Is Your Dog Fit or Fat? Learn How to Body Condition Score Him

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

Download the Body Condition System Poster!

Every time I give a lecture on behavior modification, someone asks me, “But what if my dog’s not motivated for food?” This always makes me wonder if we live on the same planet. For one, if a dog were truly not motivated for food, he would dead. What the attendee really should be asking is “Why won’t my dog eat when I want to train him? Could it have anything to do with the fact that I leave his food out all day or give him table scraps and treats for free out of guilt whenever he looks at me?”

Secondly, no matter how puzzled these owners appear, a majority of the time I find that their dog is quite hefty, even obese! In other words, the reason the dog won’t eat when they want to use food for training is that he gets way too much to eat already and he’s often just full or content.

It's not surprising that so many people who think their dog lacks food motivation have pets carrying the pounds that say otherwise. Approximately 1/3 of dogs and cats in the United States are markedly overweight. What is surprising is that the same people who dream of having a supermodel-thin body themselves are happy with the look of their portly pet. They know where every little bleb of fat exists on their own bodies—at least the women do—but have no clue that the soft curves that their dog sports are actually layers of lard.

The solution is to learn to body condition score your pet

Of course there’s an easy solution to this blubber-blindness. Owners can simply learn to body condition score (BCS) their pets using one of the established systems such as the BCS system developed in 1997 by Nestle Purina.  In this 9 point scoring system, dogs who are a body condition score of 1 are way too thin—generally truly starving due to illness or poverty. They look like walking skeletons because their poor nutrition has lead to muscle wasting in addition to loss of fat.

 


 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the body condition score of 9. This is the dog that looks like a giant, overstuffed sausage. He has huge fat deposits over the chest, spine and base of the tail such that his back resembles a table top rather than a living animal. He also has obvious abdominal distension due to fat in the abdomen.

 


 

The ideal dog is 4 or 5—where 4.5 is considered atheletic trim. Dogs with a body condition score of 5 have ribs and vertebrae that you can easily feel. You can see a waist right behind the ribs when viewing from the top, and from the side you can see the abdomen tucks up.

 


 

It’s pretty straightforward if you go based on the chart included below. But if in doubt, your veterinarian should be able to help you. And if you find that your dog’s a tad or a ton overweight, you’ll also have the answer regarding whether he is or is not motivated for food.

Stay tuned to find out why it’s handy to keep your dog at an ideal body weight.

Download the Body Condition System Poster!

REFERENCE: Laflamme DP. Development and Validation of a Body Condition Score System for Dogs. Canine Practice July/August 1997, 22:10-15.

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15 responses to “Is Your Dog Fit or Fat? Learn How to Body Condition Score Him

  1. How do I slim her down. Walking is difficult for me so she doesn’t get a lot of exercise. She doesn’t get as much as recommended, any tips?

    1. My vet told me to substitute thawed frozen green beans. Theo(yellow lab)didn’t like vegetables but ate the green beans. He went from 110 to 90 lbs.

      1. Do you mean substitute green beans for their regular food? I have a black lab and he is obese. I feed him two cups of food in the morning and two in the evening. That is two cups less than what is recommended for a dog his size and he still gains weight.

        1. Often the food guides on the sides of the bags are wrong. Get an accurate weight for him then substitute one can of green beans for one cup of food. You may need to cut it back even more. I feed my dogs based on how their body is handling the food. If they gain, I cut back, if they lose, I increase it. Due to the breed of dogs I have, we have to ignore the serving size suggestions anyway.

        2. The average Black Lab should have 3/4 to 1 cup of food in the morning and the same at night. You are feeding your lab double what her probably should have. A way to back it up is to every other day, reduce the kibble portion by 1 piece of kibble more until you get to either a healthy weight.

  2. Give her half of a treat each day give her a tiny bit of food you can also give her vegetables like carrots green beans and other vegetables

  3. my adult dog is about 50 and pudgy he is not a full breed and was rescued so I am not aware of what he is 100% of he mix he gets daily walks but rarely runs should I be worried.

    1. Not really. Some dogs aren’t big on running, especially when overweight. First thing will be to have him checked by a vet to ensure that he is otherwise healthy then look at taking longer walks and cutting calorie intake. I do this buy substituting canned green beans for some of the dog food. Filling and healthy without fillers.

  4. I was given a crossbreed one year old dog-mostly yellow lab. One year old. he was like a barrel from front to back, and was always hungry. I cut his kibbles back to less than two cups daily.
    Exercise him daily twice with two long walks, and he also walks himself.
    At first, he would pant lots, even at times when lieing resting.
    His nose was always warm and dry.
    After three months he is in good shape . No more panting so easily. His nose is starting to get more cool and even at times wet and cold.
    Feeding him about three cups at the most now of good quality food, once daily, plus a very few table scraps or occasional treat. He still really wolfs all his food.. He is a happy dog.

