The veterinarian examined Bella, a spotted cocker spaniel, and quickly concluded she was obese and needed to lose weight.
Working with a trainer, Maria Gastelum put her pooch on a nutrition and fitness plan. The regimen produced another benefit: Gastelum started to eat better and exercise more.
"If I didn't have her, I wouldn't own a pair of tennis shoes," said the Ontario resident. "It's really unbelievable how she's motivated me."
Los Angeles County public health officials hope that millions of pets living in the region can provide the same sort of inspiration and results for their owners. The idea is simple: If people won't exercise, eat better and stop smoking for themselves, maybe they will for their pets.
"You look at pets, and they look like their owners," said Karen Ehnert, acting director of veterinary public health for the L.A. County Department of Public Health. "We envision that by improving their pet's health, we can improve the family's health as well."
A year-old coalition of veterinarians, doctors, health educators, animal trainers and others called Healthy Pets, Healthy Families is trying to figure out how best to accomplish that. The group has conducted surveys of vets and pet owners and identified the areas where human and animal health overlap. Now, members are designing health education campaigns and finalizing goals for the year 2020, including reducing the number of pet owners who smoke and increasing the proportion of dog owners who go on daily walks. They also want to promote smoke-free parks.
Ehnert, who is heading the coalition, wants owners to think more about what both they and their pets eat and to view their dogs as exercise buddies. She is encouraging neighborhood dog-walking clubs, which she said have the added benefit of reducing isolation.
Nationwide, about 53% of dogs and 58% of cats are overweight or obese, according to the Assn. for Pet Obesity Prevention. They are at higher risk for diabetes, arthritis, hypertension and respiratory conditions. Many of the owners who have overweight dogs are overweight themselves, according to a 2010 academic study.
Veterinarians are often reluctant to talk about obesity with the owners, who may treat their pets like children and overindulge them, said Peter Weinstein, the executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn. and a member of the coalition. "A discussion with a pet owner about their pet's weight is a very touchy subject, especially when an owner also has a weight problem," he said.
The causes of obesity are the same in both pets and humans: not enough exercise and too much unhealthy food, experts say. Just as humans snack on potato chips, animals snack on treats and table scraps — and both gain weight. "We have gotten as a population into bad habits for ourselves, and we have extended them to our pets," Weinstein said. "We need to find ways to change those habits."
Gastelum acknowledged she and Bella had developed bad habits. After a long day at work in Los Angeles, Gastelum used to arrive home and collapse on the couch. Bella ate too much during the day and they rarely walked in the evenings. They both felt exhausted.
"I would feed off her energy and she would feed off mine," she said. "We just lagged."
After being warned about her dog's weight problem, Gastelum started working with Melissa Morrison, founder of Fur Fitness, an organization that works to reduce pet obesity through training and education. Morrison said her clients feel embarrassed about their pets' obesity and are usually eager to get them slimmed down. Sometimes, she said, the owners see their pets lose weight and say, "That is great you got the dog healthy — what about me?"
During a recent Healthy Pets coalition meeting in Los Angeles, participants broke into groups to discuss topics such as obesity, secondhand smoke, bite prevention and the importance of vaccinations.
At one table, they talked about pet owners failing to recognize the dangers of pets breathing cigarette smoke and eating cigarette butts. The public health department distributed copies of fliers explaining the risks and urging pet owners, "Stop smoking for their health and yours!" One postcard, featuring a photo of a dog with a gas mask, reads: "Got Fresh Air?"
At another table, Weinstein noted owners unwittingly overfeed their pets, advising they give their dog just a cup of food when the container they use holds several cups.
Heather Readhead, a family medicine doctor with the public health department, said she has seen similar problems with her diabetic patients. Readhead said she didn't know much about animal health before joining the coalition but now sees opportunities to help people by focusing on how they care for their pets.
Gastelum set out to exercise with Bella on a recent morning, hooking on a pink and black leash and grabbing a bottle of water. They walked briskly through their quiet Inland Empire neighborhood to a local school, where Bella chased Gastelum around the grass, taking breaks only to take a few sips of water from a small bowl.
A bird flew by and Bella took off running. "Go get 'em, baby girl," she said, but the bird was too fast.
Since starting the fitness routine last year, Gastelum said she has lost six pounds and Bella has dropped 10. They both stopped being couch potatoes and now have much more energy.
Back home, Bella, panting softly, climbed up onto a leopard-spotted blanket. Gastelum, face glistening with sweat, sat down beside her and patted Bella's head.