Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Bogie the basset hound poses for a studio portrait.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Is Your Dog Overweight? You May Not Realize It.

We tend to have love blinders on when it comes to man's best friend—but here's what you can do to keep your dog healthy.

By now many of us have shelved our weight loss resolution in favor of some cookies.

What about man's best friend? This week we delve into doggie diets—whether they work and how to keep our pets as healthy as possible. (Read why dogs are even more like us than we thought.)

Weighty Issues

Canine obesity has become a major health issue: Between 22 and 40 percent of the world's dogs may be obese. The condition often leads to other problems, including diabetes and poor kidney and respiratory function.

When evaluating a dog's weight, vets do what's called a body condition score, which consists of "a visual and hands-on examination," says Alex German, small animal specialist at the U.K.'s University of Liverpool.

For instance, a dog at an ideal weight should have easily palpable ribs with minimal fat. A dog at a non-ideal weight may not have palpable ribs at all, and have a waist that's barely discernable from above.

If it seems like an overweight dog should be obvious to an owner, well, the eyes of love can be forgiving. (Are dogs smarter than cats?)

"There is a tendency to underestimate the score of your own dog," German says, similar to how "parents underestimate how overweight their own kids are."

Since canine obesity is so common, "most people wouldn't know if they're overfeeding their dog," says Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist at Oregon State University.

"The more they see other people's dogs of similar weight, it becomes harder and harder to recognize."

Healthy Diet

Experts recommend that dog owners work with their vets to determine the best diet for their canine—and if it's overweight, making sure the weight comes off at a safe pace.Recently, German co-authored the largest global study of weight loss in dogs, for which scientists recruited canines from 926 dogs in 27 countries.

Can Your Dog Understand What You’re Saying? WATCH: Brain scans of dogs show that they can understand both words and tone of voice. Video courtesy Attila D. Molnár,

The dogs put on a high-fiber, high-protein diet and a regimen of increased activity for three months lost an average of 11 percent of their body weight. Owners also reported decreases in food-seeking behavior and a better quality of life.

"The purpose of this study was not to ask the question does this diet work for weight loss in obese dogs (asked and answered!), but to see whether we could produce success across the world—different dogs in different countries," says German, a co-author on the paper. (Here's how we know dogs have feelings.)

Among the notable findings were that intact male dogs lost more weight than neutered dogs, according to the study, published in September 2017 in the journal PLOS ONE.

That's likely because neutered dogs tend to eat more often yet aren't as active as intact males—both factors leading to weight gain, says German.

Diets with a lot of fiber and protein are often advisable, since they can restrict calories, maintain nutrition, and "preserve lean mass and muscle during weight loss," he adds

Wag the Dog

Exercise geared to your pet's needs and abilities can also help shed pounds.

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Keeping your pup active is key to maintaining a healthy weight.

Often "dogs are really eager for activity," and often owners are just pressed for time to exercise them, Udell says. Thinking of exercise as a partnership where you’re getting fit together can help.

The important thing is that it's fun for both dog and owner.

"During that first 20 or 30 days when the habit is forming, it needs to be enjoyable," she says. For instance, too much too soon makes it "really easy to not stick with it."

Of course you can always give Fido a treat... but does that defeat the purpose of a weight-loss plan? (See "Can Dogs Feel Our Emotions? Yawn Study Suggests Yes.")

A better idea, Udell says, is to take the dog on a brisk 30-minute walk and give the them part of their breakfast as a reward.

Dogs evolved as scavengers, so "it’s not unusual for them to walk and eat, walk and eat," she says.

We call that Saturday. Time to get a dog.

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me or find me on Facebook. Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday.