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No Weigh!

a bowl of dog food on a wooden floor

Everyone knows it is important to maintain our dogs at a correct weight. Dogs that are overweight die at a younger age and have more health problems. One study of 50,000 dogs showed that the financial impact of having an obese dog was over $2,000 a year!

One study of 50,000 dogs showed that the financial impact of having an obese dog was over $2,000 a year!

Knowing this, determining whether our dogs are at the correct weight is critical. Some people use the Purina Body Condition Score (BCS), a 9-point scale that uses a visual and descriptive assessment of the dog to evaluate their dogs’ weight. Royal Canin has a similar scale that ranges from 1 to 5. The biggest benefit of these scoring systems is that it is easy for most people to assign a score based on looking at their dog and feeling beneath the coat.

But in my opinion, there are several significant problems with these methods of body condition scoring:
  1. When the Purina Body Condition Score states that for a score of 5 the dog should have “ribs palpable without excess fat covering and abdomen tucked up,” it is way too vague. How hard should you press to feel the ribs? How much is excess fat covering?
  2. This description might apply to short-coated, average-structured dogs like Labrador Retrievers, but what about dogs with big barrel chests and heavy, wavy or sculpted coats such as Bernese Mountain Dogs or Portuguese Water Dogs? Or dogs with naturally tucked-up abdomens such as Whippets?
  3. Purina’s own study showed that a dog with a BCS of 5 could have a body fat percentage anywhere between 13 and 22 percent. That range is so broad that I personally don’t feel that the BCS method is accurate enough to help us keep our dogs at a healthy weight.
What about actually weighing our dogs on a scale? That system also has numerous inherent problems. Here are just a few:
  1. There is no ideal weight for any given dog. Dogs vary too much in size and structure for us to state their ideal weight. In fact, if you ask your veterinarian how much weight your dog should lose, they are just making a wild guess! I’ve asked hundreds of veterinarians about this and they all agree.
  2. You should track your dog’s body condition weekly, but your home scale is highly inaccurate for dogs that weigh 20 lbs. or less. For larger dogs, using your home scale means having to lift your dog, have someone else tell you how much both you and your dog weigh (because you can’t read the scale with the dog in your arms), then subtracting to calculate your dog’s weight. That means having to face what you weigh and realize that the person who read the weight of you and your dog combined is probably guessing at your own weight. Most people won’t go through that hassle.
  3. Weighing your dog doesn’t differentiate between dogs that are fat and those that are fit. We definitely want our dogs to be fit and well-muscled, but a well-muscled dog might weigh more than an overweight, weaker dog of a similar size and structure.

There’s a better way that is just as easy, faster, and way more accurate! Just feel the thickness of your dog’s subcutaneous fat over the last few ribs. Here’s how to do it.

Tissue Tent Test

  1. With your dog standing, locate the area of the last 3 to 4 ribs, about 1/3 of the way down from the topline (Figure 1).
  2. With your thumb and index finger parallel to the ground, press deeply in towards the ribs and, while continuing to press on the ribs, pinch your thumb and index finger together, grasping all of the tissues between your fingers. Then stop for a count of three, still grasping the tissues.
  3. Next, while still tightly pinching the tissues, slowly pull away from the ribs. Almost immediately you will feel a layer of slightly bumpy-textured tissue slip through your fingers in the direction of the red arrow in Figure 2. That’s your dog’s layer of subcutaneous fat.
  4. Feel again as many times as needed. Estimate how thick that fat layer is. It should be no thicker than a folded piece of duct tape. Yes, it should be that thin. Don’t worry! There is still an abundant fat pad in the abdomen in case your dog needs to use it.
Tissue Tent Test
Tissue Tent Test – Figure 1. To palpate the layer of subcutaneous fat, pinch the tissues in the area of the last few ribs (green spot), just below the latissimus dorsi muscle (red). In that area, there is just skin and subcutaneous fat overlying the ribs.
Tissue Tent Test
Tissue Tent Test – Figure 2. When the mobile skin and subcutaneous tissues over the rib cage are pinched and pulled away from the ribs, the layer of subcutaneous fat slips through the fingers first, in the direction of the red arrow.

Many people can’t feel that fat layer over the ribs at first, and usually it’s because they aren’t grabbing enough tissue, or they are letting go of the pinch when moving away from the ribs. So, remember: pinch deep, grasp all the tissues, pause while still holding tight, and continue pinching as you pull the tissue tent away from the ribs.

I recommend that you use the Tissue Tent Test weekly to monitor your dog’s body fat layer and adjust its food intake appropriately. Never feed your dog the same amount of food week after week. Your dog’s energy requirements vary with the amount of exercise he or she gets, so you should increase or decrease their food intake accordingly.

By following this fast, easy method, your canine companion will live a longer, healthier life. And who doesn’t want that?