Obesity and Arthritis

Contribution by Karthyn Cowley

Obesity and Arthritis

It is well known that obesity is a contributing factor in many disease including diabetes, heart disease and arthritis and for this reason it is one of the most important medical conditions of the dog.

Obesity is defined as a disease in which excessive body fat has accumulated to a point at which the animal may be adversely affected, generally thought to be when their weight is 20% above their ideal weight. It is thought that half of all pets are overweight or obese and which such a high prevalence in the population it is important to be mindful of our pets’ weight and to act quickly if we notice there is a problem.

Knowing if your dog is overweight can be very simple. It is tempting to follow charts of breed average weights and aim for your dog to be at this average “ideal” weight. However it is important to remember that these weights are only an average and your dog could be over or underweight in these ranges as there is a huge variety in size of dog within an individual breed. The better method is to look at your dogs body condition score. This is something your vet or nurse will do each time your dog is in the vets clinic but can be done at home too.

In order to assess body condition score you need to look at your dog from above and the side when they are standing straight. They should have a well-defined, nipped in waistline (like an hourglass) and you should be able to feel their rib cage with only light pressure. If unsure, call your local vet clinic and ask for an appointment to assess your pets weight. It is likely they will do this for you free of charge.

Of course the excessive forces placed on the joints secondary to obesity aren’t the only thing that will make a dog susceptible to arthritis. Previous injury, genetics and age will also contribute but obesity is the thing that we perhaps have the most control over. Weight loss of as little as 6% in an overweight patient will be enough to really improve their gait and mobility. This means that in as little as 2-3 months you can improve your dogs’ quality of life, activity levels and start to see some real positive behavioural outcomes.

To help your dog lose weight it is essential to get them onto an appropriate diet. There are a number of different options out there from commercial low fat or reduced calorie diets, to prescription weight loss foods that are designed to be used under the supervision of your vet or veterinary nurse. In most cases is better to use a weight loss diet rather than simply reducing the food portion of the normal food (unless this is already very excessively fed) so we are not restricting access to the other nutrients in the diet such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. These macronutrients are supplemented in many of the high quality weight loss foods.

The common theme with most weight loss or management diets is that they are all high in fibre and low in calories and fat. They aim to provide a balance of nutrition while keeping the dog satisfied during the weight loss process. Foods high in both protein and fibre have been shown to have a greater effect on satiety compared to food with just a high fibre or protein content alone so should be used where possible. Many of these foods are also supplemented with L-carnatine, an amino acid that has been shown to help increase fat loss while maintaining muscle mass during weight loss, something which is especially important for patients with arthritis where the muscles may already be weakened or wasted through lack of appropriate use.

Other dietary risk factors that have been shown to promote obesity include frequent feeding of snacks or table scraps and feeding of “own brand” food rather than premium brand foods. Dog that are present when their owner is preparing or consuming their own meal are also more likely to be overweight compared to those that aren’t, likely because these are the pets being offered the most tit-bits, so keeping your dog out of the kitchen or dining area at these times will make the weight loss process easier and quicker.

It is important that food during the weight loss process is accurately measured, ideally using digital scales. Studies have shown this, rather than use of a scoop or cup to make a big difference to the outcome of a weight loss programme.

Ideally no additional foods or treats should be fed during the weight loss period but a small number of healthy treats could be considered as long as they make up less than 5% of the total food allocation.

We would advise that any pet that is deemed overweight be checked by a vet, even if not on a prescription diet, to rule out underlying conditions such as hypothyroidism for example, which in rare cases can predispose a patient to weight gain.

Along with dietary management we know that increasing physical activity is helpful for weight loss, promoting fat loss and preservation of lean tissues. The rate of weight loss can be increased by around 0.7% a week when a patient exercises compared to one that does very little physical activity. The recommended exercise will vary on the patient but generally we would advise high intensity activities, such as ball chasing and running off the lead, be avoided in dogs with arthritis. Instead lead walks of gradually increasing length, swimming or hydrotherapy can be great to promote weight loss as well as strengthening muscles, giving mental stimulation and improving heart health.

As with most things, prevention is better than cure. Getting your dog on an appropriate diet and portion size for their breed, age, activity level and neutering status is vital to maintaining their health. Ask your vet or nurse to weigh and body condition score your dog (a method used to assess your dogs’ overall shape to give an idea of how close to ideal their body weight is) at each visit, especially if they have recently been neutered or are over the age of 5, when the risk of weight gain is increased.

Remember a small reduction in weight can have a big impact on pain levels and quality of life. Your dogs’ weight is in your hands and under your control so take action to keep them trim and healthy.


Contribution by Karthyn Cowley of




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