As I drove down our one-mile lane in heavy snow, a neighbor stuck his head out of the door and waved me over to his home. After a warm hello, he pointed to Misty, his obese bichon frise, and asked, "Is she overweight?" Before I could answer, he added, "We think she's just got a lot of hair!"
What "big-boned" is to big people, "fluffy" is to big pets.
In surveys about pet body types (ideal, overweight, obese), about half of pet lovers with obese pets said their pets were at an ideal body weight. Because we equate food with love, we're killing our pets with kindness.
We are putting too much food in our pets' mouths and too few miles on their feet. Working dogs, once born to herd, guard or retrieve, are now born retired. The end result? About half of American pets are overweight or obese. This pet-health epidemic increases the risk of diabetes, heart and joint problems, and cancer and skin problems.
Losing just 20 percent of excess weight results in 50 percent improvement in pet health. One long-term study showed pets at their ideal body weight living 15 percent longer, an average of two years.
To reverse health problems and tap into the furry fountain of youth, help your dog lose weight in 2007 with these seven tips.
1. Walk away the weight. Famed human-obesity expert Dr. Robert Kushner, working with Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Hill's Nutrition, did a landmark study called "People and Pets Exercising Together," which found that overweight people and their pets not only lost weight but also kept the weight off by dieting and exercising together. I teamed with Dr. Kushner and wrote "Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together" (Three Rivers Press, $14), which details a proven, personalized and progressive program for losing weight and getting healthier.
2. Consider a change in diet. Talk to your veterinarian about a diet pet food that has lower calories and fat, and special ingredients to help burn fat and maintain lean muscle mass. A prescription diet may be a big part of any weight-loss plan.
3. Maintain portion control. Labrador retrievers put on a controlled diet safely lost 2 percent of their body weight each week. A similar group of Labradors put on a diet at home lost less than one-quarter that amount because the food at home was "guesstimated," seemingly on the high side. Invest in a measuring cup, and feed exactly the amount recommended by your veterinarian.
4. Split portions. Your dog may feel more satiated if you split his total daily allotment into three equal feedings. If your dog doesn't eat right away, don't worry. In the wild, it would be normal to skip a meal now and again. One cause of obesity is owners "doctoring up" food to be more tasty when dogs walk away from a meal.
5. Healthy snacking. Everybody, even veterinarians, enjoy giving pets treats. Try healthier choices such as whole baby carrots, apple slices, green beans and so on.
6. Play the slots. In Las Vegas, you don't expect to win on every pull, hand or cast. It's the anticipation that keeps you going. Instead of constantly handing treats to your dog, give intermittent treats to amp up the expectation of winning for your dog. Offer pieces of dog kibble as treats, with occasional "jackpot items" such as freeze-dried meat or fresh cooked poultry meat, skin removed.
7. Use food puzzles. Today, dogs mindlessly chow down what's been put in their bowls, leaving them bored, overweight and acting out with behavioral problems. By using food puzzles such as Canine Genius, Bustercube, Molecuball and Busy Buddy, you allow the dog to work for his food and feel more satisfied, both physically and emotionally. Food puzzles are available through pet-supply stores on online pet-supply retailers.
Stop making excuses for your "fluffy" pet. Take a few simple steps, and your pet will be healthier and happier in the new year.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori.
PetConnection.com features a weekly drawing for free prizes -- now featuring memberships to 1-800-HELP4PETS and gift baskets from the Kong company.
You'll also find more on pet health and behavior, a searchable archive of all past columns, and reviews of "dogmobiles," pet products and pet-care books, along with a popular Web log offering frequent contributions from the entire Pet Connection staff.
Destructive Lab needs options
Q: I have a yellow Labrador retriever. He's a year and a half old, weighs 95 pounds, and he eats absolutely everything. When he was younger, he ate a Ziploc bag he found on a walk, my soft eyeglass case and wood whenever he finds it (the tree in the back yard, the lattice off the deck, etc.). In the last month he ate a small wool glove. Last week he ate a small thick sock with leather on it whole, as a snake would. Is it just Labs? When will it stop? -- L.K., via e-mail.
A: Labradors are well-known for their propensity to keep their mouths busy, especially through adolescence, which lasts until about their second birthday. A common saying among veterinarians is that Labradors "chew 'til they're 2 and shed 'til they're dead." That chewing perhaps goes along with another nickname for the breed: "Flabadors," because of their tendency to overeat if allowed to.
Aside from the annoyance factor of losing gloves, socks and more to your dog, his chewing is putting his life at risk. Dogs who pick up and swallow randomly found objects are at high risk for developing intestinal blockages. These often require surgery and can be deadly.
It's up to you to protect your pet. Work to keep items out of his reach by picking up after yourself and getting after the rest of the family to do so, too. When you cannot supervise your youngster, restrict his roaming to a smaller area that you can keep safely cleared -- no more run of the house and yard when you're not there to watch.
Finally, satisfy his normal urge to chew by providing him with safe, durable chew toys. You'll find a wonderful selection at your pet-supply store, including products from Nylabone and Kong. Kong toys are especially useful for dealing with chewers, since you can pack them with broken bits of treats layered with peanut butter. A stuffed Kong will keep a vigorous chewer busy and out of trouble for a good long time.
