Muscle mass and body fat determine whether we are at health risk from our weight being too high or too low. Human doctors use Body Mass Index (BMI) scores to evaluate a patient’s health risks. The number on the scale does not always tell the whole picture of our pet’s physical well-being. The weight of your dog is only part of what shows his fitness and reveals any health risks. Dogs have their own way to be determined if they are over or underweight. Knowing your pet’s Body Condition Score (BCS) is a valuable measurement of their wellness.
A dog’s BCS is a visual assessment that is hands-on as well. It evaluates the amount of lean muscle and fat your dog carried and if your dog may benefit from a change in diet if lacking in muscle mass or having a high percentage of body fat for their breed and weight. A healthy BCS validates the findings of the scale and makes sure that your dog is fit. Just like us humans, the same weight is not healthy for all dogs and some dogs can be determined to be needing to lose or gain weight by examining and establishing your dog’s BCS.
The BCS Criteria
Scoring is based on numeric scales. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention offers guidelines on a five-point system. Many vets, however, use a nine-point scale for their canine patients. The middle is a healthy medium. An ideal score is four or five on the nine-point scale. Lower scores (one to three) indicate a dog is too thin and higher scoring dogs (from six to nine) are considered overweight to obese.
Body Condition Score uses how easily a ribcage is felt, the visibility of a waistline and abdominal tuck and how thick a layer of fat or muscle is palpable under a dog’s skin. A healthy dog will have ribs that can be felt in the exam but not seen. When viewed from above, your dog should have a defined waist where the body narrows below the ribcage. A dog should not be tube-shaped. When viewed from the side. A dog with a good body condition has an abdominal tuck where the abdomen goes up. For breeds with thick or double coats or long hair, it can be harder to see the waist or tuck and the dog can be stroked along to feel for these curves.
A high BCS shows a dog that is in poor condition and is overweight. This is a dog who is not fit or in optimal health condition. A dog with a high BCS would a protruding drooping belly, have no waistline and ribs that either cannot be felt at all because of a layer of fat over them and be shapeless. A “keg with legs” describes an obese dog. It may sound adorable, but it is not healthy.
Underweight dogs have a low BCS. They appear emaciated and have very visible ribs and can even have their vertebrae easily seen. They have exaggerated sunken in waists and dramatic abdominal tucks. When examined by hand, they have a feeling of skin over bone and no padding beneath it.
A dog’s age does not have a huge impact on their BCS until they become geriatric typically, but BCS can be changed by chronic health conditions and even neutering or spaying your pet, as all responsible pet owners should do unless breeding one’s pet, can slow a pets metabolism down and require small dietary changes.
To determine your pets BCS at home you can examine for these characteristics:
- You should ideally be able to feel your dog’s ribcage without having to press hard. By gently moving over his ribcage, you should feel individual ribs. The ribs should not be visible looking at the dog and there should likewise be no fat hiding them. A dog who has proper health and conditioning can have their ribs felt but not seen
- When viewed from above, a dog should have an hourglass-like shape where the ribcage stops, and the abdomen starts. You should be able to feel the outline of your dog with your hands gently and not pressing into a dog to find these traits. If your dog has any areas where they have fat joggling or are without tone, the dog is overweight. An underweight dog will be very bony feeling and seen knobby. You should not be able to see a dog’s pelvic bone easily nor the vertebrae. On a fat dog, there are barely palpable or visible bones. A healthy dog is balanced in the mid-range.
Your vet will evaluate your pet’s BCS every visit, but if you as an owner notice a change, you may want to take your dog to the vet for a checkup. The vet can also offer advice and practical information that can help your dog become healthier. Overweight dogs lose weight slowly so being patient with your rotund companion is needed. For dogs that are sedentary, exercise needs to be introduced slowly. Canine CrossFit or the equivalent can harm an overweight dog. Extending daily walks to just 10-15 minutes and a change of food or treat reeducation can allow a dog to show weight loss in about eight to twelve weeks if successful. Being active with our pets also improves our health so we get the benefit of being good caregivers to our pets.
If you have a rescue pup that had malnutrition or was underfed, there are special calorie-rich diets that can help a dog gain weight and focus that gain on lean muscle mass. Some dogs lose weight because of dental diseases that make eating painful or have food allergies even. A vet can diagnose why your dog is underweight but treat any undiagnosed health conditions causing it.
Having a dog that is in a healthy condition, not just at the ideal number on the scale, means you’re doing the best for your pet and if your dog’s BCS is not in the healthy range, a responsible pet owner can take measures to change the pets lifestyle, diet and monitor their BCS to ensure they stay healthy.