How-to: Help your pets fight the bulge, one bark at a time


You can say what you want about Karen Tibbetts' husband or teenage son and daughter, but her beloved miniature Australian shepherd's weight is off limits.

"I always say, ‘Call my husband what you want, call my kids what you want, but I'm very sensitive about Dublin,' " Tibbetts said of the family's beloved black and white pup that will turn 5 in January. "Chubby Dubbie," nicknamed by the Tibbetts' kids for his rounded physique, is on the larger side of miniature, weighing in at around 50 pounds, according to his owner, about 10 pounds over what his short legs should be carrying.

"Most dogs you can feel ribs and that's just not happening here," Tibbetts said with an affectionate pat on Dublin's mid-section during a short break in their daily mile-and-a-quarter walk around the dead-end loop on their quiet Lenox street, disrupted only by the grinding hum of the garbage truck and Dublin's warning bark to the machine to stay away.

Despite living an active lifestyle -- with multiple walks a day around the loop, trips to Kennedy Park and weekly hikes -- and a strict diet of diet Kibble, Dublin still fights the numbers on the vet's scale.

The friendly shepherd with an aversion to garbage men isn't alone. According to a 2012 National Pet Obesity Survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 52.5 percent of dogs in America are overweight or obese. The survey, released in March of this year, also found the number of overweight cats has reached an all-time high -- with 58.3 percent of cats overweight or obese.

While a little extra chub on our family pets might not seem that big of a deal, Dr. John Reynolds, veterinarian and owner of the Pittsfield Veterinary Hospital & Shaker Hill Pet Resort on West Housatonic Street, warns overweight pets can have weight-related health issues just like humans.

"Just like in people, being overweight makes a lot of other health problems worse," said Reynolds. Joint pain -- due to the extra force weight can add to animal joints -- diabetes and fatty tumors are just some of the issues overweight dogs and cats can experience, according to Reynolds. Veterinarians use a scoring system called "Body Condition System" to assess an animal's weight. Because it's not always one-size-fits-all, Reynolds said it's important for pets to be weighed and scored at annual exams so changes can be monitored over time. For example, a dog that is at its ideal weight will score a 5, whereas an overweight dog will score 7 to 9 on the scale.

"We consider dogs overweight if there is a lot of fat on their backs or over the ribs," said Reynolds. "When we look down at a dog you should see a waist, kind of like people. When we see a dog that is straight [with no waist] that means they are overweight."

Though the number of overweight pets is on the rise, Reynolds said pet obesity has always been a problem.

"Dogs and cats are supposed to be working animals," he said. "The lifestyle of wild cats, dogs is on the move. Now, domesticated dogs sleep 23 hours a day and expend almost no energy."

For indoor cats, keeping the weight off is even more difficult, Reynolds said, because they use almost no energy during the day.

It's also extremely difficult to help a cat lose weight. Just ask the staff at the Berkshire Humane Society, which recently took in and cared for Eleanor, a 22-pound cat that could barely walk when she was surrendered to the shelter in February.

"She was sad," said Cheryl Truskowski, shelter manager at the humane society. "She was so big that her skin would hang over her litter box. She would pee on herself because there was so much extra skin, and she was unable to clean herself."

Diane Briggs, administrative assistant at the shelter, decided to move Eleanor (or Ellie Mae as Briggs sometimes calls her) into the shelter's office area, in a closet space adjacent to her desk. After a medical workup, it was determined the cat had no medical issues due to the weight. Briggs and the shelter staff took on the project of helping Eleanor shed the pounds -- they closely monitored her food intake and walked her up and down the hallway with some motivational toys to help along the way.

Reynolds suggests purchasing toys available for cats, like laser mice, and just playing with them.

"Coming up with ways to play with your cat will help keep weight down," he said.

For Eleanor, the weight-loss steps worked to a point, but by summer it was clear that despite the weight she had lost she was still uncomfortable due to excess sagging skin, according to Truskowski. Dr. Michelle Gorbutt and Dr. Heather Blake from Greylock Animal Hospital decided to remove the excess skin for the cat's quality of life.

In a sense, Eleanor got a tummy tuck.

In August, 2.5 pounds of excess skin was removed from Eleanor. Truskowski points out this was a special case and this kind of procedure is not a regular occurrence. But luckily for Eleanor, who left the shelter at a slimmed-down 17 pounds, it worked. During a recent visit to the shelter, Briggs reported that Eleanor is doing well in her new home -- one that has three flights of stairs she walks up and down multiple times a day, something the old Eleanor could have never done.

To help your cat or dog be a success story like Eleanor, Reynolds said to use the same formula people use: Increase activity and decrease calories. He said we often overfeed our pets because we love them and want to spoil them, and the directions on animal food bags can be vague.

"Remember, if your dog doesn't do anything but exist they barely need to eat anything," he said.

It's also important to check with your vet to make sure your pet doesn't have a medical issue causing the weight gain despite your best efforts, such as hormonal diseases, Reynolds said.

And sometimes, just like people, certain animals are predisposed to pack on the pounds -- no matter what their owners do.

"One size doesn't fit all," said Reynolds. "That's the challenge." Healthy tips

Help your favorite four-legged friend fight the bulge with these tips from Dr. John Reynolds:

- Measure your pet's food

- Walk your dog multiple times a day

- Play with your cat

- Avoid people food, but if you can't, try frozen green beans and carrots and for dogs

- To keep cats from waking you up at night when they are hungry, feed smaller amounts multiple times a day instead of one or two big meals.

- Rabbits are also predisposed to weight gain. Avoid feeding them too much fruit as sugar can cause weight to pack on.


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