By Carol McCarthy
We all know that body weight is not the only factor to determine whether we are too thin or too heavy. Muscle mass and body fat also come into play, which is why doctors often measure our Body Mass Index, a measurement that takes these factors into account in addition to the number on the scale. The same is true for dogs. Regularly weighing them is important, but to determine if your dog is under- or overweight, you will want to calculate his Body Condition Score (BCS).
This is a visual, hands-on assessment of your dog’s levels of lean muscle and fat and is an important measurement of his health, said Dr. Matthew Rooney, owner of Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists in Longmont, Colo. “Just as people need to maintain a good healthy body weight and condition […] a healthy BCS means that your dog is not too skinny or fat.”
This score adds much-needed value and context to what is otherwise just a number on a scale, agreed Dr. Susan O’Bell, staff veterinarian at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.
Here, find out how to understand how the scoring works and how to take this measurement at home.
How Does BCS Determine if a Dog is Over or Underweight?
A BCS is based on four criteria: how easily felt the ribs are, how obvious the waist and abdominal tuck is, how much excess fat is beneath the skin and how much muscle mass is present. For a dog to score in the healthy range, the ribs should be easy to feel (but not see) and a defined waist, or “abdominal tuck,” should be evident when your dog is viewed from the top and side respectively, O’Bell says. Depending on the thickness of your dog’s coat, you might have to feel for a defined waist or tuck if it is not readily visible.
An overweight dog would have a visibly sagging stomach, no discernible waist, ribs that are difficult to feel under fat and a back that is flat and broad. On a very underweight dog, ribs, spine and other bones would be visible from a distance. The higher the BCS, the fatter and less healthy the dog is, Rooney says, and conversely, the lower the score, the thinner the dog is. A too-thin dog can also be unhealthy.
Scoring is based on either a five or nine-point scale. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention offers guidelines with descriptions and images based on a five-point system, while O’Bell uses a nine-point system to score her patients. Using the nine-point scale, an ideal score is a four or five, with lower numbers (one to three) being too thin and higher numbers (six to nine) being overweight or obese, she says.
In general, a dog’s age does not come into play when measuring body condition, Rooney says. However, spaying or neutering your pet greatly influences metabolism, so you might need to discuss dietary changes with your vet to keep your dog in the healthy range after they have had this procedure. Also, aging pets tend to have more chronic health issues, which can reduce their amount of lean muscle mass and activity levels and can also require dietary changes to maintain health, O’Bell says.
How Can Pet Parents Measure Body Condition Score at Home?
Ask your vet for the scoring system he or she prefers or find a detailed scoring chart online. Your dog should be standing during the assessment. O’Bell describes how to assess your dog using the chart as guide:
To begin, gently press your hands over the rib cage. Individual ribs should be evident without having to press hard, but they should not be readily felt. There should be no overlying fat, and they should not be seen readily.
There should be a nice, seemingly proportionate “abdominal tuck” or “hourglass” when palpating your dog’s waist from the side or along his back. Physically palpating is particularly important in dogs with excess fur. Dogs that are too thin will have bony prominences, particularly over the hip bones, shoulder blades and ribs. Dogs who are obese will have excessive soft or fatty areas that are evident, and it will be more difficult or impossible to feel their ribs or hip bones.
Remember, measuring your dog’s BCS at home should not replace a veterinary visit. “Stay in close communication with your veterinarian if you think your dog's body weight and/or BCS is changing at all,” O’Bell says.
What Should Pet Parents do if Their Dog’s Score is Unhealthy?
“A very useful way for me to help clients know the ideal weight of their dogs is to see if we have a weight range in his history that matches up to a perfect four or five score on a nine-point scale,” O’Bell says. This can guide whatever steps are needed.
If your dog is overweight, Rooney suggests asking your vet about switching to diet dog foods or cutting back on the amount your dog is eating. “Introduce exercise gradually if your dog has been a couch potato, starting with a brisk walk of 10 to 15 minutes,” he adds. “It often takes two to three months for a dog to lose noticeable weight, so don’t try to rush it too much.”
If your dog is underweight — perhaps he is a new rescue who was underfed — consult your vet about a healthy way for him add weight. For example, Rooney says, higher-calorie diets are available. A dog that is too skinny might also be having difficulty eating, from teeth or jaw problems, Rooney added, or have problems with digestion or underlying illness. Always consult your vet to rule out illness.
Maintaining your dog's healthy weight is a perfect balance of scientific recommendations and common sense, O’Bell says. Rely on your veterinarian and monitor your dog’s diet between weigh-ins and BCS measurements.