  5. My 18 month old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel weighs 10KG which I’m pretty sure is overweight. Can you recommend a suitable healthy diet for him?

  6. I have a gsd mix that weights 27-29kg. You can really easily feel his ribs and back hips and can slightly see them. He has no fat on his ribs. From the way he looks he scores a 4.5 but how do I know it’s muscles not fat. He has a lot of loose skin that really add up to his weight and the vet said he needs to loose 8kg because she thought he would be beagle sized. Now I’m really confused a lot of people that I met tell me he’s in a really good shape, others tell me he could put on a bit of weight (sometimes he looks like he was starved but it depends on the day) and the vet tells me he needs to loose weight. What do you think? I think it is muscle because it’s very close to his bones and not hanging down, his stomach is a bit soft and slightly big but fades overtime. He eats raw in the morning and night. He gets lots of raw bones to chew on and many treats. He goes on walks for an hour or on a bike trip for an hour, we play with him a lot (hardcore play). On vacation he gets to run around with my grandmas dogs and we go on walks that last 4 hours. Does he need to loose weight or add up?

  7. I have 2 rescues..one is a plott hound mix that is 14 yrs of age, she also has cushings disease. I walk her every morning even though she cannot go far about, a block and back. She weighs 59lbs and I know she needs to lose a few pounds but i cannot seem to get them off. I fed her roughly 389 cal in am and same in pm. I measure her food. Treats are about 50 at bedtime. Sometime she will hardly eat and then sometime she aggravates me for more food.
    The other one is a shepherd/border collie mix that is 13 years of age. He had an anal sac cancer removed last year and seems to be doing well. He weighs about 71lbs and I feel he also needs to lose a few pounds. I feed him 464cal in am and pm. He also gets about 50cal at bedtime. They are both on Earthborn holistic weight management food. Is there something else I can do to help my fur babies.

  8. Gaining weight: Dad Italian Greyhound, mom boxer/golden retriever, weighed 28lbs at one year. ribs and pelvis visible at distance, was feeding mix of purina pro and hills science kibble, 1 cup morning 1 cup evening, got comments from strangers questions as to my care of the dog … vet suggested 3 cups a day, she gained zero weighed six months later. So … I used olive oil and/or unprocessed *beef fat I got from a free range no hormone or antibiotic farm nearby and added 1 tablespoon fat each meal; 15 grams fat total each day =’s 135 calories in addition to the 1000 cal dog food per day =’s 13.5% increase in calories. Six months later she weighs 32, a 14% increase. Ribs and pelvis no longer visible (ribs visible when she stretches or pants hard from running hard … and she’s wicked fast), some more tissue can now be felt over spine, ribs and hip bones. She’s in a great spot.

    * dogs can’t have a cholesterol “problem” in the human sense, per se
    https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_dg_fats_and_oils_good_for_your_dogs_health

    health risks are not from blood lipid levels, rather from carrying too much weight if overweight and fat …

    Also, that caloric deprivation/restriction extends mammalian life is incontrovertible. Keeping my dog a bit underweight will help her live longer

    Losing weight: my prior dog wound up staying with my ex upon divorce and went from about 45 to 65lbs in six months, 44% increase … all because the dog started getting all kinds of scraps, and wasn’t walking, fetching, or going to the dog park at all, let alone one of those three things EVERY day as I have always done with all my dogs. She was lethargic and visibly fat. I took the dog back for 3 months and pissed as she got and refused to eat only the balanced food I put out, she became hungry enough after missing two days of food that she finally resumed eating, and only the right food. I gave her at least daily activities that made her move. She was back around 45lbs in 3 months. If she gains weight again, my ex will be in the big lovely house without both the children AND the dog. I’ll take her back. Wasn’t in the divorce decree and everyone knows I am that dog’s human.

    What works for dogs isn’t necessarily the same as for humans, but c’mon … it stands to reason that the simple four word principle applied to humans by ALL nutrition and exercise physiologists ,,, applies to dogs:

    EAT LESS MOVE MORE, … barring a metabolic disorder most physiologists believe diet is a much greater proportion of the equation than exercise (as concerns weight) .. just stands to reason.

    If I became unable to walk, I’d train or get a trainer to help train the dog to fetch indoors and even use a treadmill. And I’d be certain to keep the dogs’ weight a bit on the low side. Dogs are that important to me: I want to give them the best chances to live long, happy and healthy.

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