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Canine Obesity: When Doggies Need Diets

Feb 26, 2021 09:30AM ● By Julie Peterson
Overweight obese dog needing to go on healthy diet to lose weight

willie cole/AdobeStock.com

A year ago, Leroy became exhausted lifting his furry head. Today, he has energy to run, chase and play, thanks to his owner helping the 11-year-old Shiba Inu lose 14 pounds. Leroy was adopted last May by Peter Nguyen, a facilities coordinator in Bellevue, Washington. Back then, Leroy weighed 56.4 pounds—twice the recommended weight. Nguyen found a holistic veterinarian to provide an integrative support plan to remove him from danger. 

Overweight dogs are at risk for joint problems, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and more. According to a 2018 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 55.8 percent of dogs (about 50 million) in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. The APOP also reports that most of the owners of these dogs don’t realize or are in denial about this important fact. 

Determining Appropriate Weight

“A dog that is a perfect weight, you can feel the ribs, but not see them. And you have an abdominal tuck when you look from the side. From above, right in front of the hips, you can see the waistline,” says Leroy’s veterinarian, Jackie Sehn, at Mercy Vet, in Mercer Island, Washington. She points out that the dog must be touched to feel the amount of fat, especially in long-coat breeds. 

This evaluation can be done at home using the online Body Condition Score chart from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. The American Kennel Club also has a weight chart for dozens of breeds that can help determine an initial goal weight, although ideal weight can vary among individual dogs. 

Doggy Diets

Debbie Hensel, who fosters dogs, took in a morbidly obese 13-year-old Chocolate Labrador for the Mr. Mo Project, in Cary, North Carolina. Under her care, the pet went from 108 to 81 pounds within nine months. “Since Bruce was an older dog and overweight, the first thing we did was start him on a joint supplement with turmeric and a prescription diet food. In the beginning, I withheld some of his food and used it as treats throughout the day,” says Hensel. Every four to six weeks, Hensel decreased Bruce’s food intake.

She also divided up portions to feed him four times per day to help him feel full. “Portion control is important,” agrees Nguyen. “Leroy has a habit of wanting to eat more. I think he has a hard time knowing how much food he really needs.” 

But the problem isn’t just eating too much. Pet owners are often feeding the wrong foods. “It is the quality sometimes more than quantity. Health doesn’t come from processed food,” says Sehn, adding that most dry kibble is essentially overprocessed junk food that lacks nutrients and contains fillers. 

Fortunately, refrigerated and frozen dog food has made it easier to feed organic, fresh, nutritionally balanced, raw food which is based on a dog’s ancestral diet. Raw food is also available dehydrated. Treats, if included, should satisfy the chewing instinct without adding many calories. Sehn recommends dehydrated chicken or duck feet, tendons and healthy jerkies.

“Switching to a raw diet helped with Leroy’s weight, but I had no idea it would have so many other benefits,” Nguyen says. “I noticed that his coat was getting a lot softer and he smelled a lot better.”

Ease into Exercise

“Bruce sounded like an elephant falling when he laid down and he couldn’t stand for long,” says Hensel. Indeed, exercise can overburden the heart and joints of an obese dog. At first, Leroy and Bruce both had a hard time just getting up off the floor, so losing weight first was crucial.

As the weight began to come off, they both became more engaged and stamina slowly increased. Hensel started by walking around in the backyard and letting Bruce follow. Their initial walks were to the end of the block. They would stop and rest before going back home. “As he lost weight and his strength improved, our walks got longer,” says Hensel. 

Weight loss must be a healthy process. “Breaking down excess fat takes time,” says Sehn, adding that losing too fast results in muscle loss. Patience and time are key.

“I think Bruce just needed less food and someone that wanted to do things with him,” says Hensel, who has adopted Bruce as her “forever foster dog”.


Julie Peterson writes about health and environmental issues. Reach out at [email protected]