Five Predictors of Canine Obesity

Photo Credit: MrTGT, Obese Dog on Flicker - CC license.

Did you know that October 7th is National Pet Obesity Awareness Day? I wonder why Hallmark hasn’t caught on to this official “pet problem awareness” date. Just imagine the creative and comical cards they could create!

You likely already know about the many problems associated with canine obesity. From arthritis to diabetes to heart disease, those extra pounds predispose dogs to a litany of health issues.

What you may not know is that, besides the basics of overfeeding and under-exercising, there are other almost certain predictors of canine obesity. Knowledge of them helps lower the likelihood of chubby Chows and portly Pugs. Here are five predictors of canine obesity that may be new to you:

  1. Choose your dog breed wisely.

While any type of dog can become obese, certain breeds are particularly predisposed. Perhaps it’s an inherited slower metabolism, love of eating, or undeniable cuteness (the cuter the dog, the more treats offered) that renders them more susceptible.

Labrador Retrievers are at the top of the list, both in popularity (consistently the most popular breed in the United States) and the likelihood of obesity. Most Labs love to eat, yet they tend to require surprisingly few calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Do your research before you adopt your next four-legged family member. If you know from past experience that you love to feed more than you love to exercise, choose a “skinnier” breed.

  1. Ignore recommendations on dog food labels.

If you feed commercially prepared foods do not, I repeat- DO NOT rely on the product label when determining how much to feed your dog. Doing so is just about guaranteed to result in a porky puppy. I suspect that manufacturer’s recommendations are what they are, in part, because the more you feed the more product they will sell. Additionally, dogs who are a bit on the heavy side are better walking commercials for a particular brand of food than those who are nice and lean.

Ask your veterinarian or another trusted dog person for advice on how much to feed. Keep in mind, this amount is just a starting point and should be adjusted up or down based on fluctuations in your dog’s appearance. Predicting how much a dog needs to eat isn’t an exact science- just because two dogs come from the same litter doesn’t mean they will require the same number of calories.

I commonly receive the question, “How much should I feed my dog?” For starters, I begin with a mathematical formula that provides the number of calories based on the dog’s size. This is just a starting point, however. I adjust my recommendation based on several other factors including the animal’s age, breed, activity level, and current size (too fat, too thin, or just right).

  1. Divide and conquer.

Dogs come in all different sizes, yet dog treats tend to come in just three- small, medium and large. Just because a dog treat comes in a particular size doesn’t mean you have to feed the whole darned thing all at once. Feeding “small size” cookies may work well for a Sheltie, but may be disastrous for the Chihuahua for whom two or three of the treats may provide an entire day’s worth of calories.

So, divvy up those snacks. Trust me, your dog won’t mind. As he wolfs down his tasty treat in a nanosecond, the difference between a half and a whole will go unnoticed.

  1. Ignore what others may say.

Truth be told, most people are not used to looking at dogs who are truly fit. So, when they see a dog without a thick waist and a layer of fat covering the ribcage, they think the dog is too thin. And, out of concern for the animal, they may voice their opinion, loud and clear.

I encourage you to rely on the opinions of experts when it comes to your dog’s body condition, and dismiss those well-intentioned comments from neighborhood dog walkers or dog park buddies. They may not be used to looking at dogs who are lean, mean working machines.

  1. Seniors may need extra coaching.

In general, elderly people who are less active and more housebound tend to overfeed their dogs. Perhaps because they are together round-the-clock, seniors are more apt to apply the, “one for me, one for you” rule. Providing treats can become the language of love shared with their best buddy.

If you know someone like this, or you recognize yourself to be this someone, I recommend the following:

  • Give smaller treats (see number 3 above).
  • Feed goodies that are less fattening. Fill the treat container with small chunks of diced carrots or apples rather than dog cookies.
  • Decrease the amount fed at mealtime.
  • Transition the dog to a less fattening diet.
  • Enlist the help of a dog-walker.
  • Recruit a veterinarian to help. Sometimes, advice from a professional packs more of a wallop.

Is your dog too fat, too thin, or just right?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Be Sociable, Share!

5 Comments on “Five Predictors of Canine Obesity

  1. According to yesterday’s wellness exam, both our guys are optimal 3/5, which is what we strive for. Though I was under the impression I was keeping JD more at 2-2.5/3 because of his hips. He looks quite skinny.

  2. I cringe to see how overweight some beloved pets are. Having had an young arthritic sheltie, I was very aware of the value of maintaining a healthy weight for long term well being. With her beautiful thick coat masking her shape a bit, I learn to rely on feel and the scale to keep her slim. She lived out a normal life span despite her lifelong arthritis.
    My current dogs get regular weight and “feel for ribs” checks routinely and I don’t hesitate to adjust meals and snacks as needed. We are fortunate that our vets’ office has a scale in the waiting room so we can stop in for checks anytime which also gives me a chance to take them for unscary visits to the office.

  3. I have owned Cavalier King Charles Spaniels now for way over 31 years. Most Cavaliers have a “life goal” of weighing 50 lbs – the Breed Standard says 13-18 pounds proportional to the dog’s height. I know of one Cavalier who managed to get into the food cupboard while her owner was out, and ate most of a 40 lb bag of kibble. Yes, she did survive but was a VERY sick dog for a while. I’m sure she thought it was worth it!

    I have found that the best way to keep a good weight is to measure the food. I keep a cup in my kibble can and measure it into their bowls. It sure doesn’t look like much but it’s the proper amount!

    When my dogs turn 12, I allow them an extra pound as I’ve found that if they become ill and lose weight, they rarely are able to re-gain it, so having a tiny bit of “spare” serves them well. My vet agrees.

    Some show dogs are kept at a bit heavier weight than pets – I feel sure it is to grow more coat. Personally, I don’t like it. A Cavalier with a coat like a woolly mammoth usually is overweight, and losing 2-3 pounds can make an enormous difference in the dog’s coat.

    I do a treat only at bedtime – I don’t want my dogs begging all day and Cavaliers would. I used to use packaged treats, but they often got entangled in their lovely ears and the ears were eaten off to get that last crumb. I now give a VERY small piece of candied ginger when I have mine before going to bed for the night. Being an English breed, I can assure you that Cavaliers are quite partial to ginger!

  4. Good topic Dr. Nancy and a big problem for pet owners. Cats can get very obese too. One thing we do is to never feed our dogs and cat while we are eating. They are so good at begging with those eyes and if they are not fed, then they will stop sitting there watching you take every mouthful. I never free feed either and the dogs always have to earn any extra treats I give.

  5. I am so guilty of reading the label and feeding the recommended. GSD pup, 6 mos old, adopted her and received bag of her usual food and how much to feed, double checked with new vet since it seemed a whole lot. When I took the pup in to old vet, “This dog is fat.” She is now slim but it has taken a slow, careful year.

    She gets regular chow, but the treat box is low cal kibble. She and the my sweet old dog both think a couple of kibble are a wonderful reward.