Obesity In Dogs | Signs, Causes, Treatments And Prevention


Obesity in dog is the single most common nutritional problem faced by dogs, including people in the developed world. Estimates vary, but about one third of the populations of each species in these countries can be described as obese.

The Cause Of Obesity In Dogs

The cause of obesity is quite simply eating more than is needed by the body, resulting in storage of the excess as fat in adipose tissue.

There are many theories to explain why some animals eat more than others and why some appear to need less than others, but the fact remains that if calorie intake exceeds requirement, for whatever reason, the result will be the accumulation of fat and a gain in bodyweight.

Obesity in puppy

Obese puppy

Why is obesity a problem?

The definition gives the answer obesity is an excess of body fat to the extent that normal body function is impaired.

Unfortunately it is a problem which develops gradually so that owners often notice no change from day to day in the health and size of their dog.

The problem is often confronted only when the veterinary surgeon is approached when the dog has become severely incapacitated by its weight problem.

Associated Problems Related To Obesity In Dogs

The major conditions associated with obesity are:

  1. Orthopaedic problems (arthritis)
  2. Congestive heart failure
  3. Breathing difficulties
  4. Reduced liver function
  5. Reproductive problems
  6. Diabetes mellitus
  7. Impaired digestive function (flatulence)
  8. Increased surgical and anaesthetic risk
  9. Reduced resistance to disease
  10. Heat intolerance
  11. Skin disease
  12. Reduced life expectancy.

Some result from the additional weight putting strain on some of the body’s systems (for example locomotor and breathing problems), others to the insulating effect of a thick fat ’jacket’ (heat intolerance).

The list above shows just how important the prevention of obesity is, and why it is worth slimming an obese dog rather than allowing it to waddle on in discomfort to an early death.

Obesity in dogs

Slimming an obese dog

Obesity is easy to recognise. Not only is the behaviour of an obese dog characteristic but the visible signs are obvious.

Characteristic behaviours of Overweight dogs

Eating behaviour

  • Eats food very quick and asks for more.
  • Begs for food at family mealtimes.


  • Sleeps rather than plays
  • Refuses to walk more than short distances
  • Pants heavily if made to run
  • Has difficulty negotiating steps and slopes

Effect of weather

  • Seeks shade, pants and sprawls out in warm weather

Other Signs And Features of An Obese Dog

Conventional wisdom has it that a dog whose ribs are visible when moving is not obese; this is all very well for short-haired breeds but less useful for those with long flowing coats.

  1. If the ribs can be felt easily under the coat then it is unlikely that the dog is obese.
  2. Feeling other areas may also help, for example fat may accumulate along the spine and around the base of the tail.
  3. It is also helpful to observe the dog’s silhouette. The abdomen should be flat or concave, not pendulous.
  4. Old photographs of the dog can help uncertain owners check the condition of their dog.

A seriously obese dog should receive immediate veterinary help but if the dog is only showing a tendency to gain weight, a careful watch on the diet should suffice until the next routine surgery visit.

Treatment Of Obesity

The aim of any slimming diet is to reduce fat content of the body with as little effect as possible on the ’lean body mass’ (muscles, organs).

The lean body mass determines the resting metabolic rate (the rate at which energy is used) and therefore undue loss will not only weaken the body but reduce the amount of food needed to maintain the final bodyweight, increasing the risk of further weight gain.

It has been shown in man that too rapid weight loss results in excessive loss of lean tissue and therefore a slow but steady reducing regime is recommended. Ideally the aim should be to lose weight at the rate of 15 per cent over an 8-14 week period.

It is not essential to buy special foods. Providing the total energy (or calorie) content of the diet is carefully reduced, the dog’s normal diet can be used quite successfully.

There are, however, certain pitfalls and owners should be aware that some dietary components, eg fat, contain more calories than others.

Obesity in dogs

Obese bitch

It may help to reduce the biscuit component of the diet as this will have a disproportionally large effect on energy density without significantly affecting total bulk.

A sprinkling of wheat bran on top of the food is also reputed to have an effect on satisfying hunger, although the use of bran should be restricted as it does provide some calories. Carrots contain few calories and can be used to bulk up the diet.

Compliance is the major difficulty when owners try to slim dogs on the food they are normally fed and specially formulated slimming diets available from veterinary surgeons do have many advantages over home-made preparations.

Not only do they maintain all the nutrients required for normal health but by providing bulk without calories their composition is controlled and constant.

This makes adjusting the intake to achieve a reasonable rate of weight loss much simpler.

These diets are only available from veterinary surgeons who will provide advice, feeding guides and very informative literature.

After knowing Obesity in dogs Owners of obese dogs should always present their dog for a full Veterinary check before a slimming diet is started, to ensure that there is no underlying problem.

Prevention Of Obesity In Dogs

By far the best way to eliminate obesity from any population is to prevent it rather than attempt to cure it.

There are difficulties in this, however, particularly since the gradual onset means that owners slowly become accustomed to their dog’s fatness and never see a sudden change.

Nevertheless it is still entirely preventable. Glandular obesity, a defect which slows metabolism, is very rare and it is possible, with a sufficiently small food allowance to prevent even these dogs from becoming obese.

Each dog is different. Wide ranges are deliberately given on manufacturers’ feeding guides to allow for this, and it is the responsibility of the owner to determine their dogs needs precisely.

Fatty snacks and titbits which may tip the balance from weight stability to weight gain should be avoided for all but the most active dogs. If any titbits, snacks, treats or table scraps are fed, the normal ration should be reduced accordingly to avoid obesity in dogs.

Some dogs are more susceptible to obesity than others. These include particularly castrated dogs, spayed bitches, older dogs, dogs of old or obese owners and dogs of certain breeds (Labrador Retrievers, Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels and Collies).

Owners of dogs in these categories need to be particularly careful, but even dogs outside that groups can become obese if not properly fed.

There is a well-known saying that fat babies make fat adults, and that may be true for dogs too. In man the theory was that a fat child made excessive numbers of adipocytes (fat cells) which predisposed him to obesity as an adult, but this theory has now been largely discredited.

It is more likely that the fat puppy gets accustomed to overfeeding and as a result begs for more food than thinner companions.

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