If you're an overweight, unhealthy couch potato, chances are your dog is, too. And that's a situation Dr. Marty Becker is trying to change.
"I was born and raised on a ranch, and we had working dogs. Weight wasn't an issue," says Becker, the veterinary correspondent for "Good Morning, America" and co-author with physician Dr. Robert F. Kushner of the new book "Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together" (Three Rivers Press, $14). "But I started practicing in 1980, and as the years marched on, I saw fatter and fatter dogs come in. The owners complained the dogs had no energy, and the dogs developed health problems as well."
The increase of obese pets mirrors the increase of obesity in people, says Becker, and the reasons for fat in both people and pets are much the same: too much food and not enough exercise. "Fitness Unleashed" is a plan to deal with both.
"One in two pets is overweight, and one in two people," he says. "People and pets are both trapped in bodies that make them tired and sick, and I asked myself how could that be changed."
Becker got in touch with Kushner, an expert on human obesity and author of "The Personality Type Diet" (St. Martin's, $15). The two decided to work together to produce a plan that built on Kushner's PPET (People and Pets Exercising Together) study, developed in conjunction with the pet-food company Hills. PPET revealed that walking a dog is one form of exercise people are likely to stick with.
"People who decide to walk for the health of their dogs are successful because they take responsibility for helping someone they love get healthy -- their dog. They wind up helping themselves by extension," says Becker. "That was the piece that made it work."
The veterinarian also says it helps that dogs are the most reliable exercise partners imaginable, always ready and more than willing to get you walking. "A dog never has a better offer and never offers another idea to get you off track," he says. "Your husband calls and says, 'Let's meet for supper tonight,' and that's the end of your exercise plan for the night. Your dog won't do that."
A dog can also be a reliable motivator. "To a dog, 'now' doesn't mean 15 minutes later," says Becker. "If you get a dog in the habit of going for a walk at 4 p.m., he'll remind you when it's time to go."
A program for walking isn't expensive -- good shoes and a couple of pieces of dog-walking equipment (see sidebar) are all you need. But that doesn't mean you can just snap a leash on your overweight pet and the two of you can toddle off on a long hike in the hot afternoon. The book takes a positive, practical approach to evaluating your dog's fitness level and your own, and then developing a program to get you both going gradually without injuries or other setbacks.
"Anybody can walk a dog, and that's the beauty of it," says Becker, whom I've known for years and with whom I'm currently writing two pet books for release this fall. "But you need to know what you're doing to prevent injury, to adapt to seasons and to adjust for mismatches when a person needs less or more exercise than the pet. We cover it all."
Spring is the perfect time to start, no matter the age and fitness level of you or your dog. Unlike those New Year's resolutions for demanding, disheartening and likely-to-fail programs that require expensive equipment or monthly memberships, all you need to get healthy by walking is a little expert guidance and your dog.
"Call it Bow-Wow Flex," says Becker, "but walking is the basis for a perfect program for losing weight and keeping it off for both the owner and the dog."
Dog walks without the pulling
A walking program for you and your dog won't get very far if getting out isn't a pleasant experience. A dog who pulls you down the street doesn't make for a good exercise companion.
A front-clip harness, such as the Easy Walk made by Premier (www.premier.com), is now recommended by many dog trainers. The harness is comfortable for the dog to wear, and it works to train him not to pull by making the dog's own forward motion work against him. Most dogs learn quickly to quit pulling.
Combined with a high-quality 6-foot leash that's comfortable to hold, a front-snap harness will get you and your dog both comfortably on the road to fitness. Before you hit the streets, don't forget to pack plastic bags for cleanups!
Fence can give a dog courage
Q: Our dog and our neighbor's dog run along our common fence line, barking, snarling and pawing at the fence. When they were younger, they were OK with each other. But now, besides the noise, we worry about this aggression.
Aside from this, our dog seems fine with other dogs. We've taken care of other dogs for friends, and he is friendly with other dogs on walks. What can we do? -- F.R., via e-mail
A: Fence-fighting is a common behavior that can be a result of two dogs being stuck in an unnatural situation, says dog-trainer Brian Kilcommons, author of many top-selling books and a new DVD, "My Smart Puppy, With Brian Kilcommons." He says that since neither dog on either side of a fence can go through normal greeting behavior, the situation can quickly become one where each dog ends up snarling canine insults at the other.
Calm the situation by keeping the dogs apart away from the fence line. You can either coordinate the schedule for letting the dogs out at different times with your neighbor, or divide one or both yards to keep the dogs away from the common fence. Without the trigger of having the other dog so close, the fence-running and the barking should greatly diminish.
It's not unusual for a dog who is fine in other situations to develop a nasty personality when behind a fence, says Kilcommons. "Some shy or unconfident dogs appear to get bolder when they are safe behind a fence," he says. "They run up and down, barking canine cusswords at all who pass. But take them out from behind that fence and off their territory, and they suddenly become a 'Meek Melvin.'
"Other dogs are strongly territorial but much less aggressive off their property. And some have learned to amuse themselves by racing up and down the fence line barking."
Q: Our cat had a problem with pimples on her chin. Our veterinarian asked if we had a plastic dish. When we switched to a ceramic dish, the problem disappeared. Would you please tell others about this? We didn't know. -- L.W., via e-mail
A: Although some feline acne can be triggered by an allergy to plastic, other cats may need other remedies to fix this not uncommon but not serious problem.
