You work out, you sweat, you drink your electrolytes. You feel good, you look good, you’re healthy. You know what it takes to make a human body tick, to keep muscles strong and ligaments loose. But, have you taken a look at your furry friend lately? Is your beagle a butterball? Is your pekingese portly? Is your mutt a mutton chop? As adorable as they might look, fat dogs are unhealthy and prone to a host of health problems. But there’s a ton of stuff you can do to get your pup to drop, well, a ton.

Weight ScaleCalories matter! Just like for humans, when dogs take in more calories than they burn, they will pack on the pounds.

But what makes this whole concept a lot more complicated is how difficult it is to know exactly how many calories your dog needs to eat each day to stay a healthy weight. There are multiple factors involved, including the size of your dog, the breed of your dog, and age, sex and activity level too. Does at 14 pound supercharged chihuahua need more calories per pound than a 78 pound somnolent shepherd? How do you know? Should you just follow the recommendations on the bag of dog food you bought? The answer to that question is definitely a “NO”. Dog food bag recommendations are almost always very high, most likely because they want you to buy many, many bags of their food and they’re less concerned if your dog becomes a footstool.

Let’s get technical for a minute. Dogs need about 30 calories per pound of body weight to maintain their current weight.

Smaller types need more calories, up to 40 per pound, and the gentle giants need less, closer to 20 calories per pound. Neutered and inactive dogs need a little bit less, and very active dogs need more. Most dogs need less calories in cold weather and more calories in warmer weather. Crazy, right? How can anyone really figure this out?

The first and best step when it comes to your pet’s health is a visit to your local veterinarian for advice. Most veterinarians will check your dog’s weight and also will assign your dog a Body Condition Score (BCS) based on a scale of 1-9, with 4.5 being perfect. This score is based on several factors including how easy it is to palpate your dog’s ribs, whether or not he has a tucked up waist from the side or a pinched in waist from the top, whether or not you can feel any of her spine bones when you pet her from head to tail.

Pet Food Bowl BigOnce you know what condition your pet is in, you can plan the best way to keep him healthy. Sadly, more than half of our household pets are obese, some grossly so. Obesity leads to a lot of the same health problems in pets as it does in people - arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes to name a few.

Thankfully, your dog can’t open that can of dog food himself. You won’t catch her with her head in the pantry, wolfing down a bag of chocolate chips in secret (at least, hopefully you won’t, or that’s a trip to the vet for a whole different reason!) No midnight raids on the fridge for a pastrami on rye. You are truly in charge here, and you only need to make a few small changes to see big results.

There are approximately five million brands of dog food on the market right now. Or it seems that way when you walk into a pet store! Aisles and aisles of brands and styles and types, it’s enough to make anyone crazy. Should you choose canned or dry? Grain free or novel protein? What does that even mean? Relax, it’s not as complicated as it looks. Unless your dog has specific allergies or health problems that necessitate a prescription diet, there are several good quality dog food options available. Honestly, it matters less which food you choose and more about how much food you’re feeding.

If your pet has a lot of weight to lose, you might want to start with a diet made for overweight pets, sometimes called “less active”. Many of these foods contain less calories and more fiber, to help your pet feel fuller while eating less. The protein source truly doesn’t matter, unless your pup has a food allergy or other digestive disease. And as far as “grain free” goes, don’t even go there. That’s a marketing ploy based on human diet trends, and really isn’t the huge problem that many people associate it with. Choose a diet that is formulated for your pooch’s current age, as there are nutritional differences that do matter in the different age group brackets.

Now that you’ve chosen a food, what do you do? Start slowly, by switching from the old food to the new food in small increments. Mix in ¼ of the new diet with ¾ of your dog’s regular diet for a few days and see what happens. If Fido is turning his nose up at the new food and picking around it to get the old stuff, that’s going to make this a whole lot harder. After a few days, to go ½ new and ½ old. Then ¾ new and ¼ old until you’re finally just feeding the new diet. Don’t cut the amount down yet, just get Fluffy used to the new chow.

Now, measure EXACTLY how much food you’re feeding him. If you think you’re only feeding “a cup” but you’re using a 24 ounce take out coffee mug from Quick Check, there’s your problem right there! Use a cup measure, the same kind you use to cook and bake with. Get exact measurements. Then, cut the amount of food you’re feeding by 10% for a few weeks. The goal is to make small adjustments, nothing too dramatic so you don’t have to worry about Spike chowing down on the garbage while you’re sleeping.

A note about treats here. Just be honest about how many treats and people food you give to your pet. Owners tend to dramatically underestimate this, but it will only make weight loss impossible. You don’t need to cut treats out completely. Treats are a special part of a warm and loving relationship with a dog. But you can always choose healthy treats, give less treats, give smaller treats, or use praise and patting as an alternative to a food treat. Baby carrots, bits of apple, steamed broccoli or canned green beans are great as treats and also great mixed into a food bowl to make dinner more interesting and appetizing. Some seeming healthy human foods are dangerous for dogs, like grapes, so don’t give any new food without checking with your veterinarian first. If you buy Milk Bones, buy a smaller size than recommended for your dog, or break them into smaller pieces. Cut everything you give your dog in half when it comes to snacks or people food. Avoid anything high in fat and think high protein like bits of chicken or turkey if you absolutely must feed your dog something off your dinner plate.

Once you’ve started decreasing your pet’s daily calorie intake, check his progress by feeling for ribs, looking for that waist or, if you can, checking his weight on your own scale (if you can pick him up!). Plan for veterinary visits for weight checks - these are often free - every three months or so. Make adjustments as needed with food and treats. The basic math is the same for people and pets - less calories in and more calories burned means weight loss. You can do it. Your four legged friend is counting on you to do it, for her health and for the happy years you have yet to spend together.

Dr. Jennifer Feeney is a veterinarian at Somerset Veterinary Group. She has practiced at several veterinary hospitals in and around New Jersey including a 24-hour emergency clinic and a large local animal shelter.