On our way back from Florida to our home in California, the dogs and I stopped in Texas to visit with the college professor friend who had bred my youngest dog, Heather.
Mary has been a respected fancier for a couple of decades, breeding a carefully planned litter every couple of years, at most. Her dogs are among the very best of their breed, healthy and intelligent animals with honors galore, champions who also shine in obedience and agility competitions and at field trials. I was nervous about seeing her, because she is not shy with her opinions when something doesn't meet with her approval.
My fears were realized when she took one look at Heather, then cast a stern eye in my direction. "Gina," she said in a voice that surely instills terror in her economics students, "Heather is fat. This will not do."
And so, Heather's diet days began.
As a pudgy retriever, Heather was in good company. Obesity is as common in pets as it is in people, which means there are a lot of overweight animals around.
And just as with people, obesity is far more than an appearance issue. An overweight pet is prone to a host of related problems, including diabetes, joint, ligament and tendon problems, breathing difficulties and heart disease. Overweight cats can even develop skin problems from not being able to groom themselves properly. Pets do not feel the social stigma unfairly heaped on overweight people, but they certainly share the potential for shorter, more uncomfortable lives.
Is your pet overweight? Healthy pets should have some padding, 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 who can get in trouble: Birds can be obese, too, developing a thicker breast and even rolls of fat.
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 put on weight 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 them, 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 treats. Keep the goodies to a minimum, and switch to a reduced-calorie treat, mini rice cakes or raw carrots.
Heather hasn't been happy with her new food regimen, but she dances with joy at her now-frequent runs alongside my bicycle. And after four months home, I can happily report that we could return to Texas without worry: The formerly fat Heather is now as lean as a marathoner.
PETS ON THE WEB
As the dominant registries of purebred dogs and cats in North America, the American Kennel Club and the Cat Fanciers' Association are understandably interested in legislation that might change the way pets are treated. The organizations issue updates on their Web sites to keep pet lovers informed about laws that might affect them at the national, state and local level. The AKC's legislative alert page (www.akc.org/love/dip/legislat/index.cfm) is the more comprehensive of the two sites, and is updated frequently. The CWA's site (www.cfainc.org/org/legal.html) has a few position statements and an e-mail contact for more information.
If your cat had an "oops" litter recently, don't delay when it comes to scheduling a spay for her. Cats can become pregnant as early as a week after delivering a litter, and certainly are ready to breed again when the kittens start to wean at the age of 3 weeks.
Many "oops" litters happen when a new pet owner doesn't pay attention to how quickly a kitten is maturing. It's not uncommon for a cat to get pregnant at 5 months of age or even younger. One accidental litter is bad enough with so many kittens desperate for homes. Don't let your cat surprise you twice: If your cat is a new mother, call the veterinarian today and get that spaying done.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I recently moved in with my significant other, and now my cat is urinating on the shower door. My lady friend is not "pet friendly " at all, and so I put the litter box in the garage, at her request. I installed a cat door between the house and the garage, and the cat knows how to use it. She still insists on urinating inside instead of going to the garage where the litter box is. Can you offer some suggestions? -- R.A., via e-mail
A: The only opinion that counts when it comes to a litter box is the one held by the cat who has to use it. I'm guessing your cat is stressed by the changes and doesn't like having the box in the garage, for whatever reason.
After your veterinarian makes sure your cat doesn't have a health problem that could be causing the behavior, get a fresh start by creating an area in which your pet can establish new habits. The space can be a spare bedroom or extra bath. Ideally, it should be a low-traffic area that can be isolated from the rest of the house. Make sure your cat has everything she needs, including food and water, a soft place to sleep, a scratching post or cat tree, some toys and, of course, the litter box.
In the meantime, thoroughly clean the area near the shower with an enzymatic cleaner to remove the smells that invite a repeat performance. Keep your cat in her new room for a couple of weeks, visiting her frequently to pet her and play with her. The time in the smaller area allows her to get used to the litter box in a spot more to her liking.
Eventually, you can open the door and allow her to expand her range. By easing her into her new home and putting the box where it suits her better, you'll be doing your best to make peace between your pet and your mate.
Q: Our Lab mix died a few months ago at the age of 14. We went back to the humane society where we had such good luck before. After a couple of visits, we found a sweet shepherd-mix puppy and decided to adopt her. The shelter insists on having her spayed before we take her home. She's only 10 weeks old, and we can't believe surgery would be safe for her now. There's no problem with spaying her, but we'd rather do it when she's 6 months old. The shelter says it's now or never. What do you think? -- D.A., via e-mail
A: Follow the shelter's advice. The neutering of puppies and kittens as young as 8 weeks of age has become fairly routine, and studies show rather convincingly that there are no long-term health or behavior problems as a result.
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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