For Overweight Dogs, Owner Behavior Matters

Interventions designed to change dog owners’ behavior help overweight dogs.

Posted Sep 22, 2018

It is estimated that up to 60% of pet dogs are overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity in dogs leads to increased risks of disease such as diabetes and osteoarthritis, and a shorter lifespan.

Most interventions change the dog’s diet to a special weight-loss food – but can interventions designed to change the owner’s behavior make a difference too?

Source: danbar44/Pixabay

The answer is yes, according to a review of the literature by Marta Krasuska and Thomas Webb (University of Sheffield) published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine.

The review concludes,

“Owners’ behaviour clearly contributes to ‘the obesity epidemic’ among companion dogs. Fortunately, behaviour can be changed and the present review suggests that interventions designed to help owners to change their behaviour with respect to their dogs can have beneficial effects on outcomes, particularly the condition of the dog.”

Dog owners are responsible for what their dog eats, taking the dog for walks and providing other exercise opportunities such as swimming and games of fetch, so it makes sense to target dog owners to try to improve dogs' weight.

The paper gives examples of some of the techniques that were designed to change owner behavior:

  • Setting goals for behaviors. For example, the owner could decide to walk the dog for a certain length of time every day. Or they could decide on a fixed number of treats to give the dog each day so they are not over-feeding.
  • Setting goals for outcomes, such as a certain amount of weight loss per week.
  • Increasing the owner’s knowledge about what and how much to feed the dog and how much exercise the dog should have.
  • Strategies to monitor behavior. For example, signage to show whether the dog has already been fed would mean the dog doesn’t get fed extra times.
  • Giving regular feedback by having the dog visit the vet regularly to be weighed.

Looking at the overall results across studies included in the review, interventions made a difference to both the owner’s behavior and to dogs’ body condition scores.

The review did not find differences between the effectiveness of particular behavior change techniques, although this could be because of the small number of studies. As well, the review found many studies are ‘underpowered’ – in other words there is a low probability they will show differences that might exist. Larger sample sizes are needed in future research.

Interestingly, the review did not find any differences in effectiveness between interventions based on theory and those that weren’t.

The review also notes there are many available techniques to change behavior, and only some of them have been tested in these studies.

The review identified 14 studies that tested the effects of interventions designed to change the behavior of people with overweight dogs. On average, interventions lasted for 3 and a half months. The studies looked at different outcomes from the amount of time spent walking the dog to the dog’s weight or body condition score.

Only a small number of studies were identified for inclusion in the review, and some are of low quality from a methodological perspective, showing a need for more research on this topic.

I think these results suggest it would be beneficial for dogs if there was more collaboration between veterinarians and psychologists to look at the most effective ways to change owners’ behavior when a dog is overweight.

Overall the results are promising because they show interventions designed to change the behaviour of the dog’s owner are an effective way to improve the dog’s body condition.

If you are concerned about your dog’s weight, speak to your veterinarian for advice.

If your dog is overweight, what strategies are you using to help your dog?


Krasuska, M., & Webb, T. L. (2018). How effective are interventions designed to help owners to change their behaviour so as to manage the weight of their companion dogs? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Preventive Veterinary Medicine.