Go to content
Nutrition & Hydration

Too Much of a Good Thing? The Nationwide Dog Obesity Epidemic

Is your dog overweight? An obesity epidemic has hit our furry friends. With 60% of dogs now being classified as overweight or obese, Dr Kirsten Graham weighs in on the numerous health dangers of canine obesity and what to do about it.

By Dr. Kirsten Graham DVM

The canine obesity epidemic

Obesity has become so prevalent in our dog population that our society now accepts it as the norm – or even worse, desirable. Approximately 60% of dogs in the USA are overweight or obese and similar numbers have been reported globally. Think about what that means: healthy-weight dogs are now the minority. Pet obesity is an epidemic, made infinitely worse by our attitude towards it.  

Look no further than the entertainment sector where canine cartoon characters are frequently illustrated as overweight and presented as cute and/or funny. The expression “roly poly” is commonly used in the same sentence as “adorable” and therefore surmised to be a good thing. In the professional realm of show dogs, some breed standards – the guidelines for what a “perfect” example of a given breed should look like – use terminology such as “thickset” and “square”, even going so far as to say a lean dog is “objectionable”. The word “chonky” is now officially recognized in most dictionaries, defined as “plump or chubby especially in an endearing way”. No wonder we have a problem.

Obesity is a form of malnutrition although other factors including genetics, endocrine disorders, and administration of some medications can also play a role. In other words, obesity is a medical condition – a disease – and should be taken just as seriously as any other health issue.  

Active dogs are not immune to this disease. A recent study looked at how dog owners perceived their dogs’ body condition – how a dog carries its weight on its frame – relative to their true body condition based on physical measurements; dogs were categorized as Pet Dogs or Sport Dogs based on lifestyle, with the latter being involved in organized competitive activities. Both groups of dog owners performed poorly when it came to evaluating body condition with most classifying their dogs as ideal, despite 50% of the dogs in the study actually being overweight – including dogs in the Sport Dog group. Case in point for how skewed our perception of obesity has become.  

The health risks of dog obesity  

The attitude towards obesity would surely change if we all considered just how much influence body weight and body condition have on a dog’s overall wellbeing. The data is undeniable: healthy-weight dogs have significantly higher quality of life and longevity compared to dogs with obesity. 

In a nutshell, if you want your dog to live their best life for as many years as possible, keep them in ideal condition.  

Harmful effects of fat tissue

It’s now known that adipose tissue (fat) actively produces molecules that are involved in chronic inflammation with effects throughout the body. These molecules, combined with the mechanical or physical aspects of carrying around excess weight, have serious health implications, increasing the risk for or compounding many conditions and diseases – and ultimately diminishing quality and quantity of life.  

Orthopaedic injuries and arthritis

Orthopaedic injuries are arguably one of the biggest concerns for dogs with obesity and are particularly worrisome for dogs involved in high-intensity activities – like the various adventures associated with dogpacking. One of the most common injuries seen is rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament (an important structure in the stifle, equivalent to the anterior cruciate ligament in the human knee), often involving damage to other components of the joint as well. To literally add insult to injury, overweight dogs that undergo surgical repair of the stifle are also at higher risk of complications following surgery. Other orthopedic conditions like arthritis and hip dysplasia may also be exacerbated by obesity, not only due to the mechanical impact of carrying around excess fat but also due to the circulating inflammatory molecules produced by said fat.   

Heart and lungs

Not surprisingly, obesity can also cause issues with both the cardiac and respiratory systems. While there is less research in this area, it appears that aspects of heart structure and function are negatively impacted by obesity and do improve with weight loss. 

With respect to the respiratory system, dogs with obesity have more difficulty with airflow, especially when panting – again, think intense exercise and hot, humid environments – and this is a particularly serious concern with the brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds that are already predisposed to respiratory issues due to the unfortunate structure of their airway. 

Anaesthesic risks

Lastly, overweight dogs have a higher risk of complications if undergoing general anaesthesia due to the various physical and inflammatory effects of obesity on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. That doesn’t bode well for the aforementioned dogs undergoing orthopaedic surgery.  

Other health effects

Many other health issues are seen more frequently in dogs with obesity: they are more prone to skin and urinary tract infections; there is a correlation between obesity and mammary cancer, as well as some other types of tumours; insulin sensitivity is reduced, a significant issue if a dog happens to be diabetic.

It seems obesity is no laughing matter after all.  

The good news

Canine obesity is both treatable and preventable. There’s plenty we all can do to eradicate the obesity epidemic and make our dogs slim.

  • Ask your veterinary healthcare team for their honest assessment of your dog’s body condition. (Note: ribs should be easy to feel and an hourglass body shape when looking from above is healthy.) If there’s room for improvement, seek their guidance and start today to get your dog to a healthier weight.
  • Keep your dog fit and active with frequent exercise
  • Monitor the quantity and caloric density of treats – aim for low calorie treats such as carrots or a pat on the head
  • Spread the word by sharing this article – and other blogs on the topic – to open the conversation and remove the stigma around pet obesity. 
  • Set an example by keeping your dog at a healthy weight or by sharing your dog’s weight loss journey.
  • Above all else, let’s stop making light of obesity – let’s chuck “chonky” from our vocabulary.  

Benefits of a healthy weight

  • Increased ease of mobility
  • Easier for a slim dog to be stay fit
  • Lower risk of orthopedic injury
  • Less effects from arthritis
  • Healthier cardiac and respiratory systems
  • Less risk of obesity-induced health complications

Keeping your dog active and adventuring is a great way to ward off obesity and promote their overall physical and mental wellbeing. For additional information on keeping weight off your dog, see the recommended links below.

Additional resources

About the author

Dr. Kirsten Graham founded Graham Mobile Veterinary Weight Management Services in 2021, the first practice of its kind dedicated exclusively to the treatment and prevention of obesityin dogs and cats. Through house call and telemedicine services, Dr. Graham helps pets throughout Ontario achieve a healthier weight, ultimately improving their quality of life. Visit www.thehealthierpetwithin.ca or follow @thehealthierpetwithin on Facebook and Instagram to see what Graham Mobile Veterinary Weight Management Services is all about!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *