Weight management; one size doesn’t fit all!


Dr Louise Cox-O'Shea BVSc MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon, practices

During a working day in small animal practice I will always be asked at least once ‘How much should I feed my dog?’. The response; ‘there is no single answer to that’!

An overweight nation

There is an obesity epidemic!

In 2014 the PDSA Animal Welfare report indicated 1/3 of dogs, ¼ of cats and ¼ of rabbits are either overweight or obese. The report also predicted this is likely to carry on rising!

The problem

  • Obesity predisposes to further health problems. Obese patients are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems, joint disease, some cancers, anal gland problems etc.
  • Often the matter is as simple as too much food and not enough exercise.
  • Owners are often unaware how much they are feeding and how much they should be feeding. Many animals are fed without so much as a glance at manufacturer’s recommendations; the bowl is filled up and left to be eaten. I also find it quite common that the owner may adhere to the manufacturers feeding recommendation…but feed the animal twice (hence doubling the calorie intake). I have been told countless times that the dog is on wet food….and a complete dry food. It’s also extremely common to hear the animal is receiving human food and table scraps. Another problem is the overfeeding of treats.
  • Exercise. In today’s busy lifestyle many dogs are either missing out on their walks or receiving inadequate amounts of time on walks. Another common problem, often encountered by urban dogs, is that although they’ve spent a good amount of time on a walk it has been on lead; meaning minimal strenuous exercise.
  • Unfortunately, obesity itself can limit the exercise required to shed the extra pounds. Animals with joint disease can find exercise painful; leading to less active exercise time and hence less weight reduction. Heart and respiratory issues can mean that dogs are incapable of strenuous exercise etc.
  • Breed: Different breeds are often prone to weight issues. Labradors and golden retrievers are notoriously greedy dogs and are very overrepresented when it comes to obesity. Brachycephalic dogs are more prone to weight gain because exercising may prove more difficult for them. Dachshunds too often tip the scales due to their disproportionately short legs limiting exercise.


Variations- There is no ‘one size fits all’!

The key to success is educating the client about individual animal needs right from the first point of contact. It is better to take time educating owners at the first vaccination than wait until a weight issue arises. Prevention is always better than cure.

  • Breed: It should be advised that different breeds are fed according to their specific requirements. Less energetic breeds will need fewer calories. Smaller breeds will need fewer calories etc. Some breeds eg sighthounds very rarely become affected by weight issues, some such as Labradors are much more prone.
  • Working dogs will require a significantly greater number of calories than lap dogs.
  • Age: Obviously older dogs will require fewer calories than puppies. Puppies will also require higher levels of dietary protein and a correct Ca:P balance to support growth.
  • Neutered animals can be prone to weight gain; advice owners accordingly at the point of neutering.
  • Medical conditions: Eg Cushings can lead to weight redistribution.
  • Regular assessment of BSC (Body Condition Score). The ideal time to do this and discuss with owners is during annual vaccinations. If weight gain or an excessive BCS is detected aggressive action can be taken early on.


Assess the situation

  The very first step should be a full clinical exam. Many secondary conditions may be picked up at this stage, which could alter the plan of action to be taken. Depending upon the clinical exam further tests may need to be carried out eg blood testing for Hypothyroidism/ Cushings etc.

  When all information is available it is advisable to record an initial BCS and record data such as weight in Kgs and girth measurement.

  At this stage I find it difficult to set a target weight; I find breed weights inaccurate and prefer to base my assessments on ongoing BCS measurements.

The First steps in weight management

  • History; Get a full history of feeding habits and exercise routines. In my opinion, it is very important to really delve deep when it comes to assessing calorie intake because dogs will often be slipped quite high-calorie table scraps, which owners don’t think to mention!
  • Assess the food; is it right for the dog? It may be worth considering starting a prescription diet; where the food is well balanced and amounts fed can be exactly measured for the patient’s needs. Also using weight loss diets, rather than just reducing the dog’s normal diet, often leave the dog feeling fuller for longer meaning there is less chance of scavenging and stealing food.
  • It may help to separate meals out, especially if they are being carefully measured and feed around periods of activity.
  • Exercise regime. Obviously, more exercise means more calories burned. However, it may be necessary to gradually increase the amount of exercise over a period of time, especially for animals unaccustomed to doing exercise. Animals experiencing complications such as OA/ Respiratory problems/ Heart disease/ etc may need an exercise regime tailored to their specific individual needs. Diabetic patients may need exercise to be fitted around feeding routines. It is also worth noting that overweight large breed dogs under 18 months of age must not suddenly be subjected to large amounts of exercise as this predisposes to OCD.


  Once the initial weight management steps are underway it is worth reviewing individuals on a frequent basis. I initially like to reassess patients on a fortnightly basis to ensure they are losing weight and that weight loss is not too rapid. As patients near their target BCS’s, it is worth establishing a feeding and exercise programme to carry on into the maintenance stage. During the initial maintenance stage, I advise that animals are weighed monthly to prevent excessive weight loss or undetected weight gain.

  There is no answer to the question ‘how much should I feed a dog?’ and weight management in general practice can be one of the most frustrating issues we deal with, but with compliant owners and a tailor-made plan, it can be an achievable and sustainable goal which can improve longevity and quality of life.

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