie’s dogs, from the same litter but with very different body shapes. Mini-Moo (left) is very small and weighs in at around 10kg, while her brother, Ghillie, is almost 16kg.
How accurate are weight guides?
Body weight guides can be inaccurate in some cases, simply because your dog is an individual. One of my dogs typically weighs around 10kg; she is a really dinky spaniel. Her litter brother on the other hand, is nearly 16kg! Neither is over- or underweight, they are just individuals. If I were to use standard weight guides for them, I could end up well off the mark for them both! The problem then might be that I would feed them to a body weight I think they should be, rather than the body weight that is appropriate for their individual biology and body shape.
Many overweight dogs may become less interested in exercise and reluctant to leave the sofa.
What is a healthy body weight?
Knowing what is normal in terms of canine body weight can be really difficult! A healthy body weight is one where your dog is able to support all his day-to-day biology, can move and behave in a natural manner, and maintain consistent overall health.
A healthy body weight will also be linked with a good level of activity, physical fitness, good skin and coat condition, a bright demeanour, and an outgoing attitude. It might even mean that there are fewer trips to the vet!