You might think a fat cat is roly-poly cute or blame your dog's extra pounds on the winter holidays, but you're not doing these overweight pets any favor. Obesity contributes to joint pain, diabetes and heart disease in animals, as in humans.
Losing weight can be just as challenging, too. That's why interactive toys are a better gift than pet treats. And don't feed pets any leftover holiday dinner.
"The biggest problem is we're overfeeding our pets, particularly in giving them treats. We express the human-animal bond by giving them food," said veterinarian Dr. William Edkin, of the Hempfield Animal Hospital, Silver Spring.
"Cats and dogs probably spend 20 hours a day lying around or sleeping," he added. "But it's the same as in people -- they have to eat less and exercise more if they're going to lose weight."
Playing with cats is the best form of exercise; many will chase feather and string toys, sparkle balls or laser lights. Even hiding a few treats in a kibble-dispensing toy, or placing some of the cat's dry food in various locations, can make an overweight cat expend energy by playing before eating -- and providing fun in the hunt.
Similar dog toys encourage indoor play, but dogs burn the most calories on daily walks and outdoor activities. "Of course, it depends on the dog's age, health and personality," Edkin said. "You can throw a Frisbee to a bulldog and he'll never go for it.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of dogs and cats are seriously overweight, and the incidence is increasing. Pets are obese if you cannot feel their ribs and their bellies sag. Pets are too thin if you can see their ribs.
Pet foods are high in calories because fat tastes good. Labels and calorie content are difficult to interpret, so try contacting the manufacturer directly. "Light" might not be diet food.
Many experts recommend prescription diets for obese pets. Owners should gradually switch to a lower-calorie diet, and also control portion size by feeding several smaller, scheduled meals.
Leaving food down all day for any pet is risky, no matter its weight, Edkin said. Monitor how much food different people feed the family pets. Measure out each pet's daily ration and feed only from that container.
When giving dog treats, Edkin suggests bite-size vegetables or fruit, even fat-free pretzel nuggets or single Cheerios. "They have less fat content than a 50- to 100-calorie Milkbone," he said.
Cats have different nutritional needs from dogs and are unlikely to accept low-fat treats. But fat cats might lose weight eating canned food because the increased moisture and fiber provides bulk, and cats are more likely than canines to stop eating when satiated.
Reducing portions too drastically or switching abruptly to weight-loss diets can cause behavior problems in both dogs and cats, such as begging or stealing food. Crash dieting can create additional health problems, especially in obese cats who then develop fatty liver disease.
Obese pets won't lose weight if you overfeed them diet food, Edkin warned. "It must be a long-term plan to cut back on food amounts, increase their exercise and reduce treats."
Stacy DeHoff, of Mount Joy, persevered one and one-half years before Deacon, her English Labrador, lost 20 pounds. She keeps Deacon, now 10, at his 65-pound target weight by giving him two daily walks, continuing to feed a reduced-calorie food, and giving smaller and lower-fat treats.
"He's an eating machine," she said. "He used to get human snacks -- chips, cookies and stuff -- but we made the conscious decision not to kill him with kindness. We have better eating habits ourselves now, too."
Although Deacon had no health problems when he was fat, DeHoff said she "worried about his long-term health. We were concerned about hip and elbow dysplasia. We wanted him to have a better quality, longer life."
"The cats and dogs I see who are healthier in their old age are definitely more their ideal weight," Edkin agreed. "Obesity definitely affects the lifespan of our animals, as it does us."
When Megan Gallagher and her 3-year-old son Atticus adopted a 20-pound, black-and-white cat last April, Mizz Chubbs had already spent months at the Humane League of Lancaster County because of health problems. Instead of her 8-pound ideal weight, "she was a cat of considerable girth," Gallagher said. "She looked like she'd swallowed a bowling ball."
The 6-year-old cat has since lost 3 pounds but "it's been challenging," added Gallagher, the shelter's vice president of development and outreach, who already owned two cats and two dogs. In multi-pet households, putting one on a diet can be hard, which is why experts suggest feeding overweight pets in separate locations.
"She's pretty dedicated to maintaining her own weight," Gallagher joked. "She spends the bulk of her time trying to figure out how to get food," especially from the other cats and dogs. "If she loses 1 to 2 pounds a year, that's a pretty reasonable goal."
Humane League rescue coordinator Crystal McLaughlin, of Lancaster, has adopted several fat cats and says it's important to supervise scheduled meals. Her nine cats are fed at the same time, twice daily, and she watches as they eat.
"The overweight ones, I feed a lower-calorie food on top of a table," to make them exercise, she said. "And I pick up their bowls so they can't just graze."
But she admitted that even she lost track when the 5-pound kitten she adopted grew into an 18-pounder. "It wasn't hard. I was just feeding him regular food," she recalled.
If you think your pet is overweight, consult a veterinarian because treatable ailments such as hypothyroidism or arthritis might be causing the weight gain. Then develop a weight-loss plan to avoid future health issues.
"I've adopted chubby pets before and its not an unsolvable problem," Gallagher concluded.