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Courtesy of veterinarian Ernie Ward

Extra weight puts serious stress on a pets' joints. The best reward to give them is praise rather than treats.

Become your pet's personal trainer

by Lauren Hise
Jan 11, 2012


Courtesy of veterinarian Ernie Ward

Obesity in pets can result in a multitude of health problems, such as diabetes. Give dogs the treat of a walk rather than extra foods.

Related Links

Project: Pet Slim DownAssociation for Pet Obesity Prevention

Helpful Tips

  • Talk to your vet before putting your cat or dog on a weight loss plan. Vets will work with you to ensure a healthier pet.
  • Those crunchy greens, such as broccoli and asparagus, can be healthy treats for your dog.
  • Try to fit in daily walks with your dog or playtime with your cat. You will both gain from being more active.
  • Set a goal for a pet's weight and use programs such as Project: Pet Slim Down to reach it.
  • Think calories not quantity. Those treats that are no bigger than your thumb could add up to more than you think.

In the rush to get ourselves and our families fit and active with gym memberships and fad diets, people often forget very important members of households: our pets.

“One of the pitfalls of fitness is we focus on our own waistline and forget our pudgy pets,” said veterinarian Ernie Ward, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, based in North Carolina.

Some 53 percent of cats and 55 percent of dogs are overweight or even obese, according to a survey of 133 cats and 383 dogs from 29 clinics by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.


The association has seen a steady increase in the percentage of overweight pets since first beginning the survey in 2007. The percentage of obese dogs jumped from just over 10 percent to 20 percent by 2010, the source of the most recent data. The next survey results will be reported in February.

While Ward attributes part of the dramatic increase to veterinarians’ better understanding of obesity in pets, the increase also has a lot to do with owners misunderstanding of healthy weight.

Part of the problem, Ward said is our tendency to “normalize the overweight condition.” As owners, we often perceive animals that are in excellent shape as being too skinny and a fat cat as a happy cat, he said.

“For humans, food is love,” Ward said, citing our tendency to celebrate special occasions with food and spirits. “We transfer that communication to our dogs. For dogs, affection, interaction is love.”

Ward recommends using treats as a reward only when your pets are very young, quickly replacing food with praise. Owners who dole out treats too freely could be unknowingly giving their pets the equivalent of multiple candy bars or 20 to 30 percent of their daily diet in one bite “calorie grenades.”

“Every day I’m confronted with a disease that if I could roll back the clock and modify the diet, we wouldn’t be facing that problem today,” Ward said.

Still, many owners have a hard time saying no to their pets’ hopeful eyes.

Ken Proctor, who supplies American LaFrance fire trucks and owns grocery stores, takes his own Miniature Schnauzers to Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N. C., where Ward works as a vet. Proctor and his wife Becky found it all too easy to give into Bombay’s love of treats and so did many others who doted on the dog while he kept his owners company at one of their stores.

“Dr. Ward kept saying, ‘You’ve got to control Bombay’s weight,’” Proctor said. “It was hard for us because we always thought he was hungry.”

Realizing they would lose Bombay if he kept gaining weight, they decided to try and get him lose weight with the help of a diet, exercise and a little sister they adopted from rescue named Maggie. This also meant a little tough love when it came to treats.

“Be the parents,” Ward said. “You have to say no. Your dog is not starving. Your dog is not going to suffer injury by not getting a little piece of steak at dinner.”

Soon Bombay was shedding the pounds and no longer suffering from the health problems he had gained from being overweight, and he wasn’t the only one. After undergoing gastric bypass, Proctor himself has lost 216 pounds and no longer needs to take the 14 daily pills he had previously required. Helping keep Bombay’s weight down through walks has helped him continue maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

“It just worked for both of us,” Proctor said.

Like Proctor, owners who are looking to get in shape should have no trouble incorporating their pets' weight loss into their routine. The same crunchy greens that fitness buffs reach for can double as healthy treats for pets. Chances are, pets will gobble down broccoli, carrots and blueberries quicker than picky children. Plus, fit pets mean having a workout buddy ready and waiting.

“Tell me a dog that doesn’t want to go for a walk or run every day,” said Ward.

With the hope of getting pets moving along with their owners, Nestle Purina PetCare Company has even teamed up with Jenny Craig Inc. for Project: Pet Slim Down. On the project website you can take a pledge, get helpful tips and learn more about how to keep your pet at a truly healthy weight. Special discounts and promotions are even available through the end of March to help you with your weight loss goal.

"Obesity obviously is a topic of concern for both pets as well as their owners," said Jadea Abolahrari, a spokesperson for Project: Pet Slim Down. "As people start to see their pets as part of their family and their companion, we thought what a great time for them to collaborate and create an active, healthier household."

If your pet is overweight, start with a trip to your vet’s office and work with them to develop a plan that will work for them. With a little adjustment to your habits and routine, your pet will be at your side for many New Year’s resolutions to come.