Our inspiration for this article is the 2014 Westminster Dog Show's "Best in Breed" Labrador retriever. Her fat-rolls jiggle splendidly when she plumply trots. She is unable to maintain a jog for more than a few yards without panting heavily from the effort.

"But that dog looks pretty normal," the reader exclaims. "I see Labs like that everywhere I go!"

That's no surprise, since it's estimated that over half of American dogs are overweight. Fat is the new "normal". I have completely surprised people when I gently mention that their dog is overweight. One friend said he had been under the impression that it was all muscle!

Americans are rather paranoid about preventing the least trace of thinness. There is a certain wonderful, well-meaning person who asks each time she sees a dog with me, "My, she's so thin! Is she well?" If it's a foster dog, she asked "Was she abused? I can see her ribs!"

On the right is what a healthy weight looks like. From above as well as the side, the dog will have a discernible waist. On a short-haired dog, it will be fairly easy to spot the last rib.  For short and long-haired dogs, the dog's ribs can be felt with one's hand.

Granted, neither of these dogs are as short and ungainly as the current AKC preference for Labradors. But there is no breed of dog so "big-boned", "stocky", or "broad" that it's normal shape is "sausage". Not even a dachshund.

"I don't care what my dog looks like, I love her anyway!" the reader exclaims. "I don't want to starve her!"

Food is great. I'm not advocating malnourishment. But just like so many great social projects, what we intended as help can end up causing all sorts of undesirable side effects.

Joints, bones, and ligament strain. The extra weight most dogs carry causes great daily suffering. Towards the end of their lives, owners of heavy dogs are forced to heavily medicate and/or humanely euthanize them before their time. According to a recent study on hip dysplasia comparing free-fed and limited diet Labs, "More than 50% of the dogs in the restricted food group still had radiographically normal hips at 12 years old; in the other group, 90% were arthritic." Arthritis manifests as lethargy, difficulty standing or lying down, licking at joints, "bunny-hop", avoidance of play, limping and stiffness.

Chronic diseases. Healthy blood sugar levels, blood pressure, kidney health, and heart health are compromised earlier and more often in overweight dogs. Studies have found that being overweight shaves about 2 years off a dog's life. Cancer risk is also higher.

If you're looking at your precious pup right now thinking, "Gee, when was the last time I felt a rib?", don't despair! It's relatively easy to get weight off a dog. The very best way is rationing food. Cut back what your pet typically eats in a day by 1/3. Make the daily ration last longer by using it as rewards in short, fun training sessions. The extra mental exercise and time interacting with you will delight your dog.
The type of kibble you feed also makes a difference. Avoid high-carbohydrate (AKA sugar) feeds that have a lot of grain or potato. Choose a food that has meat as the first ingredient. Learn about quality ingredients at http://dogfoodadvisor.com

Exercise is also important but should be increased very gradually, and with minimal stress on the overloaded joints. Don't just decide one day start biking with your 100 lb, 8-year-old Labrador.  All that extra insulation over the dog's internal organs, plus the effort needed to haul extra weight, will drive a brave dog into heat exhaustion just walking around the block on a hot day. Swimming is a great low-impact activity, followed by brisk walking. Mental as well as physical exercise burns calories. Hide the ration of kibble around the house and have the dog go hunt for it. 

Few of us can run fast enough or long enough to give a healthy dog a serious workout. As the diet begins to thin the dog down to a safer weight, find activities that get the cardio rate up but are scaled to your dog's abilities and your own limitations, like playing with a flirt pole, ball, or tug, running on a treadmill, lure coursing, or urban mushing. You may find that you will shed some weight too as you engage more in your dog's health!

I've included lots of reference photos here so that readers can visualize what a healthy dog looks like. Seeing ribs on a short-haired dog is usually not a concern; seeing hip bones and vertebrae like the photo on the right is very worrisome! This dog is genuinely wasted by malnutrition. Dogs who are ill or starved are recognized by a lack of muscle rather than a lack of fat.

(Shasta Dogs is not affiliated with and does not receive financial gain from any company or product mentioned or linked on this page.)