The recent news that Americans are getting fatter didn't come as a surprise to many people, and certainly not 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 -- for example, I'm a lot fatter than I should be, but my pets are lean -- pets 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 problems, breathing and heart problems. Overweight cats can even develop skin problems from not being able to groom themselves properly. Overall, fat pets face lives that are often uncomfortable and shorter, just as fat people do.
The good news is that it's not that difficult to trim down pets. After all, they 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 over them, but a little is plenty. Rub your hands over your pet's ribs. 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. And it's not just dogs and cats in trouble: Birds can be obese, too, developing a thicker breast and even rolls of fat.
Certain breeds and species seem more susceptible to spread. In dogs, Labradors beef up pretty easily, as do cockers. 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 any lifestyle changes difficult. 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 your love for your pets by handing them pet treats. Keep the treat volume to a minimum, and switch to a reduced-calorie treat. (Don't use reduced calories as an excuse to give more.) Even better, substitute mini rice cakes and 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 in the best of health.
PETS ON THE WEB
APBNews has pulled together a pretty good collection of news stories and feature packages related to animals on its Web site (www.apbnews.com/resourcecenter/indepth/animals/index.html). I tripped across it while exploring MSNBC's site (www.msnbc.com). The Animals and Crime page has some pretty depressing stories of man's inhumanity to animals. But it also has some cheerier pieces on dogs who fight crime on our behalf, the lowdown on home-protection dogs, and some basic but useful links to other resources. The site is updated regularly and well worth bookmarking.
The Denver Dumb Friends League has found a novel reuse for toilet seat covers. The fluffy, round and colorful bathroom accessories are just the right size for use as a comfortable kitty bed. Pet lovers in the Denver area know to donate their old covers when they get a little too worn to look good. They still have plenty of useful life for the kitties, though, and are easily washed to keep dirt and fleas at bay. It's a great idea that other shelters should consider, or even for trying at home. The next time you're replacing a worn-out cover, see if your shelter wants it, or if your cat does.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: OK, so it's cold in the morning now, and I notice the lady down the street has a sweater and boots on that stupid poodle of hers. I've never put a sweater on a dog in my life, and my Labs swim whenever the river's not frozen. You're the expert, so tell me: Is she nuts? -- L.N., via e-mail
A: Not about dog sweaters and boots, she isn't. Some dogs can really benefit from winter wear.
If poodles were allowed to grow their coat the way they were designed to, they'd end up covered with thick, twisted "cords" -- mats, really -- that would give them the protection they need against the cold. Corded coats are hard to maintain and not very attractive, though, so most folks with poodles keep them neatly trimmed with a visit to the groomer every six to eight weeks.
Fashion dictates a pretty close clip over the body, with shaved areas on the face, paws and base of the tail. The finished effect leaves the poodle pretty vulnerable to the cold. Add to this the fact that most of these dogs are house dogs and are not acclimated to the outside, and you've got a dog who's a prime candidate for accessorizing.
Poodles aren't the only dogs who can use the help. The short-coated dogs of the greyhound family -- greyhounds, whippets and Italian greyhounds -- are notoriously cold-blooded. They've little padding on their lean, aerodynamic bodies and need some help in cold weather to stay comfortable.
Some elderly dogs also have a hard time keeping themselves warm. For these old-timers, a sweater is an act of compassion. The bottom line: Sweaters don't hurt and they could help. While an Alaskan malamute in the prime of his life isn't going to need one, a lot of other dogs wouldn't mind at all.
Oh, and by the way: Poodles aren't stupid. They're generally considered to be in the top five breeds when it comes to smarts. The one on your street has a human being catering to his every need. How stupid is that?
Q: My cat has bad breath. I have tried brushing her teeth and buying breath fresheners for her. I can't afford to take her to the vet. What should I do? -- C.A., via e-mail
A: Sorry, but you'll have to visit your veterinarian. Bad breath isn't natural for dogs and cats, and it's not something you have to learn to live with. A foul mouth can be caused by broken or rotting teeth, infected gums or other diseases. Breath cleaners may help temporarily, but they cannot fix the underlying causes, problems that can be a serious threat to your pet's health.
Proper dental care isn't really about fixing bad breath. Chronic problems with teeth and gums can make eating painful for your pet, and they can shorten his life by showering internal organs with bacteria with every swallow.
Your veterinarian will likely suggest a complete cleaning under anesthesia, along with the treatment or removal of any damaged teeth. Yes, it costs money. But once it's done you can keep your pet's mouth in good shape through brushing, or by feeding special kibbles designed to scrap teeth clean as your pet chews.
Don't ignore your cat's problem. It'll only get worse (and more expensive) the longer you delay.
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 writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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