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Don't Turn Cats and Dogs Into Hogs

Pets: Too many treats, high-fat foods and not enough exercise are making Fido and Fluffy obese. And it gets worse during the holidays.

November 20, 1998|HARRIET WINSLOW | WASHINGTON POST

As the holidays approach and the temperature drops, we humans have a tendency to acquire a bit of padding. Dogs and cats may also find a few extra treats during this season, but any accompanying weight gain can be dangerous.

One in four pets in the United States is obese and as many as 60% are overweight, according to researchers with the dog and cat food company Hill's Pet Nutrition. Many things contribute to this animal weight problem, including rich treats and a lack of exercise, especially in the winter (some of the same difficulties that humankind is confronting).

An overweight pet is a serious issue.

"I have been diagnosing it more in the last two years," said Julie Giles of the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Washington. It's become more of a topic for vets to deal with, she said, and is now "the most common form of malnutrition in dogs and cats."

In her city clinic, Giles sees a lot more portly Persians than fat fidos, because cats tend to live indoors in town. But she does see overweight dogs as well, and those cases are easier to treat because she can simply direct an owner to get that dog out to walk more, she said.

Although many owners recognize that their animals have weight problems, they may be less aware that obesity can lead to heart disease, joint problems and metabolic disorders.

In addition, Giles said, diabetes and fatty liver disease can be triggered by obesity. Liver disease occurs in overweight cats when they quit eating for several days and become anorexic. This causes life-threatening problems as the cat becomes jaundiced. A change in routine, such as having an owner leave town for a couple of days, will sometimes cause a cat to stop eating, regardless of available food.

"Also, joint problems, pulled muscles [when cats jump] and arthritis" in cats can be caused by weight problems, Giles said. "The same with dogs. When they get older, I like them to be more svelte. I want them to be what's called ideal weight." Problems such as bridging of the spine, called spondylitis, can occur in older dogs, and excess pounds can only worsen the condition, she said.

If owners realized that letting a cat or dog stay fat could shorten their pet's life span, they might be more likely to do something about it. But it isn't easy being the one to tell people that their pet is fat, Giles said.

"Clients don't want to see obesity written on their pet's chart"; however, this may force owners to accept that they must change their and their pet's habits, she said. "Although I'll put cats and dogs on diets, I'll also put them on exercise, by increasing walking time with dogs, for example. But you have to build up slowly and cut back slowly with food. With cats, if you give them a low-fat diet, it's not enough. You have to play with them and that's hard. You have to do that slowly too. You can't just make an obese cat run up and down the stairs."

The benefits of improved health can be easily noticed, she said. "When a cat is weighing 18 pounds, and it gets back to 14 pounds, the owner will say, 'You know Dr. Giles, Grover is a lot more active.' When dog owners get their [pet's] weight down, they say he's panting less."

The pet food industry has contributed to the overweight epidemic in animals. There are more specialty pet foods on supermarket shelves.

"That's why we have a problem," Giles said. "Foods have gotten fancier, more fattening, more palatable."

"Typically, store-bought foods are very, very palatable because they are higher in fat and usually higher in salt as well," added Blake Hawley, a vet who works at Hill's Pet Nutrition. "These are not necessarily good things for the animal, but of course if you're going to put it in front of them, they're going to gulp it up."

At the same time, however, pet food companies are providing more choices in the way of nutritious, low-fat foods that will help shave unwanted pounds.

Hawley considers 15-calorie treats acceptable, up to five a day for a 40-pound dog.

"Ninety percent of dog owners give their dogs treats, an average five to six times per week," he said. "You can sort of use your pet's body weight as a guide for the number of treats they should be getting. And when I talk about treats, I'm talking about those made for dogs or cats. As a veterinarian, I'm going to say no table scraps."

Also compounding the problem is the practice of "free feeding" cats and dogs, which is the practice of leaving food in a dish at all times, letting them decide when to dine. "We're finding out that cats get bored and they can eat and eat," said Giles. Also with multi-cat households, they may compete for food. Dogs may do this too.

There is no need to increase food in colder temperatures for your animal, she added, unless you have an outdoor hunting or work dog.

Although holidays are a time when both humans and their pets tend to eat more treats, Giles said, there's a correct way to give them.

"Table scraps create a bad habit," she agreed.

Also, remember as the holiday season approaches and special human treats proliferate, chocolate is bad for dogs and can lead to diarrhea and stomach discomfort.

The holidays do bring in certain repeat cases to Giles' clinic. "We have a lot of ingestions of [bird] carcasses from dogs and cats," she said, despite the fact that many people know that feeding turkey attached to a bone to a dog or cat can cause choking. Just keep an eye on those kitchen counters.

'Typically, store-bought [pet] foods are very, very palatable because they are higher in fat and usually higher in salt as well.'

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