Although most classic acne cases occur in cats who are simply not good chin groomers, there are other possibilities, including mites, ringworm and various allergies. As you've done, checking in with the veterinarian will help get to the bottom of the problem. If switching the bowl doesn't work, washing the area frequently may, or medications may be needed clear things up.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Are otter deaths linked to cats?
The recent Pet Connection article on the CatGenie, an automatic cat-waste disposal system, triggered concerned e-mails about the reported link between cat feces and otter deaths. A study at the University of California-Davis suggests that toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite transmitted in the feces of cats, is killing sea otters along the California coast.
But the issue of what to do with cat waste -- or indeed any pet waste -- is more complicated than the cat vs. otter issue first appears.
It's essential to understand that the condition of waste when it ends up in rivers depends on how it enters the system. The main concern with cat waste is not with what's flushed down a toilet and heads through a sewage treatment facility, but rather with the waste from pet and feral cats who use the outdoors as their bathroom. This mess gets washed off the land and ends up in the storm drain system, which goes directly into rivers without treatment.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Agency recommends that pet waste be either flushed or bagged up and put in the trash (where local regulations allow) rather than be allowed to wash off the land. (More information on the impact of pet waste on the environment is at www.epa.gov/safewater/protect/pdfs/petwaste.pdf, although the document doesn't specifically address the otter issue.)
Sending cat waste through the sewage treatment system via the toilet or a CatGenie may not kill the hardy parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, but it will kill other common organisms that cause nasty diseases in humans and other animals.
Also, it's important to understand that all cat box fillers have an environmental impact of one kind or another. Some fillers require mining operations to obtain them, and all require some form of manufacturing that uses energy. Transporting tons of cat-box filler to market uses fossil fuels, and contaminated litter put in the trash -- even if bagged up -- has an impact on landfills.
In other words: There are no easy answers.
"We're certainly not anti-otter," says Rick Mellinger, president of the PetNovations, which makes the CatGenie. "But we think the issue is more complicated than sound bites suggest. It seems the problem with what's entering the system is not coming from the sanitary systems -- what goes down the toilet. It's coming from runoff, through the storm drainage system, from outdoor cats."
"Also, it needs to be noted that cats who spend their lives inside are less likely to have these parasites than outdoor or feral cats who hunt," he says.
Are there other options for pet waste disposal? The EPA says it's OK to bury pet waste, as long as it's in a hole at least a foot deep covered with several inches of soil and the holes aren't near the vegetable garden. As for composting, that's out if you have cats or dogs. The waste of these pets cannot be safely composted, although vegetarian pets such as rabbits turn out waste that's fabulous for the compost pile.
Dog a mooch? Don't blame the pooch
Puppies soon recognize that people are a source of food, not only at mealtime but also at what at first seems to be random intervals. Sometimes the food seems to be connected to something, a reward for learning and performing a desired behavior.
Other times, though, a dog's cuteness means we reward them for pestering us. When we like the behavior, we call it "sharing." When we don't, we call it "begging." But we're the ones who control the behavior.
Do you think your dog would be begging now if the first few times he tried it he got nothing for his efforts? After this habit sets, some dogs can be very persuasive. If you never want your dog to stick his nose in your dinner plate, put his head on your knee or paw at your arm, then don't ever reward him for doing so by giving him food.
As your dog gradually becomes convinced that he will never again see another piece of food delivered from your plate, he'll stop asking.
If you're inconsistent, you'll actually make the problem worse. Random reinforcement is a powerful force -- it's what keeps the gaming industry afloat. We keep pulling the handle on slot machines because we get a little back now and then. And because sometimes, we hit the jackpot. Dog trainers use these principles to instill good behaviors, but many pet lovers inadvertently use them to reward bad ones.
Preventing a problem is always easier than fixing one. If you don't want your dog begging, then don't reward it, ever.
BY THE NUMBERS
Animal planet Expo logo
Caption: Animal Planet's annual tour runs through the end of August.
The Animal Planet network is popular among those who love shows about nature or pets. Animal Planet Expo is kicking off its annual summer tour on May 13 with stops planned for 13 cities (information at www.animalplanet.com). Here's a list of Animal Planet's top-ranked shows and specials in 2005:
1. "Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real"
2. "AKC/Eukanuba National Championship Dog Show"
3. "Animal Cops: San Francisco"
4. "Land of Lost Monsters"
5. "Miami Animal Police"
The truth about pit bull jaws
Do pit bulls have "locking jaws"?
Eric Sakach, director of the West Coast regional office of the Humane Society of the United States, knows as much about pit bulls as anyone alive. For 30 years he has been investigating the shady world of dog fighters, and he has testified as an expert witness in court cases. He says dog fighters use the loyalty and affection of a young pit bull to turn a good dog into a killing machine.
Before we as a society can figure out what to do with dog attacks -- it seems better to me to target all vicious dogs instead on one breed with some bad customers -- it helps to know what's real and what's a myth about pit bulls.
The "locking jaw" myth has been around forever.
"That's absolutely untrue," Sakach says. "Pit bulls are no different in skeleton and musculature than other dogs."
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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