Canines, like humans, are affected in many ways by obesity. The risk of diabetes, heart disease,
breathing difficulties, and damage to joints, bones and ligaments are just a few risks and complications of
being overweight. An excellent controlled scientific study (The Purina Life Span Study) revealed that
moderate excess weight alone shortens a dog’s life expectancy by as much as two years. This blog will
discuss what the ideal body condition score looks like, the effects that obesity has on the joints, bones
and ligaments of dogs, and strategies to prevent and manage canine obesity.
Weight-conscious people are familiar with BMI (Body Mass Index) as a yardstick to identify ideal weight.
There is a way to measure the body condition of our furry friends, too. The pet version of BMI is
called BCS (Body Condition Score) which is a quantitative yet subjective method for evaluating body fat.
It may seem more complicated than the human scale because although people come in lots of different
shapes and sizes, the pet world has a bigger variety of both—especially the canine portion of the pet
population. Think Chihuahua vs. Bulldog vs. Great Dane.
Despite the variety of body types in dogs and cats, there is an organized system of evaluating BCS. Two
recognized BCS scales are utilized, one ranging from 1-5 and the other 1-9. We prefer the 1-9 scale
which gives more latitude to identify subtle changes in weight. Other veterinarians use the 1-5 scale
which has fewer categories. Whatever method is used, it’s best to identify the scale by referencing the
highest number. For example, a dog with a BCS of 5 would be obese on the 5 point scale (5/5) but at its
optimal weight on the 9 point scale (5/9).
Ideal Body Condition Score
Assigning a score to your pet requires visualization and palpation. You have to look at and feel your pet.
Start by looking at your cat or dog from above. Does she have a waistline that curves in behind the rib
cage giving her an hourglass figure? Next, sit on the floor and look at your pet from the side. Does he
have a tummy tuck? Does his abdomen slant upwards between the ribcage and the hind legs? Or does
he have a saggy belly? You should be able to easily feel the ribs under the skin without excess fat
covering, but you should not be able to see them.
Studies have suggested that approximately one-quarter of overweight dogs develop serious joint
complications. The bones, joints, muscles, and associated tendons and ligaments all work together to
give the dog smooth and efficient movement. If they are required to carry excess weight, they can start
to become damaged. Pain and joint changes associated with hip dysplasia can become markedly more
Extra tension on joints caused by an increased weight load can also lead to damage of certain ligaments.
Ligaments are tough, fibrous strands of tissue that hold one bone in proximity to another bone in joints.
One of the ligaments in the knee, the cranial cruciate ligament, is very prone to strains or tears. If this
ligament is torn, the knee becomes very unstable and the dog is reluctant to use it. Surgery is required in
most cases to stabilize the knee.
Arthritis is a common ailment affecting pets today, especially middle-aged to senior dogs. One of the
main contributors to arthritis in dogs is excess weight, which adds stress on the joints.
What can you do for your dog to prevent and/or manage obesity?
1. Set up a consultation with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian is your best resource for canine weight
loss and weight control. They will recommend a specific food and portion per day and will provide
guidance on how to deliver that portion based on lifestyle, convenience, and your dog’s individual needs.
If there is already evidence of osteoarthritis, reducing inflammation and pain will encourage your dog to
become more active, which in turn will speed appropriate weight loss.
2. Walk your dog. A recent survey found that only half of dog owners walk their dogs at least once a
day. Thirty-three percent (33%) of those surveyed even admitted they rarely walk their dogs. Walking
has many benefits for people and dogs. Studies have shown that a 30 thirty-minute walk, three times
per week can reduce blood pressure, increase energy, improve a sense of well-being, and lower a person’s
weight by five percent (5%) and a dog’s by fifteen percent (15%).