My family has thrown me in the doghouse.
The problem is our beloved long-haired miniature wiener dog, Zoe, who turns 10 today ("Happy Birthday, Zoe!") has been packing on the pounds and I'm the one shouldering the blame for her excess baggage.
"She's fat and it's your fault!" my wife and daughter growl in unison as they point their accusing fingers. "You're the one giving her treats all the time."
Worst of all, they're right. I'm guilty as charged, which is why last week I finally agreed to take Zoe to visit our veterinarian, Dr. Jim Broughton, who owns Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital on Corydon Avenue, and has looked after our dogs for more than 25 years.
I was expecting bad news, but it turned out to be a little more serious than I expected.
First, Dr. Broughton popped Zoe on the scale. According to the breed standard, she should weigh about 12 pounds at most. In fact, she tipped the scales at 19 pounds, meaning she is 36 per cent over her ideal weight.
"She is seven pounds over the breed standard," he explained, asking me to visualize seven large sticks of butter.
"It's not good," he continued. "She's grossly obese. That's the reality of it. A pound for you or me isn't that important, but a pound for a dog or cat is important. A pound can be like 20 per cent of their body weight, depending on the size of the animal."
Next, he popped my unhappy pet onto an examining table to conduct a body-condition check. He began by running his hands along her flanks. "As you do that, you should be able to feel the individual ribs. In Zoe, I can't do that, I'm just feeling the fat," Dr. Broughton told me.
Then he ran his hands along her spine. "You should be able to feel the tips of the vertebrae," he said. "I can't do that; it's just a smooth layer of fat."
Finally, he did a visual inspection to see if she had an hourglass figure, and ran his hands along her abdomen to see if she is shaped the way a small dog should be.
"Unlike a belly coming up as it should, there's a bloating or distension," he noted. "She has some significant sag. She should have an hourglass figure... with an obvious narrowing at the waist. With her, she's pretty straight from her chest to her hips."
It's cold comfort to discover my miniature dachshund is just the tip of an unhealthy iceberg. Just like the human population, there is a growing epidemic of overweight and obese pets, a health crisis that is putting our best friends at risk of premature death.
As he conducted his exam, Dr. Broughton confirmed there is "absolutely" an epidemic of pets carrying far too many pounds.
"It's an epidemic for the same reasons we see in humans -- not enough exercise, a sedentary lifestyle and people feeding them too much," he said as Zoe puttered around the clinic, fascinated by the scent of its feline clients.
"With the growing bond -- people seeing pets as kids -- it leads to overfeeding. We're killing them with kindness. It's led to obesity in our pets."
He estimated up to 60 per cent of the cats coming to his clinic are overweight. Of that 60 per cent, as many as half would qualify as obese.
Dr. Erika Anseeuw, director of animal health at the Winnipeg Humane Society, said in an interview the problem of overweight and obese pets is more critical than most owners realize.
"It's a very big problem," the shelter's vet said. "We often equate food with love with our pets. I'd say a majority of our pets are overweight, and a fair number are obese as well. It's just as much a problem in pets as it is in people."
She estimated 25 to 40 per cent of pet dogs would be considered overweight or obese, while the problem is even more severe in felines. "Based on the population of cats we see here, I'd estimate 60 to 70 per cent of owned cats are overweight or obese. It's very common in cats."
Who's to blame? Do what I did -- take a hard look in the mirror. "Mostly it's our fault," Dr. Anseeuw pointed out. "We buy the groceries, not the dogs or cats. It's generally overfeeding. It's in the owners' hands.
"They want to share their love through food, and they often are as bad about exercising their pets as they are themselves." Along with poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, there can be underlying medical conditions behind weight gain, so it's essential to have your pet examined by a vet.
The consequences of this epidemic are staggering. Being overweight exposes pets to myriad health conditions, ranging from diabetes, heart disease and respiratory issues to back problems -- especially in dogs like Zoe -- a lower quality of life, senility and behavioral problems.
"They're at higher risk of diseases that are catastrophic and expensive to treat," Dr. Anseeuw warned. "You're shortening their life."
Added Dr. Broughton: "A lot of people don't realize fat is an inflammatory organ, so obesity lends itself to chronic pain. If an animal is experiencing chronic pain and is overweight, one of the first things we do is get them on a diet to reduce body weight."
The prescription for Zoe and the growing legion of pudgy pets sounds simple -- reverse their lifestyle to cut down the number of calories coming in and increase the amount of energy going out.
