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THE PET CONNECTION
By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

Obese Pets, Like Obese Humans, Can Have Health Problems

Reports that Americans are getting fatter doesn’t come as a surprise to the many of us who get on a scale regularly. And it certainly isn’t news to veterinarians, who’ve been watching an ever-larger flow of fatter people bring fatter pets into their hospitals and clinics.

Although there’s not always a connection — the dog-show world is full of large people with lean, well-conditioned animals — most dogs, cats and even birds are getting larger for the same reason people are: too much food and not enough exercise.

Obesity in pets causes a lot of the same problems it does in people. An overweight pet is prone to a host of related problems, including: diabetes, joint, ligament and tendon difficulties, breathing and heart challenges. Overweight cats can even develop skin problems from not being able to groom themselves properly. The overall impact on comfort and longevity can be dire.

The good news is that it’s not as difficult to trim down pets as it might be to fight your own battles with the bulge. After all, pets can’t open the refrigerator on their own, nor can they grab the car keys for a fast-food run or phone out for pizza. What pets eat is wholly dependent on what we give them. And although we might shudder at the idea of exercise, our pets are always up for a brisk walk, a game of fetch, or some play with a toy on a string. They love to move, especially if we’re moving with them.

Is your pet overweight? Healthy pets have some padding on them, but a little is plenty. Rub your hands over the ribs of your dog or cat. The skin should move easily back and forth, and you should be able to feel the ribs. Your pet should have a definable “waist” at the bottom of the rib cage, a small tuck-in at the stomach. Take a look from the side: If your pet looks pregnant, he’s fat. From above, a bump out from the middle into an apple shape is equally bad news. In birds, look for a thicker breast or rolls of fat.

Certain breeds and species seem more susceptible to spread. In dogs, Labradors beef up pretty easily, as do cockers and beagles. Less-active cats such as Persians are more prone to gaining weight than the go-go breeds such as the Siamese. And in birds, Amazon parrots are the likeliest candidates to become perch potatoes.

Crash diets aren’t good for pets, especially not for fat cats, who can develop a fatal liver problem if forced to reduce too quickly. A pet doesn’t get fat overnight, and he shouldn’t be forced to change course any more rapidly. What you’ll need to do is change your pet’s eating and exercise habits gradually.

The best place to start is with a trip to your veterinarian. You’ll want to make sure your pet doesn’t have any problems that might make lifestyle changes difficult or dangerous. Your vet can also suggest a food plan that might help.

Carve some time out of your schedule to walk your dog or play with your cat — three times a week, at least. Be sure to work in some aerobic exercise, anything that gets a cat or dog running. Birds can benefit from a curled-rope spring perch; they have to work to stay on the thing, decreasing boredom and increasing calorie burn.

Whatever food regimen you and your veterinarian decide on, be determined to stick to it. Get out of the habit of expressing love for your pets by constantly handing them treats. Substitute mini rice cakes and small carrot sticks for the occasional dog treat. Dogs like them just fine, and they’re not going to sabotage any weight-loss efforts.

Yes, it’ll be hard in the beginning, what with those begging eyes and all. But don’t give in. Your pet’s life will be happier and longer if he’s not burdened by obesity.