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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fat Cats (and Dogs)

Obesity is a major problem among Americans, and is often called an epidemic. So it shouldn't be a surprise that there is a similar problem among American pets. And like in the human owners, this is a problem that is usually completely preventable and cureable, though it takes effort. So here are a few hints and tips in how to recognize obesity and how to manage it.

First, let's address how to tell if your furry friend is carrying a few extra pounds. There are three characteristics that I look for when I'm examining a pet, and it holds true whether I'm looking at a dog or a cat. The ribs should not be visible, but when running your fingertips lightly over the chest, you should be able to feel each rib individually. The chest should be the widest part of the body. As you move from the ribcage to the hips, there should be a slight but noticable narrowing, making a "waist". If you look at your pet from the side, the chest should be the lowest part of the body, and as you move your hand towards the hips, it should move upwards into the abdomen (what is called an "abdominal tuck"). If you can't feel the ribs or if there is a straight line from the chest to the hips, then your pet is overweight. Now the exception is in many cats. It's common that after being spayed or neutered a cat will develop an accumulation of fat under the skin of their abdomen, even if they are nto overweight. However, the other characteristics should apply, even if this fat pad eliminates the abdominal tuck.

Realize that if your pet is overweight, there can be many health consequences. In cats, obesity increases the risk for diabetes, liver disease, skin problems, and arthritis. In dogs, you have a much higher risk of arthritis and other joint disease. Pets don't get the same kinds of heart disease, clogged arteries, or increased cholesterol like overweight humans, but there are still potentially severe health consequences.

So what can you do if your dog or cat needs to loose a few pounds? Like in humans, the best success is a combination of diet and exercise. DO NOT "free feed" your pets. That's a common practice with cat owners, where they will often leave the food bowl full. I have yet to see this not turn into a weight problem when there are multiple cats present. You will need to provide measured meals (get a measuring cup and feed a specific amount) at regularly scheduled intervals. And you will need to feed your pets separately. I'll be a bit blunt and direct here and say that if anyone says they can't feed pets individually, they are simply being lazy. You can get separate bowls for each pet, put a measured amount in each bowl, and monitor their eating. If they get into each other's food, put them in separate rooms. And nobody can tell me that they "can't" do this. It's always a matter of peole not wanting to make the effort. At one point I had three cats, each on a different food. It took me an extra 5 minutes per day to feed them separately. Not that hard.

Be very careful with treats! You will be surprised how many calories a dog treat or biscuit can add, especially in small pets. Even a little bit can make a huge difference.

In many cases you will need to feed a special diet food recommended by your vet. Yes, these are more expensive. But if your vet says it's necessary, then please do it. In cases like this it's not simply a method of providing nutrition, but a medical therapy for a health problem. I know people who will spend $60 per month on pills for their pet, but think it's too expensive to buy a $50 bag of food.

Also try to increase the activity level of your pet. For dogs, that can mean walking, playing, and so on. Cats are harder to exercise, but you can use a laser pointer, dangling cat toy, or even toss the pieces of food and have the cat chase after them.

If you have a dog and have tried everything your vet has recommended, and followed a plan to a "T", but your pup still has a weight issue, there is still hope. There is a new medication, Slentrol, available by prescription that can cause weight reduction in dogs. This is a pretty strong medication, so it isn't used unless all other attempts have failed. Sorry, kitty-owners, this is currently for dogs only.

Though it may take a lot of work, getting your pet to a healthy weight is worth it. Studies have shown that overweight pets live shorter lives and have more health problems than pets kept at a normal weight. So get those jogging pants on and talk to your vet about your pet's weight! You have the ability to determine whether your pet is svelte or a fatty!!!