In reality, as you have already deduced, there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. Our vets warn you can't simply cut back on their food. Sudden weight loss can pose a serious threat, especially in cats who are at risk of developing irreversible liver damage from crash diets.
"What we do in the shelter with fat cats is put them on an all-wet food diet that is high in protein and lower in carbohydrates," Dr. Anseeuw said. "Dogs are omnivorous and they do fine with dry food. If you want to feed your cat dry food, at least half their diet must be wet. Dogs are easy to shop for; with cats, the general key is more wet food."
Dr. Broughton said part of the problem has been a sharp increase in production of energy-dense, highly palatable foods that pets are eager to gobble down, leading to overeating. "That's what sells," he noted.
Simply cutting back on the regular food you feed your dog is asking for trouble, because you'll also be cutting back on nutrients and protein essential for maintaining lean muscle mass.
In prescribing a special weight-loss food for Zoe, the vet said: "We don't want to cut back on her protein. When we diet an animal, we want to maintain its lean muscle mass. Prescription food is not only calorie-reduced, it's also formulated to maintain her metabolism so she continues to burn fat and lose weight."
The prescription kibble has to be blended in with the old food over about 10 days to guard against gastrointestinal upset from the change in diet. And, yes, you'll pay more for prescription food, but the extra cost is far less than you'll pay for expensive pet medications you'll likely have to buy down the road.
Then there's the question of exercise, something my wiener dog and myself both need a lot more of. I am under doctor's orders to ensure my pudgy pal gets at least 10 minutes of activity three times a day.
"We have to increase her exercise, but we don't want her running a marathon right away," the vet said.
When it was pointed out the city is in the grips of a brutal deep freeze, Dr. Broughton fired off a list of options. "I've had some clients who walk their dogs on a treadmill," he said. "You can play fetch in the living room, or hide and seek."
For cats, Dr. Anseeuw suggested "making indoor exercise a game. Use a laser pointer as a game, hide their food in different spots so they have to search. You can get them moving. Cats can be exercised easily in the home."
Getting a pet active, along with inducing weight loss and getting them fit, can reduce the risk of senility. "It's not just bones and muscles that are helped; it's their mental health, too," the humane society vet noted.
The thing to remember is your pet's health is in the owner's hands.
"One of the biggest reasons diets in animals fail is the animal decides it's not getting enough and starts begging... for food and the owner gives in," Dr. Broughton warned.
My overweight friend and I are expected to check in with our vet every couple of weeks to see if her weight-loss plan -- and my ability to resist her sad, soulful eyes -- are on track.
It's the only way she's going to get (forgive me) a new leash on life, and I'm going to get out of the dog house. Adds our vet: "It's tough love. Just like killing them with kindness, getting them better is tough love."
Fit tips for fat pets
It sounds simple, but it takes time and energy. Here’s a few ideas for getting started:
- Start with a trip to the vet to work out a safe plan for a healthier diet and increased exercise. "There’s some very healthy weight-loss foods, so the pet has a full tummy but is getting fewer calories," says Dr. Erika Anseeuw, director of animal health for the Winnipeg Humane Society.
- Your vet can also determine whether an underlying medical condition is playing a role in your pet’s weight gain.
- Talk to everyone in your house to determine who is feeding the pet and how much they are dishing out.
- If you insist on giving your pet treats, provide healthier options, such as vegetables. "Stay away from avocados and onions and grapes and raisins," advised Dr. Anseeuw. "But everyday vegetables like carrots, peas, celery and apples are good."
- "No feeding at the table and no human food. Just dog food," advises Dr.
- Jim Broughton, owner of Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital on Corydon Ave.
- Be precise when doling out food.
- "And use a measuring cup. When we say one cup we mean ONE cup," says Dr. Broughton.
- Get your pet moving, because exercise burns calories and helps improve mental health. Start slow and work up to longer times and distances. "Exercise, whether a dog or a cat, is very important. An older or arthritic animal may need some help with pain medications or supplements," Dr. Anseeuw notes.
- No "free-choice feeding." You should be "meal-feeding" your dog twice a day.
- It’s tough to resist the soulful eyes of a begging dog, but be strong. It’s time for "tough love."
- There are tons of online resources, but regular visits to the vet are key.
- The staff at your local clinic are your best allies, agree Dr. Broughton and Dr. Anseeuw.
— Sources: Dr. Erika Anseeuw, Winnipeg Humane Society; Dr. Jim Broughton, Exclusively Cats, and petvalu.com