Treating While Dieting

Has your dog become a little more rotund over the years? Does your pet have more of a waddle than a spring in his or her step? You’re not alone. Approximately 54% of pets in this country are overweight or obese. Why? In large part, it is because we relate to our pets via food. We give them food to comfort them, to bond with them, and to reward them. Over time, this love-in-the-form-of-calories adds up until our pets carry far more “padding” than is good for them.

Being overweight can increase a pets’ susceptibility to ailments such as diabetes, pancreatitis, and fatty liver disease. Common problems like arthritis and hip dysplasia are greatly worsened with the burden of extra body weight as well. I am not, however, here to lecture you on the benefits of weight loss. Rather, I’ll take my veterinarian hat off temporarily and assume the role of weight loss coach.

First of all, let’s clear something up: Yes, your pet can still have treats even if they are on a “diet.” In fact, I encourage it! Humans on weight loss regimes usually stick to diets better if allowed a little “cheat.” As their guardians and friends, we should extend this same concept to our pets. It might help us all stick to the diet game plan a little better.

Here are some concepts to keep in mind as you’re trying to get some weight off your furry friend:

1. Without exception, calories burned must exceed calories consumed. The healthiest food in the world will still cause weight gain if given in too big of portions.

2. Keep treats to less than 10% of total daily caloric intake. This translates to just under 100 calories for a 75lb Labrador Retriever, 65 calories for a 50lb Australian Shepherd, and a mere 20 calories for a 25lb Miniature Schnauzer. It pays to monitor calories for your dog, for they add up fast!

3. Portion control (treat size) vs. treat frequency: Reduce calories “in” via reducing the size of the treats so they can have several a day, or give only one larger treat once per day. For example, Zuke’s Mini Naturals only have 3.5 calories each, compared to a large cookie-style bone or rawhide that can easily top 100 calories for a single treat. For help navigating the treat aisle, refer to my post about choosing treats that aren't just empty calories.

4. Offer veggies as treats. Many dogs like baby carrots, green beans, bell peppers, and zucchini. I’m not kidding. Try it! If your dog is one who does enjoy veggies, these are great low-calorie and high fiber (i.e. filling) items to offer at treat time. Animals don’t have the negative connotation with vegetables that their human counterparts have. If it comes from the fridge or a treat jar, it’s a treat to them. A quick exception is onions. Dogs can have reactions from low-to-moderate amounts of onions in food, which causes a specific type of anemia.

5. Ask your vet about calorie intake specific to your pet. Every breed has a different caloric requirement depending on age, breed, activity level, and reproductive status. Please have your veterinarian calculate a number tailored specifically to your pet.

6. Always measure out the food you place in your pet’s bowl. Humans are notoriously poor portion estimators. This is a very common problem I see in day-to-day practice. One “cup” of food does not mean one large Big Gulp scoop. It means an 8oz kitchen measuring scoop. 

7. Be active! Never underestimate the mood-enhancing, calorie-burning, benefits of a brisk walk with man’s best friend. It’s good for everyone involved. Check out my post on the benefits of getting outside with your pup.

Disclaimer: This information is educational in nature and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical prevention, diagnosis, or treatment.


Dr. Jen Deming Jennifer Deming, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. She strives to improve her patients' wellness through nutrition counseling and preventative medicine. Dr. Deming lives, works, and plays in the beautiful community of Durango, Colorado.