Obesity in dogs, Part 2: Treating excess weight with a multiple-modality approach - Veterinary Medicine
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Obesity in dogs, Part 2: Treating excess weight with a multiple-modality approach
Excess weight in dogs is treatable, but it generally requires a lot of client education, as well as patience and dedication from pet owners. In this article, learn what to consider in a weight-loss plan for dogs and who else you might be helping in the process.



Many dogs become overweight or obese because of the social bonding that occurs with owners and their dogs during feeding. This human-animal-bond activity adds a strong behavioral component to the development of obesity, which must be addressed. Food is such an important part of daily culture that it is critically important to recognize how owners view food and the importance of nurturance within their family system, recognizing that the family pet may become part of that culture.

To achieve success in changing food-related attitudes and behaviors, it is important to substitute low-calorie treats, games, or grooming activities for table scraps or other high-calorie treats. Begging for food is more of a behavioral problem than it is a hunger problem, and if this relationship is not considered in weight-loss programs, the program is doomed to fail. In some cases, consulting with a veterinary behaviorist is an important part of the overall plan for weight loss.


Monitoring and adjusting are critical in any weight-loss plan. The dog should be weighed on the same scale every two to four weeks. A healthy weight-loss goal is a loss of 1% to 2% of body weight a week.24 A pet's family members must understand how long the weight-loss plan may take, and they should be encouraged to focus on the progress rather than on a quantitative end goal.24

At each weight assessment, evaluate compliance by reviewing the amount fed with the owners, including treats and unmonitored food sources. A dog that is losing weight too fast is at risk for losing lean body mass and for demonstrating undesirable behaviors. If the dog is losing too slowly, is stable, or is gaining, further calorie restriction may be indicated; however, concurrently, increased physical activity is likely preferable to reduce the degree of metabolic slowdown.8

Most evidence suggests that exercise improves the success rate of weight-loss programs.1,2,7,15-17,25 If possible, encouraging increased activity will facilitate more efficient weight loss and, once achieved, will help ensure maintenance of a lean body condition.

Adherence is crucial for the success of any weight-loss plan.8 A pet's family is responsible for feeding the correct amount of food and treats, weighing the pet regularly, following through on adjustments, exercising the pet, and controlling the dog's access to unmonitored food sources. The family must be committed to the weight-loss program for several months.

Consideration of concurrent diseases is also an important aspect of weight management. Indeed, many overweight companion animals must consume diets that may not be formulated for active weight loss. In these cases, it is advisable to consult with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that appropriate and safe weight loss is possible.


Excess weight is the most common nutritional health problem in dogs, and obesity-associated risks continue to increase. Adipose tissue is a highly metabolically active endocrine organ, producing adipokines that are linked to inflammation and the inflammatory response. Thus, obesity is considered a chronic inflammatory disease, and many obesity-related risks may be attributed to this inflammatory state.

Obesity is treatable, and therapeutic options continue to increase. Additionally, a collaborative effort between owners and veterinarians is required to fully intervene in a sensitive and healthful manner and to monitor the situation when a companion animal needs to lose weight. Without this relationship, the meaning of food and feeding within the family system may potentially sabotage the intervention. But with an effective collaboration, the excess weight may be effectively addressed.

Editors' note: All of the authors of this article receive financial support from Waltham Pet Nutrition for a prospective human and canine obesity study entitled OPET: Owners and Pets Exercising Together.

Christopher G. Byers, DVM, DACVECC, DACVIM
VCA Veterinary Referral Associates
500 Perry Parkway
Gaithersburg, MD 20877

Cindy C. Wilson, PhD
Mark B. Stephens, MD, MS
Jeffrey Goodie, PhD, ABPP
Department of Family Medicine
School of Medicine Uniformed Services
University of the Health Sciences
Bethesda, MD 20814

F. Ellen Netting, PhD
School of Social Work
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, VA 23284

Cara Olsen, PhD
Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics
School of Medicine Uniformed Services
University of the Health Sciences
Bethesda, MD 20814


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