Dog Fitness and Health: Getting your Dog into Shape

By: Celeste Treadway, DVM

TVMA Member
Austin, TX

Published June 2014

We want our dogs to stay healthy and active for as many years as possible. It’s been proven that lean dogs can live up to three years longer than overweight dogs, and yet, more than 50 percent of the dogs seen by veterinarians are considered overweight or obese. This is consistent with the national trend of increasing obesity in American pets, as well as humans. We know that more pet owners would keep their pets in better shape or “body condition,” if they understood what shape their dog should be in.

Fitness in dogs, just as in humans, is not dependent on one factor, such as body fat or strength. Total fitness is determined by a combination of factors, including lean muscle to fat ratio, strength, flexibility and aerobic conditioning. Athletes and serious gym-goers are familiar with how to measure these things in themselves—heart rate monitors, body fat percentage, number of bench presses or curls as well as simple things like the number on the scale and how your clothes are fitting. But how do you determine what sort of fitness your dog is in?

Assess Your Dog’s Fitness Condition

The following list consists of the core components used to assess and monitor your dog’s fitness level.

  1. Body Condition Score: One of the simplest things to help assess fitness in dogs is body condition score (BCS). This is an assessment of how much fat an individual dog has compared to an ideal. There are several different scales that are used to determine this, but one of the most commonly used and easiest to describe is a nine-point scale on which a BCS of 4 or 5 is ideal, 6 to 9 is too fat and 1 to 3 is too lean.
  2. A rough rule of thumb is that, in a standing dog, you should be able to easily feel the ribs with little to no excess fat under the skin. The ribs should not feel like they have a “cushion” over them. In a short-haired dog, you should be able to easily feel but not see the ribs. Also, when looking at your dog from above, the abdomen should taper in from the ribcage to the hips, like an hourglass. From the side, when your dog is standing, the abdomen should also taper upward from the ribcage to the hips.
  3. If your dog is heavier than a 5 on this nine-point scale, then you have a starting point for getting your dog healthier! How many extra pounds your dog needs to lose will depend on his overall size, so you’ll need to see your veterinarian to get an accurate weight and assessment of how many pounds your dog needs to shed.
  4. Exercise: Just as for humans, for dogs there is no substitute for simply being active, moving and bearing weight. Dogs evolved from ancestors that spent long periods of time moving over large areas of land, hunting prey. Dogs need activity for their physical, mental and behavioral health. Unfortunately, most dogs will not get as much exercise as they need if just left in the yard or house on their own for most of the day. Yes, they will experience some “ballistic activity,” such as running up and down the fence line, but they are unlikely to engage in continued aerobic activity for a long enough period of time to gain much benefit for their fitness condition. Furthermore, this ballistic activity puts a lot of stress on joints and is a great way for your dog to get injured.
  5. As a base exercise program, a regular (once or twice daily) brisk walk on-leash may be all that is needed. Walking also allows for important bonding time for people and their pets. How long, how strenuous, how much hill work, etc., will depend on the starting fitness level of the dog. Just as in humans, we would recommend easing into an exercise program. Too much too fast often leads to pain and injuries. Ballistic activity such as chasing balls or Frisbees or off-leash time running loose in a park should be added only after your dog has built up some improved muscle strength to support joints and aerobic endurance. Activity should be stopped at the first sign of overheating. Swimming can also be an excellent exercise for dogs but again should be eased into.
  6. Nutrition: What your dog eats is just as important as the exercise he or she is getting on a daily basis. For most adult dogs that are not involved in extensive sporting activities, a well-balanced adult “weight management” or adult “light” dog food is recommended. Discuss with your veterinarian the specific type and amount to feed your dog. Often the dog food bag will recommend slightly more than your pet actually needs. Limit giving your dog human foods. If you must give into those sad eyes, give him or her a carrot or green bean; most dogs will eat these readily.
  7. Mobility and Pain Control: As dogs age, they often develop arthritisPainful inflammation and stiffness of the joints., just like humans. Arthritis pain can cause dogs to move less in an effort to avoid pain. However, unlike people, most dogs don’t complain much about it. They just lie around more, and owners think, “Oh, he’s just slowing down because he’s getting older.” Many times, the dog is not slowing down because he’s old; he’s slowing down because he hurts. The more he lies around, the weaker his muscles get and the less flexible his joints become. This will lead to a poor stride, increasing pain when he does get up and move around and ultimately a downward spiral of progressing inactivity and pain.

You may notice things like more lying around, wanting to stop sooner during walks or play and moving more slowly going upstairs or getting in the car. Maybe your dog is slower to rise or lie down, especially in the rear legs (you might notice your dog pushes up through his front legs first, then kind of pulls his back legs up after.) These all may be signs of arthritis. Some dogs will pant more, as this can be a sign of pain or anxiety. It can also be a sign of a lung problems or another underlying illness. Much of this can be turned around with attention to pain control and an active walking program. Rehab exercises can also be incorporated to work at gradually improving joint range of motion. Please visit your veterinarian if your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms. Arthritis pain is easier to control when it’s diagnosed early.


[Note: Reviewer suggests linking to Purina Lean Fed Study]


Dr. Celeste Treadway practices veterinary medicine in Austin, Texas.

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