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  • Tiffany Downing, RVT

Body Condition Score & Canine Weight Loss

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

You might have seen the abbreviation BCS on your pet's medical records or seen the charts on the wall at your Veterinarian's office, but what does it mean and where does your dog need to be?

The Body Condition Score (BCS) is a scale used to describe body fat level and determine proper body condition in animals.

The BCS is often used on a scale of 1 to 9 or 1 to 5. To provide as much information as possible, CROC utilizes a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely underweight and 9 being extremely obese. Since dogs come in all shapes and sizes, determining their BCS is more about evaluating certain parameters of their body condition instead of focusing on just the numbers on the scale.

Body Condition Score Chart

Golden Retriever standing on stairs

Some quick ways to assess your dog's BCS include:

Does your dog have an hourglass shape when you stand behind/over them and look down at them?

Do they have a tuck at their waist?

Can you easily feel their ribs?

If any of your answers to the above questions are “no”, there’s a good chance your dog needs to lose weight.

Dog owners don’t always recognize when their dog is out of shape. Maybe that’s why approximately HALF of all dogs in the United States are overweight or obese! An overweight dog is at severely increased risk for serious health concerns, with even just a few extra pounds contributing to:

Dog laying on toys
  • Shortened Life Span

  • Diabetes

  • Cancer

  • Arthritis

  • Heart & Respiratory Conditions

  • Skin Infections

  • Pancreatitis

  • Increased Surgical & Anesthetic Risk

  • and many more scary things!

So my dog needs to lose weight.... Now what?

Just like humans, weight loss for dogs really comes down to two things: food and exercise, with food being the easiest and quickest thing to change. For successful weight loss, a reduction of caloric intake is not optional. We know. We wish it worked differently too!

Get Specific With What You’re Feeding

Senior Mixed Breed Dog on cavaletti obstacle

Here’s where things can go sideways. Humans may or may not choose to count calories as a guide for what they’re eating, with some opting for other methods of keeping to a healthy regime (Do my pants fit? Cool or Yikes!). But when it comes to the long term management of your dog’s weight, it’s essential to establish a concrete benchmark for how much to feed, meaning we need to determine the number of calories your dog needs each day.

Unfortunately, feeding guidelines on the average pet food package are generally too broad or vague and many owners end up over feeding. The feeding guidelines on pet food packages are loosely based on active adult dogs of all ages, breeds, and sexes. Spaying or neutering, as an example, reduces energy requirements by 20-30%, so if your pet is spayed or neutered, you can already be overfeeding by 20-30% or more.

To determine the ideal caloric intake, we need to consider your dog’s Body Condition Score, muscle mass, lifestyle and any medical conditions. For at home calculating, you can use the Resting Energy Requirement (RER) Formula.

RER Formula

Example Equation Using a 30lb Dog

  1. Start by taking your dog's weight in pounds and dividing by 2.2 to get your dog's weight in kilograms.

30lb divided by 2.2 = about 13.6kg

2. Multiply weight in kilograms by 30.

13.6kg X 30 = 408

3. Add 70

408 + 70 = 478

4. You can then factor in Metabolic Energy Requirements (MER) based on things like weight loss or spayed/neutered.

For healthy, intact (not spayed/neutered) adult: Multiply the RER by 1.8

478 X 1.8 = 860.4 calories per day

For healthy, spayed/neutered adult: Multiply the RER by 1.6

478 X 1.6 = 764.8 calories per day

For an overweight adult to lose weight: Multiply the RER by 1.0

478 X 1.0 = 478 calories per day

These formulas provide an estimate, but every dog’s metabolism is different so be sure to monitor your dog’s weight as you adjust their diet. CROC weighs our overweight patients approximately every 2 weeks to make sure they are safely losing weight and if we need to make any changes to their weight loss plan. Another easy change is to start utilizing a diet formulated for weight loss. Many diets exist to help dogs feel fuller while eating less calories. Some even have extra benefits like joint support!

Trick or Treat?

Our bond with our dogs is priceless and every dog owner wants to see the joy and excitement a treat brings to their best friend. However, it’s easy to forget that those treats are also part of your dog’s daily caloric intake. Even if you’re following the above formula perfectly at meal times, any treats your dog gets throughout the day are adding to their caloric excess. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give any treats! What it does mean is that you must calculate the additional calories of the treats you are giving and feed that much less of your dog’s regular meal.

smiling Mixed Breed dog
***IMPORTANT NOTE: While commercially prepared, AAFCO approved diets are nutritionally balanced to provide your dog with everything they need, treats are not! The majority of your dog’s daily calories needs to come from a balanced diet to avoid any nutritional deficits that could then cause serious illness.***

Dogs also get the same joy and excitement from healthier or smaller treats. Many of our clients report success switching to fruits or veggies as treats. There are also commercially prepared low calorie treats readily available, some as low as 2-3 calories per treat. At the end of the day, there are many ways besides food to show our pups that we love them.

Safely Increase Exercise

Now that your dog’s diet has been addressed, it’s time to start adjusting their exercise routine. The most obvious and important activity for your dog’s weight loss is walking. Regular walks exercise your dog’s body and provide mental stimulation like the vital opportunity to sniff! The amount of walking your dog needs depends on their breed and general health, but unless recovering from life threatening trauma, all dogs need to move regularly.

If you’re already doing regular walks, try lengthening your walk by 10-20%. Remember to work in your Home Care exercises to improve coordination, stamina, and strength. Muscle burns more calories! Unless your dog has been trained and physically conditioned for sports or other vigorous exercise, you’ll need to avoid overly strenuous or repetitive exercise, or you will risk injury. Weather conditions, such as high heat, will also need to be kept in mind to avoid paw pad burns or heat stroke.

German Shepherd Dog getting laser therapy

Physical Rehabilitation is an excellent tool to safely exercise your dog and speed up their return to health. Our Rehab Practitioner and Veterinarians will prescribe a weight loss exercise plan specifically for your dog to achieve maximum results while making sure your dog isn’t overworked or injured. Underwater Treadmill Therapy is a great option for overweight pets since the buoyancy of the water reduces strain on their already overworked joints while providing resistance to build their muscle mass and improve their stamina.

On the topic of overworked joints, overweight pets often experience considerable joint pain due to all the extra force applied to them daily. Rehab treatments like Laser Therapy can help reduce that pain and inflammation, therefore keeping your pet more comfortable as they work through their weight loss plan.

Rule Out Medical Conditions

If caloric boundaries have been established and strictly followed, your dog is getting regular and balanced exercise, but you’re still not seeing results, a visit to the vet could be in order to rule out medical reasons for your dog’s weight. Weight gain and lethargy can be symptoms of conditions like Hypothyroidism or Cushing’s, among many others. These conditions often occur in middle-age to older dogs and can be treated with medication once properly diagnosed. Other symptoms to watch for include frequent urination, hair loss or poor coat condition, weakness, and delayed healing.

Keep Track!

Sometimes, it feels like you're doing everything right, but your dog STILL isn't losing weight. Often, the devil is in the details! To help figure out the culprit, we suggest keeping a food diary to track everything your dog is eating. This goes beyond just what goes in the bowl day after day. Your food diary should include treats, table scraps, supplements, random things they found outside - literally anything that goes into their mouth! Owners of CROC patients are welcome to bring their completed food diary in for discussion any time.

Click below to download and print our food diary form.

Food Diary
Download PDF • 48KB

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