By Tamara McArdle, DVM


Whether you walk on four feet or two, keeping fit is tough in the winter months.  For dogs (like people) excessive body weight has been linked to arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and shortened life spans.  With more than 50% of dogs in the United States being classified as “overweight” or “obese,” the spring is the perfect time to shed those winter pounds!   

In a world filled with magic weight loss supplements and drugs, it is easy to lose track of the tried and true – DIET and EXERCISE!  Dieting is never easy, for people or pets, but with good planning you can save your pet from hunger pangs.  For exercise, nothing beats a good walk or run.  Get out with your dog for 20-60 minutes of exercise every day.  For older or arthritic dogs start slow; if she can walk one block without getting sore but two blocks is too much then just do one. The pounds may come off slower, but they will still come off.

No scale can say when you’ve reached your goal.  It’s easy to get stuck on the numbers, but ultimately the goal is a good body condition, not a perfect weight.  When you run your hands across your dog’s chest you should be able to feel his ribs without feeling “jelly rolls” of fat covering them.  You should be able to see his waist from the side and from above. (For fluffy dogs take a look when they’re in the bath.)  Arthritic dogs should be kept a little leaner.  


For the diet, start by making a list of everything that your pet eats – dog food, treats, and table foods. Now take the treats and table foods and drop it to no more than 10% of your pet’s total calories.  Treats generally lack the balance of vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy metabolism; weight loss will be easier when most of the calories come from dog food.  Try switching from large high-calorie biscuits to small training treats or “puppy” sized cookies.  Swap the high calorie French fries and potato chips for baby carrots (cooked or raw) and green beans.

Next look at your dog’s food.  Most dogs should switch from puppy to adult formula between 6-12 months of age, so if your dog is over a year old and starting to look fat, get rid of the puppy food.  For overweight dogs look for a food that is “light” – some of these foods are even formulated with ingredients specifically intended to increase your dog’s metabolic rate. Avoid foods that say “for all life stages” since these foods have enough nutrients to make a puppy grow and will be too much for a pudgy adult.  It also helps to compare the calorie content, which is listed on all “light” and some regular foods.  Instead of “calories per cup” most pet foods are marked “kcal/cup” which means the same thing.  


To figure out how much to feed imagine what your dog should weigh, not what she actually weighs.  For example, if your 70 lb Labrador should weigh 50 lbs, look at the line on the bag for a 50 pound dog.  When weight loss is the goal, some dogs should be fed still less than that.  Since the guidelines on the bag are always written for pets who are not spayed or neutered, most dogs actually need quite a bit less.  Consult with your veterinarian to figure out the perfect amount to feed.

Finally, be patient.Even with a good diet & exercise plan, your dog should not be allowed to lose more than 1-2% of his body weight per week.So that 70 lb Labrador should take at least 4 months to lose 20 lbs.Stop by the vet’s office every few weeks for a weigh-in to make sure he’s losing weight at the correct rate.Most vets don’t charge a fee to use the scale, only if you need a visit with the doctor.And if nothing seems to be working, be sure to ask your vet for help.Dogs with thyroid problems or other health issues may need medical treatment to succeed.No matter what, don’t give up!Not only will he be healthier once the winter weight comes off, but you’ll be surprised at how much happier and more energetic your dog will be!