Fat Cats, Poor Prognosis

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The saying goes that pets look like their owners. These days, that old saw holds more truth than ever, as the obesity epidemic expands to dogs and cats.

While the numbers are a little sketchier than in people, "obesity is a very significant problem in both dogs and cats," says veterinarian Scott Alan Brown, head of the small animal medicine department at the University of Georgia in Athens. "About one in five to one in three animals are overweight or obese."

Rocky and Fluff are born to be hunters and scavengers. But today they don't have to stalk prey or scrounge for a meal.

"We see large numbers of domesticated pets being fed very high quality food and living very sedentary lifestyles with very limited exercise," says Brown. "Quite honestly, it's analogous to what we see in the pet owners."

Lassie earned her chow by working the farm and rescuing Timmy. Pets now are "born retired," says veterinarian Marty Becker, co-author of "Fitness Unleashed: A Dog Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together" (Three Rivers Press; $13.95).

After sleeping the day away alone at home, Becker says that many animals spend their nights "collapsed in front of the television, watching 'Dancing With the Stars' with their owners." Plus, he notes that neutering an animal decreases its caloric needs by about 5 percent.

Sluggish metabolism, inactivity and overeating not only add pounds but also take a health toll: Hefty dogs and fat cats are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and cancer.

They frequently develop weight-related behavior problems, too. Mentally unchallenged and physically inactive pets "become very bored," Becker says. "So they act out in not very good ways with excessive barking, more anxiety and destruction. It's the number-one reason that pets are surrendered to shelters or euthanized."

Since dogs and cats don't control their food and can't usually determine when and how they are active, the responsibility for pet pounds rests with owners. Just as overweight parents are more likely to have overweight kids, so are heavy owners more likely to have fat pets.

What's more, about half of the owners of overweight pets can't identify their animals as such.

"We think that an overweight dog is a normal body weight," Becker says. "There's no bikini season for dogs or cats. They don't try on a pair of pants and find that they're too tight."

So veterinarians say owners need to learn to monitor their pets' weight -- by sight, by touch and with weigh-ins four to six times per year. Dogs should have a slight middle indentation -- not quite a waist -- when they stand and are viewed from overhead. You should feel -- but not see -- their ribs when you touch their sides.

Cats and smaller dogs can be weighed at home. Simply get on the scale with your pet in your arms. Then subtract your own weight. Check with your vet to see if the weight is within a healthy range for your pet.

It may be tempting to provide your pet with a bowl of food that can be eaten at any time. But veterinarians say it's better to feed animals at regular times, once or twice a day. Measure all food and don't offer table scraps. That only adds calories and less-desirable ingredients such as sodium, unhealthy fat and sugar.

For overweight animals, limit treats and gradually cut back on regular food -- either by portion control or by choosing a food that is lower in calories. Working with your veterinarian, aim for a safe but slow 1 to 2 percent weight loss per week. (It's especially important not to cut back suddenly on a cat's food, since doing so can produce a serious, and often fatal, liver problem.)

But what food should you choose: Canned? Dry? Even raw? "In general, foods that are sold at pet stores and vet offices are complete and balanced," Brown says. He also suggests choosing products certified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Regular exercise is also key to help cats and dogs maintain a healthy weight or lose extra pounds. Figure that dogs need to be walked at least 15 minutes, twice a day, says Brown. "The more the better."

Proceed gradually, however, in increasing physical activity for a dog that is middle-aged, sedentary or overweight. "They can become lame or sore, just like people," Brown says.

Getting fat cats to be active can be more challenging. Becker advises dividing food into three of four portions and placing them around the house to help cats burn a few more calories. As he says, "put less food in their bowls and more miles on their feet."

Sage advice for pet owners, too. ยท

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