Almost every labrador retriever I’ve known that was not a working or hunting dog was one of the chunkiest, albeit cutest pups I’ve ever seen. As a child, I can distinctly remember my reaction any time I saw a dog that was alone and had some visibility of its ribs. “LOOK, MOM! HE LOOKS HUNGRY! CAN WE KEEP HIM?” More than my adolescent attempts to bring another dog into our family, I saw “underweight” canines and immediately responded with sympathy and the desire to give it all the Cheetos and bacon it could want.
But were all dogs I saw in our neighborhood (most of which had collars on) really lost, or equally important, hungry? Looking back, they probably weren’t. The canine obesity epidemic is a serious issue becoming more normalized as it grows.
Initial web searches for resources to help establish healthy versus unhealthy weights are saturated with large pet food companies jumping right into “How to Help Your Dog Gain Weight,” by Purina and Royal Canin, with little direction on how to actually establish what a “healthy” weight is to begin with. Let’s go beyond “Your vet can help you establish a healthy weight for your dog...” and “If the ribs or other bones, such as the pelvis, are visible from a distance (WHAT distance?), then your dog is underweight.”
It’s true: if you have questions about your dog’s weight, you should consult a trusted veterinarian on the topic. However, having a little perspective on appropriate dog weights can help you ask the right questions and direct the conversation during your visit. One of the most widely-circulated resources for the topic of underweight and overweight pups is a version of a “Body Condition Score” (BCS) chart.
It’s an easy, seemingly-informative and very visual way to compare and assess the pup you see hanging out in your living room. By tallying up descriptions listed on the chart to the physical qualities of your dog, you are able to essentially rank your dog’s weight on a scale of 1-5 or 1-9 (pictured above), ranging from very underweight to overweight/obese. It seems like a simple, straightforward method for giving your canine companion a healthy nudge in the right direction. However, recent studies found that pet owners (even those equipped with BCS charts and infographics) could NOT appropriately assess whether their dogs were at a healthy weight or not. Researchers ultimately found that pet owners were more oblivious to canine conditions that were slightly or heavily overweight, indicating a tendency to ignore or normalize dog obesity.
So, if many resources automatically jump to beefing up your dog and BCS charts aren’t statistically helpful to pet owners, how can we better understand their weight? Here are a few steps to take:
1.Read the chart anyway.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but these charts and infographics are a great starting point. Many will have descriptions or questions like the following:
Can you see your dog’s ribs during play?
Is your dog’s pelvic bone visible at all times?
Does your pup have low energy levels or a dull coat?
2.Ask your vet to weigh and observe your dog’s body condition.
Veterinarians are trained professionals when it comes to canines, and many times, they just don’t weigh dogs or make verbal notes (sometimes only written notes in your dog’s chart) when they find a dog is overweight. If your vet doesn’t take your pup to the scale regularly, ask for a weight update. Watch as your vet physically assesses your dog, palpating its ribs, spine, and pelvis. Some veterinarians may recommend an Rx food for your dog to help with weight management (Rx foods are prescribed for a wide variety of reasons, including kidney, weight, and joint issues). However, traditional “prescription” or therapeutic diets intend to make your dog feel full by increasing the fiber content, not by improving bioavailability and protein sources.
3.Research your dog’s breed (to the best of your ability).
Anyone who’s been around dogs, or even walked in a popular park on a sunny weekday, can recognize that different breeds have different body structures. Even if your pup is a rescue or a mixed breed, do your research on breed lines similar to your dog’s. Understand the body type, bone structure, and genetic predispositions of his breed. For example, German Shepherds are higher risk for hip and joint problems, which can be exacerbated by additional weight bearing down on their joints. Though the breed is known for their deep chests, large bone structure, and dominant presence, many breeders and owners prefer to keep their pups slightly leaner than “normal” to keep unnecessary weight off their joints (bear in mind they do not make their dogs go hungry, which would affect their growth, nutrition, activity level, and overall health).
4.Monitor activity levels and food intake (including table scraps and treats).
Keeping track of what your dog ingests is an important step in assessing his overall health. Do you allow him to graze, or free-feed, throughout the day? Doing so can make it difficult to tell just how much food you’re actually giving him, and in the case of overfeeding, can eventually lead to obesity. It’s especially easy for dogs to plunge into obesity when on a kibble diet due to its high carbohydrate and/or starch content. Processed foods, for both humans and dogs, lead to weight gain. Feeding a fresh food diet eliminates those fillers and provides your dog with more bioavailable nutrients, which can fight weight gain.
Making note of your dog’s activity levels is another way to help gauge whether his current “weight” is normal. Keeping an activity log will give a clear picture of just how much exercise you’re giving your dog! Keeping him active is key to his health. For example, canine bones respond with increased bone density when skeletal muscle mass is working hard (i.e. their bone density strengthens with regular activity). Regular exercise can also improve your dog’s metabolism and fat management, fending off obesity and other complications. However, if you notice your dog is more lethargic than normal on a regular basis, take note. Lethargy in underweight canines can be a sign of malnutrition. In heavier dogs, it can indicate your dog is simply carrying around too much. Obese dogs are more likely to develop complications like cancer, heart disease, and arthritis, and your dog’s willingness to engage in energetic activity can be a sign of how easily (literally) he carries himself.
5.Know your dog.
You’re in a position to truly know your dog best. You can pick up on his mannerisms and know when he’s not feeling well. You typically know when he’s truly hungry and when he’s playing coy. If you know he’s more lethargic or less excited for activity when he looks “thinner,” play it by ear and slowly work your way up. You can likely tell when he’s begging for food, and when he’s truly energized by a meal.
Canine obesity is a widespread, yet widely normalized issue. There are not yet set precedents or methods for prevention, and present methods of education are not making a statistically significant difference in the canine population. However, taking the steps above to become an informed, cognizant, and honest pet owner can set your pup’s health up for success.