Safe & effective weight loss plan for dogs

Like us humans, being overweight increase your dog’s risk of developing many potentially serious health conditions. And like us, losing that weight isn’t always easy.

To keep your dog healthy and fit, I’ve laid out a simple six-point plan for how you can safely and effectively reduce your dog’s weight if needed and what to expect during the weight reduction plan.

Step one: Determine your dog’s ideal body weight

It might sound like a no-brainer but before embarking on a weight loss plan for your dog, make sure you know the weight you’re aiming for. And that this isn’t just a random weight you have decided your dog should be, but a weight that is healthy for them.

The best way to determine what your dog’s ideal body weight should be is to use the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA)’s Body Condition Score (BCS). This nine-point-scale will help you identify your dog’s BCS and in turn, the amount of weight they need to lose. Knowing this – your dog’s ideal body weight – is necessary to plan a successful weight loss program.

The BCS nine-point scale is divided into three groups:

  • 1-3 = scores relating to underweight dogs
  • 4, 5 = scores relation to dogs of ideal weight
  • 6-9 = scores relating to overweight dogs

You determine your dogs BCS by looking at their ribs, waist and tummy and then assigning them a score between one and nine, depending on what you both see and feel.

Once you have determined your dog’s BCS score, you can then determine how overweight your dog is, and therefore much weight they need to lose. Focusing on overweight dogs, the table below shows the percentage by which a dog is overweight depending on their BCS score.

BCS score % Overweight What this means
6 10%  Dog needs to reduce weight by 10%
7 20%  Dog needs to reduce weight by 20%
8 30%  Dog needs to reduce weight by 30%
9 40%  Dog needs to reduce weight by 40%
>9 >40%  Dog needs to reduce weight by >40%

So, what does this mean in real-world terms?

If you have a dog who weighs 25kg and has a BCS of 7, then they need to reduce their weight by 20% to 20kg. Depending on the degree to which your dog is overweight, you may choose a slightly higher target weight to begin with, so that the ultimate goal doesn’t seem to daunting or unachievable to begin with. If you’re at all unsure about what your dog’s ideal weight should be and / or how much weight they need to lose, speak to your vet.

Step two: Determine their daily calorie intake

The old mantra says that to lose weight the number of calories consumed needs to be smaller than the number of calories used. However, it’s also very important not to underfeed a dog when you’re trying to get them to lose weight. There are a few different methods you can use to determine the daily calorie requirements for your dog that will help them lose weight and stay healthy.

One method is feeding your dog 80% of their resting energy requirements (RER), based on their ideal / target weight (see above). However, from my experience, this method often ends up restricting the dog’s daily food allowance by too much and subsequently, makes it difficult for the owner to adhere to the weight loss plan.

Keeping in mind that every dog is different, the method that I have found to be most successful is to simply calculate your dog’s daily RER (aka their daily calorie intake) using the ideal weight as a marker and the formula below:

  • 70 x (Ideal body weight in kg^75) = kcal/day

Continuing with the example in step 1, if your dog’s ideal weight is 20kg, then you calculate their daily calorie intake using the formula below:

  • 70 x (20kg^75) = 662 kcal / day

This method of reducing calories is a starting point and will need adjustment over time. It’s also important not to restrict your dog’s calorie intake too much if it will mean a dramatic change. Instead, you may reduce the number of calories slowly over time.

The goal for safe and healthy weight loss is an average weight loss of 1 to 2% of the obese body weight per week until the desired weight is reached. Remember, there are no quick fixes here – depending on how much weight your dog needs to lose and any other medical conditions, the average weight loss plan takes four to five months if it’s to be done safely and with long-term effect.

To help you with the process I have designed a spreadsheet that:

  1. Makes it easier for you to determine your dog’s weekly weight target during the weight loss program
  2. Give you an idea of the number of weeks it will take for your dogs to safely achieve optimal body weight.

You can download it by clicking on the link below:


Step three: Food selection

It’s tempting to think that for your dog to lose weight, you just have to give them less of the foods you’re feeding them now. Sadly, it’s not quite that simple.

Most commercial dog foods are prepared in a way such that the calorie content is linked to the amount of essential nutrients in the food. So, if you were to give your dog a smaller portion of the dog food you currently give them, yes you would be feeding them fewer calories – but you’d also be feeding them fewer essential nutrients. This can cause nutritional deficiencies and have a knock-on, negative effect on your dog’s health.

If you want your dog to lose weight, you need to look for a diet that is specifically formulated for weight loss. The best thing to do is work directly with a nutritional expert – this could be your vet or a nutritional specialist. They can help you develop a plan for your dog that helps them reduce their weight while also ensuring they get all the essential minerals, vitamins and nutrients they need.

Step four: Factor in treats

Even though your dog is on a diet, it doesn’t mean they can’t still have treats – they just have to be factored into their daily calorie intake (step two) and considered as part of their food selection (step three).

My advice is to reduce their daily calorie allowance by 10% and make this their treat allowance. if you are using human food as treats, you can check out their calorie content and nutritional profile online, using USDA FoodData Central.

Step five: Exercise/Activity

Again, like humans, combining a reduction in calories with physical exercise can help with weight loss, and make it more likely to be successful in the long-term.

The amount of exercise required for a dog varies depending on their breed, age, what other medical conditions they have etc. Speak to your vet to determine what an ideal exercise plan looks like for your dog, based on their capabilities. This plan should be both for while they’re in the process of losing the weight but also when they have lost the weight, so they can keep it off.

Step six: Monitor and follow-up.

Weight loss isn’t a quick fix. But you also want to make sure that the effort you and your dog are putting in is paying off.

I suggest that two weeks after starting the weight loss programme, you weigh your dog. If they haven’t lost 1-2% of their body weight in that period of time, then you should further reduce their calorie intake by between 10% and 20%. Continue monitoring every two weeks, making adjustments as needed so that they are losing between 1-2% of their body weight a week.

If after two weeks your dog has lost 1-2% of their weight, congratulate your dog and yourself on your success. Check-in on their weight every four weeks or so, making sure that progress is still being made, and adjusting as needed until the ideal body weight is achieved.

Tips for a successful weight loss program

In addition to these six steps, below are some tips to help ensure your dog’s weight loss programme is a successful one:

  1. Work with your vet or a nutritional adviser
  2. Feed multiple small meals daily
  3. Keep your dog out of the kitchen and dining area during prep and human mealtimes
  4. Use a green feeder to slow down feeding
  5. Make your dog’s weight loss a family project
  6. Premeasure all food and treats for the day
  7. Focus on treat free rewards such as attention, cuddles, walk, plays and toys
  8. Join a dog walking group

Bottom line

Breaking habits and getting your dog back in shape is not easy but be patient, stick with it and remain positive!