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.
PETS ON THE WEB
Although it looks painful, the prong collar is probably easier on a dog's neck than the more-common slip (or choke) collar. That's because unlike the choke, the prong can't tighten down completely and is easier for most people to put on their dogs and use correctly. Dog trainer Janice Frasche has put a good deal of information about prong collars on her Web site (www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/4620/prong.html) that will educate any dog lover about this misunderstood piece of training equipment.
While summer means that fresh vegetables are plentiful, winter can be a challenge when it comes to your bird eating healthy. The answer, for any time of year, is frozen vegetables. My little Senegal parrot Patrick got as wide a variety of fresh vegetables as I could manage, but he ate so many that came from the freezer that he started to communicate his hunger by imitating the sound of the microwave I used to thaw his meals. An easy way to work in variety: Buy the frozen vegetable combinations, such as those designed for stir-fry.
Q: My mother-in-law plans to move to a new home next June. She has a cat, Melody, who spends most of her time indoors, but part of each day outdoors.
Melody is very independent and will not come when called. When my in-laws' vacation cabin burned down last year, the cat was very frightened and hid in the woods for six weeks. We had to use a live trap to catch her. If she gets lost after the move, we will have a hard time getting her back. My mother-in-law loves her cat very much. We would appreciate any suggestions. -- T.H., Sebastopol, Calif.
A: The best thing that could happen to Melody is for her to become a completely indoor cat. And there's no better time to make the switch than at the time of a move.
Your mother-in-law has the opportunity to make the conversion relatively easy for her cat. The new house will be all new territory to Melody. If she doesn't get out to claim the outdoors for her own she'll accept the space she has with relative ease.
If your mother-in-law insists on Melody continuing her indoor-outdoor existence, she needs to recognize that she risks losing her during the transition and beyond. To minimize this risk, Melody should stay inside for a couple of weeks, at least until the dust settles and household routines become somewhat set. During this time, condition her to come when called by setting up an association between a "Here kitty" and the dispensing of a particularly yummy treat, such as a small bit of canned mackerel, or a teaspoonful of wet cat food.
After the couple of weeks, take her out on a harness and leash and let her explore while supervised for short periods. When she seems settled, let her out for brief periods on her own, ending them by calling her with the "Here kitty." She should now know that you'll be rewarding her with the special treat. Eventually, she'll be coming and going as she pleases, just as at the previous house.
Remember that even if she learns the neighborhood, the outdoor option is risky. Kept safe from cars, coyotes, cat-hating neighbors, infectious disease and more, indoor cats live longer, healthier lives.
Q: If you are truly an animal lover, you would not demean mixed or non-purebred dogs like cockapoos or their breeders, unless you know of a particular breeder that does not live up to proper breeding standards. -- K.D., via e-mail
A: I love the Internet. I really do. Even when someone has obviously passed around my reply to someone asking to find a cockapoo breeder, in which I explained that cockapoos were not a breed, but rather a mix. Lately, I've been swamped with letters from people accusing me of snobbery, or worse.
The level of anger in these letters surprises me. Of course there's nothing wrong with mixed-breed dogs, and I never, ever said there was. But I did say that by definition, a purebred dog is what happens when you mate two dogs of the same breed. A cockapoo is the result of the mating of a cocker and poodle -- two different breeds. This is the very definition of a mixed-breed dog.
I don't think people should be intentionally producing mixed-breed dogs, cockapoos included, when the shelters are full of unwanted pets already. But then, I also don't think the overwhelming majority of people who are breeding purebred dogs should be engaged in that work, either. Overpopulation and the proliferation of health and temperament problems are not the result of responsible breeders, but rather of clueless or careless ones, no matter what breed or mix they're producing.
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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