Is Fido too fat? Pet obesity is growing (surprise!)

Have you become a human Pez dispenser for dog treats? Is your dog's idea of a walk that what occurs in between the sofa and the door to the backyard? Where is Michelle Obama when we need her? Never mind the first lady; why is Bo, the first dog, not chasing his tail over this?

Certainly childhood obesity has become the cause celebre, with good reason. Was there any doubt that concern over pet obesity would be far behind?

According to Bloomberg/Businessweek, Americans spent an astonishing $41 billion on their pets in 2007, nearly half of that on veterinarian services. Little wonder a thriving industry has arisen to help owners combat the battle of Bandit's bulge.

Board-certified veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, an expert on pet nutrition and obesity who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and serves on a federal USDA panel that is defining standards for organic pet food, says that about a third of all dogs are obese or overweight.

"There is no single greater factor that contributes more directly to a pet's health than diet," he said. And just like with humans, the mantra to fix the problem is eat less, eat healthier, and exercise more.

Industry has risen to the bait. Pet owners in New York City (where else?) can take Checkers to a dog sports and fitness center that will pair him up with a marathon-level runner to whip him into shape. Purina's Project Pet Slim Down has a "Biggest Loser" kind of 90-day pet weight-loss challenge, chronicled through online videos. (Courtney, an 8-year-old Shih Tzu, lost 20% of her body weight in program. Way to go, Courtney.)

There are even web sites, like, to offer support during the rough moments -- like how to gently tell Buddy the Beagle that you just tossed all his biscuits into the garbage can but maybe he would like a nice yummy carrot to munch on instead?

One of the problems is that it's actually hard to tell whether your dog or cat is overweight, Moser said. And you can't trust the feeding guide on the dog food bag to be accurate for your specific pet. Many owners think their dog intuitively knows how much to eat and will simply stop chowing down when he or she is full. Not so, Moser said. He advises checking with your local vet to evaluate your pet's weight-appropriateness.

Is it really that big a deal if Fido is carrying some extra baggage? A study of Labrador retrievers a few years ago found that those who were thinner were healthier and lived about 1.5 to 2 years longer than those were overweight.

Moser said that table scraps may not represent all things evil, but they can't be more than 5% to 10% of a pet's caloric intake a day. Vegetables and fruits are fine because they have a high water content, but keep away from the fats in meat or the sugars in sweets. And no grapes or raisins, please. Onions and garlic tends to upset a pet's GI system.

Moser recently appeared on "The Dog Talk Show," a radio show that bills itself as "an evolved perspective on life with dogs." How has Howard Stern missed this one?

Dr. Ernest Ward of Calabash, North Carolina, was clearly ahead of the pet-obesity curve. Back in 2005, he founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, of which he remains president. He's a triathlon and sports endurance coach, presumably for humans, and author of "Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs are Getting Fatter -- a Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives."

His website provides a nifty calorie comparison chart for the various major brands of dog foods. "Obesity is the greatest threat our pets face. And sadly, it's a people problem, not a pet problem -- we make the choices."

What can you do to help your pet slim down? The same mantra they chant at Weight Watchers applies here: Portion control.

Don't eyeball what you think is a cup of kibble; actually measure it, says Tracie Hotchner, author of "The Dog Bible" and "The Cat Bible" and host of NPR's "Dog Talk" and the Martha Stewart Channel's "Cat Chat" on Sirius Radio.

"Raise the protein, lower the processed carbs and watch the portion control," she says. She also suggest getting a smaller bowl. "The bigger the bowl, the more you're going to put in it," she says. By the way, this is for you, not the dog. You are doing it so you won't feel like you cheated your pet or shortchanged him. Guilt and our desire to make our pets happy are big motivators in why we overfeed.

She suggests removing all biscuit treats treats from the house (she calls them "deadly") and if you must use treats, make them high protein ones. Specifically, she recommends dried chicken breast, and freeze-dried chicken, liver or salmon treats, all available in Petco's natural food section.

Cats are a different story. They can't healthfully process carbohydrates, Hotchner says. Cats are obligate carnivores and should only be fed wet cat food in a can; 10% carbs are all they can handle. She blames dry food for obesity and diabetes in cats.

The experts all admit one thing: habits are indeed hard to break. But Hotchner suggests you turn the tables, next time you go to feed your cat just to shut him up: "Would you stick a donut in your kid's mouth every time she said 'Hi Mom?'"

Something to chew on, indeed.
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