Pound for pound, animals are looking like their owners

The Baltimore Sun

Fat cats are more common than you think.

Husky huskies are, too.

Researchers say that about a quarter of all household pets are overweight and that the animal epidemic follows the obesity increase found in humans nationwide.

Obesity rates for humans rose in 31 states last year, according to a recently released study by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. And some scientists say things are no better for your pet.

"There's common agreement that obesity in pets is more of a problem than ever," said Donald C. Beitz, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at Iowa State University and chairman of a former subcommittee on dog and cat nutrition for the National Academies' National Research Council.

"The two main causes are over-consumption and amount of activity," he said.

Although that pooch on your pooch may look cute, it can cause or exacerbate deadly problems, including diabetes, heart disease and joint problems. Many of the reasons your own doctor tells you to diet also apply to overweight pets.

Jessica Newell of Dallas recently was told by her vet that her dog, Macy, needed to lose about a pound. Although that might not sound like a lot of weight, it's a hard thing to ask of a 9-pound Chihuahua.

"It's 10 percent of her body weight," said Newell, a media specialist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "That's a lot for a little dog to lose."

Newell has Macy on a diet - she calls it a "wellness plan" - and has started taking her on more walks. She's also stopped feeding Macy and her doggie sister, Mia, from the table, which many vets say is the primary reason pets today are overweight.

"The main culprits are treats," said veterinarian Wendy Dearixon, who practices at Vickery Place Animal Hospital in Dallas. "They might satisfy the dog but don't give him any nutrition. It's empty calories."

Those extra pounds can also weigh heavily on your wallet. Veterinary Pet Insurance, a national pet insurance provider, said it paid out more than $14 million in claims linked to pet obesity last year.

Those fat bills at the vet are getting fatter, too. The insurance company said the average claimed cost for obesity-related treatments was $832 last year, up from $713 in 2005 and $702 in 2004.

Despite the cost, Wayne Eldridge, a San Antonio, Texas, vet who works with Veterinary Pet Insurance, said it's still important to visit an animal practitioner before putting your overweight pet on a crash diet.

"If your dog is overweight, he or she may have a medical problem," Dr. Eldridge said. "You could have a dog that looks overweight and his abdomen might be retaining fluid.

"He could have cancer," he said. "Just because an animal looks overweight, don't go out and buy a reduced-calorie diet."

For Macy, no drugs should be necessary. Some healthy eating and exercise should help her shed the flab, her owner said.

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