We were feeling a bit nervous as we knocked on the back door of the veterinary clinic last week.
And by "we" I mean me and my beloved long-haired miniature wiener dog, Zoe, who enjoys a trip to the vet as much as I enjoy visiting the dentist for a root canal.
A trip to the clinic feels a bit like a mission behind enemy lines for me and the wiener dog, because our longtime vet, Dr. Jim Broughton, owns Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital on Corydon Avenue.
Adding to our stress level was the fact Zoe was there for her first official weigh-in since being placed on a strict new diet and exercise regime. Last month, Dr. Broughton diagnosed my little buddy as "grossly obese."
According to the breed standard, she should weigh about 12 pounds at most, whereas she tipped the scales at 19 pounds, meaning she was seven pounds, or 36 per cent, over her ideal weight.
It's not the kind of recognition you want for a family member, but Zoe's weight issue has made her the "spokesdog" for our Fit Pet Project, a once-a-month series of articles focusing on the issues surrounding portly pets.
The project sprang from the mind of deputy editor Julie Carl, who rightly suspected Zoe's weight problem was merely the tip of an iceberg, which, when flipped over, would reveal an epidemic of overweight and obese pets.
Experts told us up to 40 per cent of pet dogs are likely overweight or obese, while 60 to 70 per cent of owned cats may potentially have a serious weight problem.
This growing legion of pudgy pets is at risk of myriad health problems, ranging from diabetes, heart disease and respiratory issues to back problems -- especially in dogs like Zoe -- senility and behavioral issues.
After her first checkup last month, Zoe was placed on a prescription diet and ordered to get 10 minutes of exercise at least three times a day.
For the first 10 days, the goal wasn't so much shedding pounds as blending her calorie-reduced kibble with her old food to make sure the change in diet didn't lead to gastrointestinal distress.
The good news -- Zoe has already lost almost a full pound, down from 19 pounds to a shade over 18 pounds. We've been a little lax on the exercising, but our marginally lighter pet is already acting perkier, jumping up on the couch in the den, something she was unable to do before the project began.
"She's already starting to get her hourglass figure back," is how my wife, who places the blame for Zoe's weight problem entirely on my shoulders, puts it.
For his part, Dr. Broughton was delighted with -- and surprised by -- any weight loss this quickly.
"I'm happy with her weight loss at this point," our vet for the last 25 years said, beaming. "My goal at this point was to get her system adapted to the new food. We weren't even really measuring the amount, but she's already lost about five per cent of her body weight, which is good.
"Our target for now is for her to lose anywhere between one-quarter to one-third of a pound a week. That's what we're aiming at."
Now that we know the weight-loss kibble -- not only calorie-reduced but formulated to maintain her metabolism -- won't make her sick, the real diet begins.
That means my miniature friend is allowed exactly one cup of food a day, half in the morning and half in the evening. If she seems hungry, some low-cal options, such as shredded carrots or green beans, can be added to the mix "to bulk up the food and make her feel fuller."
It's critical to remember that weight loss should be gradual and monitored closely. Sudden weight loss, especially in cats, can lead to irreversible liver damage.
"That's the big issue with rapid weight loss -- the potential for liver damage, especially in cats, but it can apply to dogs as well," Dr. Broughton warned as Zoe puttered around the clinic and made a stealth attack on an unprotected bowl of cat food.
Along with reducing the number of calories entering your pet, it's essential to increase the amount of energy going out. Which means owners need to stop showing love for their animals through food, and get off the couch and get active with their pets.
"Our pets become as sedentary as their owners," the vet said. "Dogs love to play, so it doesn't take a lot of encouragement. It's getting the owner motivated to get off the couch."
While dogs love to walk or fetch, exercising a cat can take a bit more expertise. Dr. Broughton urges owners to become familiar with the Indoor Cat Initiative, an online campaign promoting active indoor lifestyles for felines.
"What a lot of people don't realize is cats will play fetch," he said. "You get little toy balls for cats. A great thing for cats is laser pointers and flashlights. Cats will chase these things for long periods of time."
One of our experts from Pet Valu, the sponsors of the Fit Pet Project, said it's time for owners to realize that obesity has become the top concern among vets and is dramatically shortening the lives of cats and dogs.
Sandy Waldner, owner-operator of the Pet Valu at 1670 Kenaston Blvd., warned that simply following the standard instructions printed on most food bags can lead to overfeeding your pet.
"Most people aren't just feeding dog food; they're feeding treats, too," said Waldner, who has spent the last 19 years in the pet industry. "When people come in the store, they say, 'My pet is overweight, but I'm feeding what the bag says,' and I'll ask if they're feeding treats, because treats have calories."
She echoed Dr. Broughton, saying it's vital to measure your pet's food exactly to guarantee gradual weight loss. "I would say people don't measure the food in a lot of cases," she said. "They say, 'Oh, I think that's a cup.' "
The Pet Valu expert said the difference between half a cup and five-eighths of a cup is 20 per cent more food than your pet requires to stay healthy.
It's literally a matter of life and death, she noted. "We're going to live longer if we're not carrying around excess weight," Waldner said. "It's the same with pets. You're losing time with your pet if you let them get obese."
She also said the problem seems most acute in smaller dogs like Zoe. "With small dogs, people forget how much food their dog actually needs," she said. "If you take an average size dog biscuit and give it to a small dog, they say it's like giving a small child a full watermelon. A 20-pound dog has a small stomach.
"And I don't think small dogs get as much exercise as big dogs. They tend to be house companion animals."
Zoe will be heading back to the vet in about two weeks, and along with chronicling her journey, we're reminding owners to send photos of their pudgy pets, along with their names, ages, current weight and target weight to our special email address -- firstname.lastname@example.org.
The response so far has been incredible. Zoe and me were inspired by an email from owner Rose-Ann Lavery that included a picture of her beloved hound, The Dude, logging a few kilometres on the treadmill.
Remember, human or animal, we're all in this together.