When you see your dog chewing something you don't want him to, don't scream at him or hit him. Instead, take the item from him and offer an acceptable chew toy. Praise him for taking it and for chewing on it.
Labradors are wonderful family dogs, but their adolescence can be very trying. Be patient, diligent and consistent in keeping him out of trouble, offer him acceptable alternatives to errant chewing, and the situation should improve as he ages. -- Gina Spadafori
Q: Would you share a tip for pet lovers trying to keep things neat on a budget? I find that the $3 rubber welcome mats from the dollar store have become a life saver for putting underneath the litter box and food dishes. They can be cleaned so much easier than rug-type mats, they dry faster, and they don't hold odors as cloth/rug types of pet mats do. They also stay in place better on slick floors. -- T.C., via e-mail
A: Thanks for your suggestion! I'm also a believer in rubber mats for keeping pet messes at bay. I use them not only under dishes and litter boxes, but also on both sides of every door to the outside. I clean up a lot fewer muddy paw prints with mats in place.
The dollar-store suggestion is a good one. I also keep an eye out for bigger mats at warehouse and home-improvement stores. The mat just outside my back door is huge, so it's more likely that all four paws on all four dogs will hit it at least once on the way into the dining room. -- Gina Spadafori
Keeping cats off counter
Tired of cats on the counter? Keep kitty from going airborne by covering the off-limits areas with double-sided tape, aluminum foil or upside-down carpet runners. Cats don't like it when their paws stick to something. They also dislike the sound and feel of aluminum foil, and find the knobs on the carpet runners uncomfortable.
You can also try cookie pans filled with water, or spraying bath towels with pet repellent and covering the affected areas. The advantage of these approaches is that they work whether you're around or not. Plus they set up the cat to choose to make the proper response -- staying off the counter -- on his own. Studies indicate that animals set up to choose the correct response learn faster than those who are simply frightened away.
Don't forget that deterring cats from climbing where they shouldn't solves only half of the problem. You also need to provide them with safe and approved places to climb, such as a sturdy cat tree. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Recycled beds for cold cats
Cats crave warmth, which is why they're wonderful bed companions on a cold night. But when you can't be there to provide snuggle space, your cat will appreciate a soft bed to sleep on.
One option for comfortable pet beds at no cost is to recycle toilet-seat covers. The covers are the perfect size for most cats and provide a perfect option to throwing out old covers when they're worn or your decor changes. (If you have extras, check to see if your local shelter will welcome the donation.)
Because covering upholstery is one way to protect it from cat hair, you might put a seat cover or two in places your cat loves to nap, such as on the couch or a favorite chair. Whatever hair ends up on the seat cover won't get on your upholstery and will easily come out in the wash. -- Gina Spadafori
Health problems dog cute Cavalier
Nearly 50 Cavalier King Charles spaniels will prance into the ring at Westminster this year, which makes their breed the second-largest entry at the famous dog show. It's a tribute to the rapid rise in popularity of this toy breed.
Bred to resemble the big-eyed, long-eared lap dogs seen in so many 18th-century portraits, the good looks and charm of this toy spaniel are undeniable. Their silky coats come in four color combinations, with the chestnut-and-white "Blenheim" pattern the most common.
Sadly, the breed suffers from a number of potential health problems.
The most serious is mitral valve disease, a potentially lethal defect of the left valve of the heart. It can strike while the dog is still quite young and is found in all bloodlines from all countries. All responsible breeders screen their dogs for heart disease, and there are no exceptions. Cavs can also suffer from a neurological disorder known as syringomyelia.
There are two clubs for the breed in the United States, and both have strict codes of ethics requiring their member breeders to screen their dogs for health problems. Be certain the breeder you select is a member in good standing of either club and is actively working to produce healthy puppies. More information on finding a Cav puppy from a health-conscious breeder can be found at www.cavalierhealth.org.
Cavs are wonderful dogs for seniors and apartment living. Their grooming and exercise needs are modest, although they love to play and do need daily brushing. They have a tendency to put weight on easily, so owners must not overfeed them. And Cavs cannot live outdoors or in a kennel. They are lap dogs through and through, so be sure you have a warm lap to offer if you bring a Cav into your home. -- Christie Keith
BY THE NUMBERS
While stunningly beautiful fish tanks are what catch attention, many people are still content to have a small setup with just a goldfish or two. In 2004, people who have fish reported the kinds they kept (multiple answers allowed):
Tropical 43 percent
Goldfish 38 percent
Other 20 percent
Cichlids 7 percent
Pond-kept 7 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Early handling key to kitten development
Early socialization is important in turning a kitten into a loving cat. A moderate amount of gentle handling, which should start from birth and continue through a kitten's key stages for learning social skills (between 3 and 8 weeks of age), will help increase a kitten's ability to bond with people.
Kittens are born both blind and deaf. Eyes and ears begin to function at seven to 10 days after birth, and kittens start walking days later. Each one finds his or her own nipple on the mother cat, which then becomes identified by smell. Most kittens start purring by the time they're a week old, and the sound reassures their mom that they are fine and she can relax. We can relate!
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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