Preventing Obesity


English bulldog isolated on a white backgroundHas your pet been putting on the pounds? Chances are you don’t know he’s overweight.

By Sam Smith

Trying to avoid those few extra pounds this winter? Be sure to keep your pet’s weight in mind, too, as you prepare those cold-weather treats.

Why worry? 

Because chances are your pet is overweight or obese and you don’t even know it, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). That’s not intended as an insult, APOP says. It’s cautionary, they say, because many conscientious pet owners simply fail to recognize their loved ones as overweight or obese.

So many, in fact, that a 2014 survey from APOP determined that about 90 percent of owners of overweight cats and 95 percent of overweight dogs misidentified their pets as keeping a healthy weight.

The good news is that in the majority of cases, simply reducing portions and limiting treats can help you and your pet reach a target weight, says Dr. Dan Nietz, a veterinarian and owner of Zumbrota Veterinary Clinic.

“Our bodies are set up to conserve resources,” Nietz said. “Our cats and dogs are no different.”

Keeping pets healthy through the winter can prove challenging, as owners frequently offer extra treats and exercise less, Nietz says. (Sound familiar? We’re thinking about cookies and chocolate right about now.)

“Pets respond so enthusiastically to treats that a lot of people equate food with love,” Nietz says.

Really, though, loving a pet sometimes requires the discipline to skip the treat and take Rover for a walk, instead. He will be happy with that, too.

“It’s really one of the best things people can do for their dogs,” Nietz says. “Weight control, just like with ourselves, sometimes requires a lot of self control. A huge part of it is exercise.”

Weight-loss Challenge

To encourage healthy weights among his patients, Nietz partners with pet food giant Purina to run Project: Pet Slim Down, a pet weight-loss program.

Zumbrota Veterinary Clinic hosts the program in summers, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with the aim of making it easier for owners to exercise their pets.

All participants weigh their dogs at the outset, and Neitz then confers with owners to establish healthy feeding routines and cheer them on. From there, it’s up to owners to follow through with exercise and healthy food regimens.

Purina, meanwhile, offers exercise advice and food coupons on the Slim Down website The company asks owners to commit to one type of exercise for their pets.

Suggestions are:

•  Increase walks/runs by 1 block each week

•  Complete a 5k race with your dog

•  Take a doga (dog yoga) class

•  Take your dog on a nature hike once a month

•  Play laser tag with your cat once a week

•  Find a new sport to play with your dog

•  Take your pet on a bike ride

As a way to encourage increased participation—and make a little fun out of things—Zumbrota Veterinary Clinic converts Project: Pet Slim Down into something similar to the prime-time television series Biggest Loser for canines.

Nietz and the clinic staff weigh participating pets every two weeks throughout the summer. The latest winner was a Chocolate Lab named Boomer, who went from 97 pounds to 77 and eventually leveled out at a vigorous 70 pounds.

Boomer and his owners did it by minimizing treats, using prescription weight-loss kibble and incorporating exercise.

Purina stepped in to reward the owners with free food for Boomer for a year.

Weighing the risks

So why is weight control so important in pets? For one thing, it’s almost as big a problem in pets as it is in people, Neitz says. The Centers for Disease Control estimates nearly 1 in 3 Americans are obese. APOP, meanwhile, estimates that over half of all dogs and cats are overweight or obese.

What that means for cats and dogs is similar to what it means for people: decreased overall lifespan, lower quality of life and higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoarthritis, kidney disease or cancer.

Most of our furry friends have comparable physiologies to us, Neitz says. What’s worse is that most pets lack the self-control to eat in healthy portions.

Ultimately, and with few exceptions, maintaining a healthy weight in your pet comes down to the same two things it does for people: fewer calories and more exercise.

So maybe this winter, instead of baking that pan of brownies, we can commit to bundling up and taking a short walk to the park. Who knows? Maybe you could even find a doga class or two.

Sam Smith is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Rochester. He has two dogs and two cats. At least one of them is overweight. (He’s working on it.)