Real talk: Is your dog overweight?

I get a lot of questions about nutrition. So, the next two weeks we are going to talk about it. But to start, I want to talk about an incredibly important topic that a lot of dog owners don’t REALLY think about until it becomes a pressing issue.

The main inspiration behind this blog post was a recent encounter of mine, where the dog owner did not understand that having an overweight dog is So. Much. More. than just “wear and tear” on the joints and carrying extra weight is "hard on his knees and hips."

So we are going to start with the issue of the ever-increasing body condition score in our dogs… because a lot of folks are unfamiliar with the actual consequences of having an overweight pup. Even if it’s only a slight weight gain.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 55.8% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. And while what we are feeding is important, (and will be covered next week)- how much we are feeding is just as concerning.


First off: What is a body condition score?

A body condition score is a scale that we use to evaluate your dog’s current body mass. Your vet might use a scale from 1-5 or 1-9. It doesn’t matter which one they use, but 1 is emaciated, and 5 or 9 is morbidly obese.

So naturally you outta be shooting for 3 on the scale of 5, and 5 on the scale of 9.


How do you determine BCS?

Your vet will determine a BCS at your pet’s yearly exam. You can also monitor this yourself.

Look for three things:

  1. How easily palpable are the ribs? Are they easily palpated or is there a thick layer of tissue covering the ribcage?
  2. Look at them from the side: Do you see an abdominal “tuck” behind the ribs that extends up into the groin region?
  3. Look at them from a bird’s eye view. Again, is there a “tuck” or discernible waist behind the ribs and before their hip bones?


If you have a long-coated dog this is harder to evaluate. Use your hands. Flatten the hair in the areas mentioned above so you can get a better idea. Or evaluate them while you are bathing them or while they are swimming.

So ultimately we want to be feeding for your dog's ideal body condition score. This is obviously going to be subjective, but it is better to error on the side of slightly too lean vs slightly too heavy. Ask your vet if you are uncertain.


What factors determine your dog’s rate of gain or loss?

  • Reproductive status- dogs who are altered (ie spay or neutered) require less calories.
  • Age- As they age dogs’ metabolic rate will decline. The reason being is their lean body weight will be replaced with fat… just like us!
  • Genetics- certain breeds, think beagles and labs, are genetically predisposed to weight gain. They earned the title “chow hound” for a reason.
  • Lifestyle- obviously you folks with pups who are climbing 14 ers and hiking the AT will probably have a leaner dog… just a guess.
  • Endocrine dysfunction- certain imbalances within the body can cause your dog to gain weight.


Okay enough about that. Now I want to talk to you about WHY this is so important… and if you get one takeaway from this blog post I hope that this is it. Here it is:


Your dog’s fat is an organ:

Meaning, fat or adipose tissue is NOT an inert, inactive, body tissue that your dog “just has” sitting benignly over his hips, shoulders and/or midsection.

It is NOT sitting there minding its own business.

While further research is still needed, it is now well established and understood that your dog’s fat… is an organ that releases molecular compounds into the blood stream. When these compounds enter the bloodstream, they spread to the rest of the body, or "go systemic", as we say in the biz. Your dog's fat is not localized to the extra padding you see from the outside.


The compounds go systemic, and from there a very complicated chemical process takes place. Think of it as a chain reaction. Where your dog’s fat releases a compound that can act as an instigator, that then triggers a mediator, or “middleman” that then results in a final “product” or separate molecular substance.

There are a multitude of different types of these chain reactions that result in different types of molecular substances… that in turn have the potential to create different types of ill effects.

These chain reactions – or cascade of events that take place within the body generally have a common goal. And that is to achieve or maintain balance, or homeostasis. When things are unbalanced (ie: too much of something- like fat) … in walks the ill effects we see with certain diseases.


So as you can imagine, when our pups gain excess adipose tissue… we also gain excess chain reactions resulting in more “bad” molecular substances… and essentially we are no longer in homeostasis. We are outside of homeostasis – we start showing symptoms of disease with time. Which leads us to the topic of discussion. The consequences of weight gain….



Consequences of weight gain: 

Further canine specific research is required. But we now know enough from research in both human and canine studies that the chain reactions we discussed above can result in pro inflammatory mediators- which means… more inflammation.

By now we all know inflammation is a bad word. In people you have probably heard about chronic inflammation being the cause of cardiovascular issues, metabolic issues, and even cancer in people…. The same rings true for our dogs.


We now understand that arthritis from obesity is not just due to “wear and tear” or excess mechanical forces placed on the joints from the act of carrying around the extra weight. While this is still probably true to a certain degree, the excess chronic inflammation created from adipose tissue can further contribute to arthritis. Arthritis, or osteoarthritis is essentially the breakdown of cartilage within joints and is exacerbated or even initiated via chronic inflammation. Tendons and ligaments can be affected as well with this adipose induced inflammation, as we see a great number of cruciate tears (ACL injuries) in overweight dogs.

And that’s just the beginning. In a life span study done by Purina, researchers documented that dogs who were kept lean over the course of their lifetime can experience increased longevity by two years. 

Along with decreased life span due to obesity, airway diseases are also common. Tracheal collapse (narrowed windpipe), and even difficulty breathing during periods of exercise are common symptoms noted in overweight pups.

The difficulty breathing can also be directly linked to the fact that there is a direct correlation between heat intolerance and obesity. The risk of suffering from heat exhaustion increases greatly in overweight dogs. As we have discussed before, efficient panting is a crucial part of your dog’s cooling process. The ability to expel air and evaporate moisture over his mucous membranes and airways is the predominant cooling mechanism. This mechanism is negated when your dog is carrying extra weight.

This is not an all-inclusive list either, for the purposes of Wanderdog and this particular blog post we won’t be getting into the common cases we see in the vet clinic that are linked with obesity. Examples include but are not limited to pancreatitis, urinary tract diseases, cardiovascular issues, and all the metabolic disorders that can develop.


All in all, I think we all know and understand our dogs should be at a healthy weight. The purpose of this blog post is to create awareness and spark curiosity as to WHY it actually matters from an internal, molecular standpoint and not just what we see on the outside. (This is the cliff notes - very simplified version... if you want the nerdy details feel free to google the mechanism in detail ;))

Also, I understand the bulk of the readers here probably do not have dogs that are morbidly obese, however it is important to know that each pound gained is NOT benign. And as dog owners, we all have likely had a dog in the past (or currently have a dog) where we notice the scale has gone up a bit at their yearly checkup. I am here to tell you that “bit” matters!

And remember… with each passing year your dog’s metabolism is changing, activity levels may change seasonally, or lifestyle changes might allow your dog’s weight to creep up on you. That’s just life. But we need to stay on top of it and not dismiss it as “just a pound.” Because pounds can easily compound!


So in summary, fat deposits and weight gain are more than just "energy storage." Adipose tissue has an active part in your dog’s inner hormonal and chemical balance. This shift from balance to imbalance comes with consequences that we might not see immediately.

Finally, this can be a tough pill to swallow for many, as feeding and treating our dogs is a huge part of our bond and is a highly emotional subject. But while the science and emotions are complicated the math can be simple.

When the calories consumed are greater than the energy expelled, our pups have to store the excess energy somewhere. So, keep them lean, feed them the appropriate amount, and remember the heart-breaking truth… that you cannot “out exercise” a bad diet… 

Questions? Never hesitate to ask!

Libbie Fort, DVM 














Leave a comment