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Weight Management & Natural Diet for Dogs

The importance of keeping your pet at its ideal weight cannot be understated. 

"For my obese patients, this is usually the No. 1 health concern that needs addressing as priority." explains Dr Lu Fenny - Holistic Vet at Home. However, it is not always as simple as “feed them less, exercise them more” as many frustrated pet parents will have experienced. I am often met with tears and emotions when having the “weight loss” discussion with pet parents who have struggled unsuccessfully to get the kilos off, sometimes for many years at a time. 

Whether you’re in this category or are just starting out with your pet’s weight loss plan, it is important to have a holistic approach to your pet’s weight loss journey.

Why is weight management so important? 

I know it can be so very hard to look away when your fur baby gazes longingly at your meal, or finishes their bowl in two seconds flat and give you that look… begging for more! 

Dogs have an incredible ability to communicate with us non-verbally and have us worked out to a tee when it comes to begging for food! So next time you get “that look”, here is a little motivation to remind you why you are doing this: 

  ✔️ Most importantly, your pet will be so much happier! Yes I know, many pets are thrilled with life no-matter-what (bless them!), but they will be a lot happier, more energetic and more comfortable when they get rid of those extra kilos.

  ✔️ Your pet will live longer: on average 2 to 3 years lifespan. That means a lot more fun times with their best mates. 

  ✔️ Reduced risk of many chronic illnesses including cancer, diabetes, pancreatitis, heart disease and others. 

  ✔️ Reduced risk of painful joint diseases including cruciate rupture, arthritis, disc disease

These health conditions are not reserved for obese pets. Being only a little overweight can increase the risk of these health conditions.

Why can weight management be so tough?

Our modern day lifestyle with reduced activity and an increased reliance upon processed foods isn’t helping our fur friends any more than it is ourselves.

In fact, the modern day pet diet comprised primarily of highly processed carbohydrates is often paramount to weight issues.

Furthermore, your pets’ weight loss plan can be complicated for a number of reasons which will vary between pets. It is important to identify which area is letting the weight loss team down. For example, you might be feeding your pet less and exercising them more, but having no luck due to a nutritional or hormonal imbalance, a medication your pet is on, or perhaps there is a pesky neighbour sneaking them treats and undoing all of your hard work!

This article will explore the various risk factors that can complicate success on your pet’s weight management journey and provide solutions to help you both stay on track.

Reasons why your pet is struggling to lose weight

#1. Too Much Processed Food

Even if your pet is on a “weight loss” diet food or on a “grain-free” product, the reality is that if it has come from a packet in the form of a kibble, can or roll, it will not be ideal for weight loss.

Dogs have evolved to eat a diet of around 70% fresh meat and bones, resulting in a diet that is very high in protein and very low in carbohydrates.

Conversely, commercially produced dog food typically contain large volumes of nutrient-poor carbohydrate fillers like rice or corn meal, usually between 25% to 60%. These fillers make the food cheaper to manufacture and provides a longer shelf life. However, dogs and cats should have no more than 3% to 5% carbohydrates in their diet. Any more than this will not only make weight loss very difficult, but can also overload the liver, thereby reducing its ability to perform its vital role in detoxifying chemicals and toxins from the body.

Furthermore, commercially produced diets are very low in moisture, usually only around 8%, compared with 65% in fresh meat diets. This means that pet owners must feed considerably less in volume than they would if feeding a fresh food.

Unfortunately, this reality is often ignored by caring pet owners, who see such a small bowl of dried food as being “not enough” to keep their pets happy and as a result, overfeeding has become a wide-scale phenomenon, directly relating to the current pet obesity problem.

The majority of processed pet foods have been prepared by cooking meat and meat by-products under high heat and high pressure. This process destroys most of the useful nutrients in meat which are vital for carnivorous animals. 

This also means that vitamins that are destroyed during the processing need to be added back in. Unfortunately, artificial vitamins simply cannot replace naturally occurring vitamins, in fact the artificial vitamins can cause toxicity problems which would never occur in the natural whole-food vitamins.

When a pet is nutrient-deficient, they will have cravings and tend to over-eat, beg for food and scavenge which can further complicate your weight-loss efforts.

Summary of issues with feeding commercial foods: 

The presence of artificial additives, preservatives and artificial vitamins 
They are too high in carbohydrates (fillers) and low in protein 
They are often deficient in enzymes, macro-nutrients & antioxidants 
They don’t clean their teeth and gums effectively

#2. Overfeeding & Boredom

Dogs are natural born scavengers and in the wild would spend the majority of their waking hours sniffing out food with their incredibly evolved sense of smell.

So when they smell food in the house ( for miles around), their natural instinct is to hunt it out and eat it – regardless of whether they are hungry or not! Remember it is their “job” to scavenge for food, so don’t assume that because you’re getting “that look” means your dog is actually hungry.

This is also why the sensory input of a varied fresh food diet can give so much joy and have your pet so much more satisfied at mealtimes

It is incredibly boring for them to have the same bowl of kibble day in, day out
It is no wonder they finish their bowl and are looking for more. They are looking for more variety and sensory input – not just more calories! 

# 3. Hormonal Imbalances

An underactive thyroid gland (Hypothyroidism) and Cushing Syndrome are two health conditions that can increase your pets’ chances of gaining weight plus complicate weight loss efforts.

#4. Medications

Steroids are commonly prescribed for allergic and auto-immune conditions and anti-depressant medication is becoming increasingly utilised to treat anxiety. These medications can increase your pet’s chances of gaining weight.

