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  • Writer's pictureNancy Veterinary Physiotherapist

Research Review: Is weight loss the key to success?

For those of you who have an animal with arthritis, or for those of you who suffer with arthritis yourself, you may already know that weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight is a key part of managing the condition in the long term.

When you think about it is really very simple. During any activity, our joints are working hard to create movement and also stabilise the body in an upright position. Body weight acts as a downward force, working against the joints. The more weight we therefore carry, the more pressure is applied upon the joints.

In cases of arthritis, whether it be mild, moderate, or severe, there is likely to be some associated joint pain. The addition of extra weight which is over the ideal, increases the pressure on these already sore joints, increasing the pain even more. This then has a knock on effect, as the animal will make changes to the their movement to avoid the pain.

For example if a dog has arthritis of the hip joint, normal flexion and extension of the joint will cause discomfort. They will adapt their movement to reduce these movements in the hip, instead adopting a 'waddling gait' swinging the leg out and round. They may also start to over use their front legs to pull themselves forward, rather than powering from the back legs. This change in normal gait, will cause over used muscles to become tight and sore, and under used muscles to become weak. You can see how one issue of being over weight leads to multiple other problems.

So, what does the research say?

There have been several research papers published investigating how changes to a dog's diet can help to manage or prevent osteoarthritis (OA).

One study looked at the effect of weight loss, plus a physiotherapy programme, on lameness in overweight dogs with OA (Mlacnik et al., 2006). The trial followed 29 overweight dogs, and after 6 months on a calorie reduced diet, there was an average weight loss of 11.5%. Physiotherapy techniques used included massage, range of motion, and electrotherapy. Lameness scores also improved, as well as pain scores when the joints were manipulated, showing an overall improvement in comfort. Overall this research suggests that weight loss combined with physiotherapy, will help to improve signs related to OA.

In a similar trial, overweight dogs with hip OA, lost between 11-18% of their initial weight, whilst on a calorie restricted diet (Impellizeri et al., 2000). By the end of the trial, hind limb lameness had significantly improved, proving that excess weight does make the difference in causing joint pain in dogs with OA.

Other research has investigated whether the development of OA can be prevented or slowed down, by feeding a low calorie diet for life. Results found that the severity of shoulder OA was significantly lower when diet was restricted (Runge et al., 2008). Calorie restriction also worked as a technique to slow the progression of elbow OA (Huck et al., 2009). These studies highlight the importance of keeping your dog at a healthy weight from the start of life, rather than working on weight loss once it becomes a problem for your dog.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of weight loss for your pet, or if you are struggling to get your pet's weight down, please speak to myself or your vet. Weight loss programmes can be hard to stick to, especially when your dog gives you those puppy dog eyes! I am happy to offer guidance and support to owners, to help with the process and to get your animal feeling happier, healthier and lighter ~ they will really reap the benefits in the long term.


Huck, J., Biery, D., Lawler, D., Gregor, T., Runge, J., Evans, R., Kealy, R. and Smith, G. (2009) 'A longitudinal study of the influence of lifetime food restriction on development of Osteoarthritis in the canine elbow'. Veterinary Surgery, 38, 192-198.

Impellizeri, J., Tetrick, M. and Muir, P. (2000) 'Effect of weight reduction on clinical signs of lameness in dogs with hip osteoarthritis' Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 216, 7.

Mlacnik, E., Bockstahler, B., Muller, M., Tetrick, M., Nap, R. and Zentek, J. (2006) 'Effects of caloric restriction and a moderate or intense physiotherapy program for treatment of lameness in dogs with osteoarthritis'. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 229, 11.

Runge, J., Biery, D., Lawler, D., Gregor, T., Evans, R., Kealy, R., Szabo, S. and Smith, G. (2008) 'The effects of lifetime food restriction on the development of osteoarthritis in the canine shoulder'. Veterinary Surgery, 37, 102-107.

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