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It's Unhealthy to let Pets be Fat

In this era of pet resorts, doggie yoga, feng shui pet gardens and Retin-A acne treatments for cats, it was just a matter of time. A pet weight-loss contest. Your dog or cat can win money, a year's supply of pricey pet food and free airline tickets to stay at an "upscale pet-friendly hotel" by entering Hill's 2006 National PetFit Challenge (www.petfit.com). The contest started in April and ends Sept. 1.

As over-the-top as this marketing ploy may sound, controlling your pet's weight is a serious matter. One of every four dogs and cats in the Western world is obese, according to a 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences. "Like humans, dogs and cats that are obese run a higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease or other problems," according to the report. The report sets new dietary guidelines for dogs and cats, including specific nutrient requirements for protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber and additives. "The overweight dog is over-loved," said Lawrence Gerson, a veterinarian in Point Breeze, Pa., who has started a regular weigh-in program to monitor some of his pudgy patients. Many owners don't recognize that their pets are larger than they should be.

One study done by a pet-food company, he notes, showed that dogs on reduced diets lived two years longer than "free-fed" dogs that ate as much as they wanted. The solution is to reduce the amount of food given to pets (no more table scraps!) and to increase their exercise. But that can be far simpler to control for a dog than a cat, as one Shadyside, Pa., cat owner can attest. Molly Youngling's 11-year-old indoor cat Zippy ("The Zipster") looks more like a Buddha than a cat, at an estimated 35 to 40 pounds. He's larger than the other four, slender cats that she also owns. Like most cat owners, she keeps dry food out all the time, as cats tend to eat small meals all day. In the morning, she spreads the contents of one can of meat among the food dishes.

"If I changed that routine, I'd have a bunch of crying cats all the time," she said. She's never been admonished by her vet for Zippy's girth. Other than the fact he moves slower these days and snores, he seems fine. Not surprisingly, the $35.9 billion pet-supplies-and-services industry is pumping out all sorts of low-fat/low-calorie chow and weight-loss strategies for its four-legged consumers. Although a Pet Weight-Watchers program has yet to hit the market, Gerson is trying something similar in his practice.

He recommends that owners weigh or measure the daily food portions. If the dog or cat is not losing weight, gradually decrease the amount of food given each day, including treats. A dizzying array of pet health, diet and fitness books are now on the market. The just-released "Fitness Unleashed! A Dog and Owners' Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together" estimates that close to 30 million dogs in the United States are obese. The book was written by veterinarian Marty Becker of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and medical doctor Robert Kushner, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University.

"Many of us have shared our generous (food) portions and inactive routines with our pets," writes Becker. "Centuries of species' self-preservation have left most dogs with a strong desire to consume any edible bite they can find. They've historically survived as scavengers. . . . Many will eat as much and as often as you'll let them."

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