Steps to a leaner, happier pet 

#1. Have a family discussion

It is vital that everybody is on board with your pet’s weight loss plan. Make sure everyone knows that Fluffy’s weight loss is essential to his health and happiness! Everyone from Grandma to neighbours, housemates and the treat-laden friends at the doggy park need to be on the weight loss team.

#2. Determine your pet’s ideal weight 

Your pet should have a clearly defined waistline with the final 1-2 ribs visible. You should be able to feel the ribs and spine without pressing down too hard. For more information, read this article.

#3. Clean up their diet

A focus on high quality wholefoods is usually the key to success in my experience and the best way to do this is to home-prepare your pets meals. It is vital that your pet's meals are nutritionally balanced, however this is not difficult to achieve at home. 

By feeding approximately 60-70% raw meat/meaty bones, 10% organ meat and 20-30% vegetables, your pet will have a well-balanced and highly nutritious meal that they will love. In my opinion it is the best thing you could do for their long-term health. 

Photo: CDK9 Raw Complete Mixes - Review
Where possible, feed kangaroo and goat meats because they are low in fat and high in meat protein, also lower in chemicals, pesticides and allergens than beef and chicken. 

You can also purchase frozen pet meals that have these approximate ratios already prepared, but make sure they are not laden with anything artificial. 

If this all seems too difficult, then just start slow by replacing some of your pet’s kibble with fresh foods

My favourite place to start is with mulies or pilchards which are cheaply bought from bait stores and provide the ideal combination of meat /organ meat / vegies (their stomach contents filled with seaweed!) with the added benefits of being jam-packed with Omega 3 fatty acids which is a powerful anti-inflammatories and also great for weight loss and skin conditions. 
You can also source appropriately-sized raw meaty bones.
Stick to lean bones such as chicken necks, lamb necks for small dogs and chicken frames and roo tails for medium to large dogs.

#4. Clean up their treats and measure the quantity given

Many treats are full of poor-quality fillers and artificial ingredients. Your pets’ treats should ideally be nothing but 100% dehydrated meat or organs or better yet, fresh fruit and vegetables

Try offering baby carrots, green beans, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, sliced apples and bananas or even ice cubes. Lamb puff made from dehydrated lamb lung is a favourite, low calorie but highly nutritious treat of mine (and my dogs’!)

Make sure you measure out how many grams of treats you will allow for the week and include this into their total grams of food per week.

#5. Quantify how much your pet is currently eating (including treats) and feed less

Overfeeding is the most common cause of weight gain and is very easy to do, but also very easy to correct! 

Start by cutting back the total volume by around 10-15% and weigh your pet fortnightly. If your pet hasn’t lost weight then continue cutting back by another 10-15% every fortnight. Going slowly will ensure your pet doesn’t notice but also avoids the hormonal complications of your pet going into “famine” mode.

#6. Make meals “last longer”

As mentioned, dogs are naturally scavengers, so get them hunting! 

If you’re feeding kibble, rather than feeding from a bowl, scatter their food around the garden so they have to sniff out each and every little kibble. 

This has the added benefits of keeping their minds active and increasing their activity levels whilst you’re at work. If you’re feeding a fresh food diet. 

Puzzle feeders can be purchased or made at home. Kongs (or similar) are ideal for fresh lean mince which can then be frozen and provide your pet with hours of enjoyment whilst you are at work.

#7. Increase your pet’s activity levels

Of course, going for longer walks and more frequently is a no-brainer, but this may not always be possible or sustainable in the modern-day busy lifestyle.

If you’re time poor, consider booking a dog walker or plan some puppy play dates so your pets can exercise whilst you socialise. You could also try incorporating your best mate into your own work-out, for example playing tug-o-war coupled with lunges – but check out YouTube for other ideas!

Make it fun! Your dog loves nothing more than playing with their best friend.

Even when you’re in sloth mode in front of the TV or working at your desk you could throw a ball or toy to keep your mate entertained and active.

To burn more calories in a shorter period of time, consider increased resistance exercises including swimming and walking in soft sand dunes and up steep hills.

# 8. Have annual blood testing performed

This is important for early detection of disease and can also screen for hormonal imbalances -including hypothyroidism and Cushing's - which can cause weight gain.

#9. Review the medications your pet is on

If your pet is on steroid or anti-anxiety medications, ask your vet if there are other options. A holistic vet may be able to provide more natural options. 

Get your pets started on their weight loss journey by downloading her e-book The Beginners' Guide to Feeding your Pet Naturally here. You'll save $5 if you use the special promo code DogLover

written by Dr Louisa Fenny (July 2020) for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the Writer

Dr. Louisa Fenny graduated from Murdoch University in 2005 and is a member of the Veterinary Surgeons Board of WA, NSW and QLD. Her business Dr Lu - Holistic Vet at Home provides a unique service to pet owners around Australia whom want to take a natural approach to their pet care.

After 10 years in conventional vet practice, Dr Lu became frustrated with the lack of results that traditional medicine provided for chronic health issues, and increasingly concerned with the side effects of mainstream drugs and routine care chemicals. This led her to expand her studies in Veterinary Herbal Medicine and is thrilled to be getting long term results by incorporating natural diets, evidence-based natural therapies and reduced chemical protocols into her patients’ treatment plans.

Dr Lu offers home visits to pet parents in Northern Rivers NSW & Gold Coast QLD, and video consults to pet parents Australia wide.

Dr Lu is passionate about wildlife conservation and spent several weeks volunteering with the bushfire-affected wildlife on Kangaroo Island in January 2020.

Louisa also featured alongside her veterinarian dad, Rick Fenny in national TV show Desert Vet which is currently filming Season Two.

For more information, please visit 
Connect with her on Facebook at or 

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