Did you know that Oct. 9 is National Pet Obesity Awareness Day? Unfortunately, pet obesity has reached epidemic proportions. The rate of overweight and obese pets has reached epidemic levels in the United States, affecting 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP)’s annual survey. You control what goes into that bowl, so take action.
Exercise, portion control and some cool toys can help you win the battle of the bulge. (And be sure to check out the video of some super-smart dogs at the end.)
A friend recently shared that she would have a major problem if someone tried to control when, what and how much she ate.
“I would KILL them,” she said. “And maybe eat them.”
Pet owners dictate exactly how much kibble goes into those bowls each day — yet the majority of our pets are overweight. Perhaps those sad faces and lingering looks weaken our resolve. Whatever tactic your pet uses to score extra treats, a good offense often serves as the best defense. When one of her three cats was diagnosed as obese, Vryce Hough got creative and installed high-tech doors that limited each cat’s access to kibble. Dog trainer Sarah Wilson offers a few low-tech options to help dogs shed excess baggage in multiple-pet households. Keeping pets at a healthy weight also can cut costs on veterinary bills. Check out results of a pet owner survey explaining the cost for common treatments.
Separate pets during mealtime: “Feed the dogs in separate rooms and tether the one who finishes first,” says Wilson, author of the book “Childproofing Your Dog.” She also suggests tethering the overweight dog during meal time so it can’t scarf up another dog’s food.
Don’t leave kibble out all day: Leaving bowls of kibble around for easy access, also known as free feeding, can be problematic. I learned that the hard way when two pooches visited Lulu and me. Only one dog had free run of the house. (Guess which one packed on the pounds.)
“With overweight dogs, there are few ways to manage it if you free feed,” says Wilson, who recommends feeding dogs twice a day. “They don’t starve.”
Enjoy additional playtime, but keep it light: It’s tempting to head outside for a few rounds of extreme Frisbee to drop those pounds. But make sure you don’t overdo it with overweight dogs during hot spring and summer months, particularly if the dog is older. Watch for signs of overexposure, such as excessive panting, and keep dogs hydrated. If there is a pet-friendly swimming pool nearby, opt for a few laps to burn calories.
Rough play, and even a simple game of fetch, can be problematic for overweight dogs so take it easy. “An overweight dog can run to stop and slam to the ground,” Wilson says. “Don’t let eagerness guide your decisions.”
Tiptoe through the tulips: Walking burns calories and helps relieve stress for pets and people. Grab a few leashes and take the pack on long walks around the neighborhood.“If you walk them together and say, ‘That was fun,’ then schedule regular outings for the entire pack,” Wilson says. “If you come back and say, ‘I hope that doesn’t happen again tomorrow,’ then set a play date for the young dog and the older dog may need consistent walking.”
Exercise with your dog: Trainer Dolvett Quince from “The Biggest Loser” has joined forces with Banfield Hospitals to offer a few exercises that people and pups can do together. He recommends moves such as squats, plank fetch and even swimming together.
Practice portion control: Whether it’s a bowl of kibble in the morning or a treat for being good later in the day, monitor your dog’s food consumption. Wilson suggests measuring to ensure consistency. Consult your vet for advice on how much to feed your dog, and visit the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website for handy tools such as a daily feeding and activity log to track your pet’s caloric intake.
“One of the big things I see with overweight dogs is people think the size the biscuit or treat arrives in is the size to feed the dog,” Wilson says. “It is shocking when owners see me break the biscuit into four or more pieces.”
Treats should be closer in size to pencil eraser rather than a penny. I typically use dehydrated lamb lung to keep Lulu motivated. With cheese she is practically putty in my hands. “Make [treats] the smallest amount your dog is willing to work for,” Wilson says.
Try interactive toys: Treat-dispensing toys keep pets moving, which burns calories as they work for their reward. Wilson suggests adding high-value treats such as tiny bits of low-fat string cheese to keep overweight pooches engaged during play time. Slices of apples or carrots also can serve as satisfying rewards. Just be sure to factor in those calories during feeding time.
Here are a few interactive toys, listed in order of difficulty, that help burn calories by getting pudgy pooches to move and exercise those brain cells. Be sure to monitor all dogs during playtime to avoid potential choking hazards.
Kong Classic toy: Dog owners with destructive dogs (aka power chewers) know the Kong brand well. Puncture-resistant rubber toys such as the Kong Classic can be filled with low-calorie treats or string cheese. “With the Kong, overweight dogs can stay entertained and amuse themselves,” says dog trainer Sarah Wilson of MySmartPuppy.com. It’s also available in multiple sizes.
Orbee-Tuff Strawberry with Treat Spot:Strawberries can be in season all year long with this super-durable chew toy from Planet Dog. Fill it with treats and even the most aggressive chewers will remain occupied — at least until the goodies are gone. It’s available at PlanetDog.com. Round out your produce assortment with the Orbee-Tuff artichoke, eggplant and giant raspberry.
Omega Paw Tricky Treats Ball: A cratered surface helps older dogs grasp and hold this bright orange ball. Place treats inside, and dogs must roll it around to access hidden treasures. This soft, vinyl toy is not for the power chewers.
IQ Treat Ball: My dog Lulu detested the idea of working for a meal, so this toy didn’t get much action in my house. Plenty of other pets, including a miniature piglet, give the IQ Treat Ball high marks. Fill it with kibble or other goodies, adjust the treat setting and let your pooch roll away. This hard plastic toy is available in two sizes — three inches and five inches.
Kyjen Dog Games Star Spinner: Kyjen specializes in interactive games that keep dogs occupied. Puzzle toys such as the Hide a Squirrel, Lulu’s absolute favorite, re-create exercises implemented at zoos to reduce boredom in animals. With the Star Spinner, dogs must use their noses to access hidden treats. Available at Amazon.com.
Trixie Activity Chess Dog Toy:Any toy that comes with an instruction manual presents a challenge to pets and people. This unique toy requires pooches to slide squares and lift cones to reveal hidden treats nestled inside the board. Prepare to capture the fun on video. Available at Petco.com.
Dog Fighter Treat Dispenser: After the birth of her two children, Nina Ottosson developed a line of “brain teaser” toys to keep her Bouvier des Flandres active and occupied. Made in Sweden, the Dog Fighter requires pets to move wooden blocks along four separate channels if they want a reward. It scores a 2 out of 3 in difficulty level so you may have to nudge pooches a bit to help them learn the game. Available on Amazon.com. (Check out video below of this toy in action.)
Dog Worker: One of the most challenging interactive toys in the line from designer Nina Ottosson, the Dog Worker requires pups to uncover treats hidden under various blocks. Victory comes only after dogs spin the rotating disc to slide or lift wooden blocks. Available on Amazon.com.
This column previously appeared on Mother Nature Network.