More than half the dogs in the United States are not at their ideal body weight. Obesity is a common concern and can result in health issues such as diabetes, joint disease, and stress on internal organs. At the same time, underweight dogs may be more prone to illness as well. One way to determine if your dog is at the ideal weight is to monitor its body condition score (BCS).
BCS is a way to visually evaluate your dog’s body composition and rate it on a numerical scale. There are two scales that can be used - one that rates dogs from 1 to 5 and one that rates dogs from 1 to 9. For both scales, 1 indicates a very thin dog. For the 5-point scale, 3 is ideal and 5 is obese. For the 9-point scale, 4 to 5 is ideal and 9 is severely obese. Despite the seemingly subjective nature of BCS, research has shown that BCS is related to body fat percentage. At the ideal BCS, the body fat is between 15 and 25 percent. A BCS of 7/9 is indicative of approximately 30 percent or more body fat, which is a critical level for obesity in humans. Studies have shown that dogs are less likely to have joint problems with aging if they maintain a BCS of 4 to 5/9. Dogs that have a BCS outside of the normal range should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the correct changes in diet and an exercise plan to reach the ideal weight.
There are differences in body condition scoring based on the breed of dog being assessed. Body condition on long-haired dogs may be more difficult to determine and palpation of the animal is critical to ensure that excess hair does not skew the scoring of the animal. Some breeds of dogs, such as greyhounds, have a higher percentage of lean muscle mass than other breeds of dogs, so at a BCS of 5/9, a greyhound may only have 7 percent body fat, much below the average. However, other breeds, such as huskies and rottweilers, may have a higher body fat percentage at the same BCS. It is estimated that these breeds have a body fat between 30 to 32 percent when the BCS is a 5/9.
Age of the animal will impact the BCS as well. Puppies are more difficult to score because they have less of a waist and abdominal tuck than an adult dog. However, these features should still be present when evaluating a puppy’s BCS. Overweight puppies, particularly of large breeds, are more prone to joint injury and more likely to develop arthritis later in life. In addition, as dogs age, they have a loss of lean muscle mass and an increase in body fat percentage. Therefore, older dogs may have a higher fat percentage at the same BCS when they reach their senior years.
To score your dog’s body condition, you need to perform a visual examination of the dog from the side and from above, as well as palpate the dog’s ribs and waist. Based on the scale provided you can determine the dog’s BCS. The characteristics of a dog at an ideal weight are the same, no matter which scale you choose.
When you look at your dog from above, you should be able to see a clear waist. If you place your hands so that your thumbs are near the spine and your fingers are behind your dog’s last rib, you should easily see that the waist is thinner than the ribs and goes out slightly at the pelvis. Another way to think of this is that you’re dog has an hourglass appearance from above if he has an ideal BCS. From the side, the dog’s abdomen should be clearly tucked up behind the ribs. You should be able to easily feel the dog’s ribs. To palpate the ribs, stand behind your dog so you are both facing the same direction. Place your thumbs near your dog’s spine behind its shoulders and then spread your fingers out over the dog’s ribs. At an ideal weight, the individual ribs should be easily felt with no excess fat covering.
To use the 9-point scale, view it here.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D. - University of Nebraska-Lincoln