Your dog is looking at you with those big brown eyes. Your heart melts, and you reach for a treat. His tail wags, and you feel content. According to Ernest Ward, DVM, chief-of-staff at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, North Carolina, and president of the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, instant gratification comes in healthier forms.
“Instead of giving your dog a treat or refilling his bowl with extra food, why not give him a pat on the head, a hug, or make time for a quick toss of his favorite chew toy?” he says. “Most of us confuse affection with confection.”
Dr. Ward founded the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2004 for professional and personal reasons. “In addition to being a veterinarian, I’m a certified personal trainer and a pet owner,” he says. “I treat a lot of overweight dogs and cats in my practice, and the number of overweight pets continues to rise. Years ago, this problem really didn’t exist.”
A 2007 study conducted by the APOP found that 43 percent of all dogs and 53 percent of all cats were classified as overweight or obese by a veterinary healthcare provider. “It’s a serious problem,” he says, “because there is a direct correlation between obesity and disease.”
“We have learned that being overweight is not healthy for humans. Why should it be any different for pets? It’s not. Carrying around extra fat brings on heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes. It also shortens the lifespan of dogs and cats. I want my pets around as long as possible.”
On a positive note, these ailments are preventable and some are reversible with a good diet and a fair amount of exercise. Dr. Ward suggests starting your puppy on a healthy diet. “In our culture, we have to change our way of thinking,” he explains. “We often reward ourselves, our children, and our pets with food. Why not take a walk with your dog? We have become couch potatoes and our dogs have become lap potatoes.”
Implementing healthy eating habits is much easier with a puppy than a full-grown dog. “Puppies don’t know they are not supposed to be eating treats,” says Dr. Ward. “Overeating is something that we all learn — dogs and people, which means that we can learn to eat healthy and to exercise. Talk to your veterinarian to see how much food your dog should get. Obviously large dogs eat more food and more meals per day than a small dog.”
“You should also read the labels on the cans and bags of dog food. Look at the calorie count. Avoid dog biscuits. If you really want to give your dog a treat, feed him crunchy baby carrots, broccoli, peas, and asparagus — just a small handful of raw vegetables. They are filled with vitamins and are naturally sweet.”
It’s easy to start a puppy out on this regimen. It’s more challenging changing behaviors of pet owners who have overfed their dogs over the course of several months or a few years. In those cases, your dog expects to be rewarded with extra food and treats.
When Dr. Ward treats an overweight dog, he first checks for certain diseases like Cushing’s disease, which causes fat around the belly. (Cushing’s disease is an endocrine disorder caused by high levels of a hormone called cortisol.)
If disease is ruled out, Dr. Ward will put his clients’ dogs on a diet. “Putting a dog on a diet is a process of retraining people and their pets,” he explains. “I have never found a dog that would prefer food over play. Dogs, like most of us, prefer attention. So, that’s an easy start. Instead of filling your dog’s dish, go for a walk, pet him, or give him a good brushing.”
Dr. Ward also suggests setting exact-or near exact-times for meals. “Put down the food bowl in the morning and in the early evening,” he says. “If the dog doesn’t eat all of it, pick it up. Don’t let your dog graze.”
You can feed dogs plain ice cubes or ice cubes with tiny bits of fruit in them. It’s a good option on hot days. He also suggests refilling the water bowl often with fresh water. In addition, Dr. Ward gives his dogs vitamin supplements-mainly lecithin and omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil). Lecithin and omega 3 support brain health.
Remember that exercise is an important part of combating weight gain. “Many people think that by letting their dog have access to their backyard, that the dog will get plenty of exercise,” says Dr. Ward. “That is so not true. When you first let your dog outside, he will run around. As soon as you leave for work, he will probably retreat to the doghouse and sleep for the rest of the day.”
“Dogs are social animals, and they need human interaction. Take a walk with them — a brisk, long walk. You and your dog will both benefit by feeling fit and by bonding.”
Michele C. Hollow is a freelance writer/editor specializing in pets, wildlife, health, and family travel. She is the author of the soon-to-be released book The Everything Guide to Careers with Animals.