As I’ve met with clients recently, one thing I’ve been struck by is the number of overweight dogs.

According to a 2013 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 52.6 percent of all dogs in the U.S. are overweight. However, 93 percent of the owners of the obese dogs thought their dogs’ weight was normal.  APOP calls this the “fat gap” and considers it the primary factor in the pet obesity problem.

There are many risks associated with canine obesity.  Osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart disease, joint injury, urinary incontinence in spayed female dogs, dermatitis, increased surgery and anesthesia risk, various forms of cancer and decreased life expectancy are all linked to this condition.

Dr. Joe Bartges, a veterinary nutritionist and internist who is an APOP board member and the head of the Small Animal Clinical Sciences department at the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said, “The body of evidence indicating that obesity causes costly and painful conditions is clear. Without the obesity risk factor in place, the likelihood of pets getting many serious diseases is inarguably reduced.”

APOP’s survey found that 42 percent of pet owners admitted they don’t know what a healthy weight for their pet looks like.

The best way to determine this is to ask your vet. He can give you a hands on lesson in determining your dog’s level of fitness. There are some things you can do at home to assess your dog, too.  First of all, look at your dog from above. He should have a definite waist. If he’s one width from his shoulders to his hips, or if he gets wider the farther back you look, he’s overweight. Your dog should also have a “tuck up.”  When viewed from the side, rather than a flat line from front to back he should get smaller in front of his hind legs.

You can use your hands.  You shouldn’t be able to see your dog’s ribs, but you should be able to feel them easily.  If that seems confusing, make a fist.  With your other hand, rub your fingers across the back of your hand, the base of your fingers, and your knuckles.  Now run your fingers over your dog’s ribs.  If it feels like the base of your fingers, he’s just right. If it feels like your knuckles, your dog may be too thin, and if it feels like the back of your hand, he’s too heavy.

If you realize your dog is obese, you need to take action. Diet and exercise are the keys, just as with our own waistlines. If your dog is a couch potato, start adding some activity to his daily routine. Start slowly, but walking, jogging or retrieving sessions can be very beneficial.

If you free feed your dog – that is, you try to keep his bowl full so he can eat when he wants to – stop doing that.  Limit your dog to two meals a day and regulate the amount you’re feeding him.  If you aren’t using a regular measuring cup, use whatever scoop you typically employ to fill your dog’s dish with his normal portion. Then use a measuring cup to determine just how much that is. With a medium- or large-sized adult dog, a good tool is to reduce his daily food intake by half a cup for two weeks then re-assess. With a smaller dog or puppy, you can reduce by a quarter daily and re-evaluate in a week’s time. Understand that the feeding guidelines on the back of the food bag are just that, and the recommendation is typically on the generous side.

If you give your dog lots of table food, you’ll need to stop doing that. Pay attention to the number of treats he gets too, as most treats are high in fat and the extra calories add up quickly. Break larger treats in small pieces or measure out a portion of your dog’s daily food allowance and use his kibble as a treat.  You can also use baby carrots, snap green beans, ice cubes, apple wedges or pieces of plain rice cakes, which are naturally low in fat.

If your dog acts constantly hungry, consider giving him a filler. Green beans, whether fresh, no salt canned or frozen, are a great add in. They are high in fiber, which will help fill him up, but very low in calories. Fresh, frozen or no-salt added green beans are great additions to go along with your pet’s meals.

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is vital for his overall health and longevity. While it can be difficult to “deprive” your dog, in the long run his added energy, vitality and lifespan will make it worthwhile.

Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.