Fat cats. Pudgy pooches. No doubt they're cute, but obesity is as weighty an issue for our four-legged friends as it is for us. Recent research suggests that 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats are overweight or obese.
Portly pets face a host of health issues, including osteoarthritis and joint problems; insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes; high blood pressure; and heart and respiratory diseases. Pet obesity has been shown to take at least two years off an animal's life. "It's a big problem," says veterinarian Marty Becker, author of more than 20 books, including Your Cat: The Owner's Manual and Your Dog: The Owner's Manual. "While they make cute cartoons, they're little tubby time bombs."
Plenty of factors are fueling the pet obesity epidemic. Pet foods today are more calorically dense than in years past, and owners are likely overfeeding their animals. Fido is giving you puppy dog eyes? The kitten is purring? Reward the cuteness with an extra scoop of food, or even some scraps off the table. That adds up—especially when coupled with too little exercise and, in general, a lack of knowledge about how much your pet should be eating and what he should weigh. (Dogs and cats 10 to 20 percent over their ideal body weight are considered overweight, and once they surpass the 20 percent mark, they become obese.)
That's why there's a growing movement to educate pet owners and encourage them to slim down with their furry friends. In January, Nestle Purina and Jenny Craig teamed up to help people and their pets get in shape with Project: Pet Slim Down. The free online program offers tips on feeding, weight loss tracking tools, and advice on exercising together.
Beyond formal programs, experts say there's no shortage of strategies to get fit and drop pounds with your pet in tow—yes, even if he's a canine couch potato. "Plus, exercise is a bit more fun when accompanied by your favorite pet," says Robert Kushner, clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity in Chicago, and coauthor of Fitness Unleashed!: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together, which he wrote with Becker.
Kushner is also coauthor of the 2006 PPET Study: People and Pets Exercising Together. Researchers spent one year tracking two groups of overweight people: those with and without dogs. Over the course of the study, people lost an average of 11 pounds (about 5 percent of their initial body weight), and dogs dropped an average of 12 pounds (15.6 percent of their starting weight). Dog owners lost more weight than their canine-free counterparts, though people in each group followed the same diet and exercise recommendations. Folks in the dog group got about 3.9 hours of exercise each week, and spent two-thirds of that time with their dogs.
Among the perks of opting for a four-legged workout buddy? Animals are loyal, nonjudgmental, and supportive, making them ideal weight-loss partners. Pets won't get too busy or bail on a walk. They're initiators, and will bark or act antsy until you whip out that leash. "A dog never gets a better offer," Kushner says. "He'll get all excited, and you'll get out the door because you don't want to disappoint him. Dogs don't like to be bored, and a tired dog is a happy dog."
Consider these ideas to get started:
Put on your walking shoes. Walking the dog is a classic because it works. Dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week, while those without a dog log 168 minutes. If you're just beginning a walking regimen, it's OK to start slowly. Keep distances short, going a little farther each week. Keep track of your walks to monitor the progress you and your dog have made. "If you have a tiny, older dachshund, he may be panting after a few blocks," Becker says. "But a border collie could go many miles. You can get different members of the family to walk the dog on different paths each day, or enlist the help of a neighbor." And to shake up the routine: Take a slingshot along and pause periodically to shoot some Cheerios that your dog can chase after and nibble on. "It's a nice little burst of activity," Becker says.
Play fetch. Or any other game that'll get you and your pet dashing and panting. Play fetch with a ball or Frisbee—or if it's nighttime, play in a fenced-in yard with a white or light-up ball. Catch bubbles using a special bubble-blower toy made for dogs. Engage in some intense chasing, with a toy on a rope, for example. (Don't use branches or sticks, however, since they can hurt a dog's mouth.)
Go swimming. Some dogs are natural water breeds; others require training before diving in. Begin in shallow water: Keep your dog on a 15- to 20-foot leash, and wade in with him, encouraging him to play. Never force him to go in beyond his comfort zone—belly-deep is enough, especially at first. As the water becomes more familiar, toss a ball a couple feet away to encourage him to go a little deeper. Don't let your dog go into currents, and if you're in a lake, get him a well-fitted canine life vest. Swimming is often ideal for older dogs or those with joint and other physical problems.
Grab a bike. Biking is best for dogs that weigh at least 20 pounds. Invest in a product that attaches your dog's leash to your bicycle, which will keep him away from the wheels and prevent accidents caused by holding a leash in your hands. Bike at a trotting pace, and if your dog pauses, don't attempt to pull him along—get off the bike and walk alongside it.
No matter which exercise you choose, play it safe. Always bring water for yourself and your pet, along with some healthy snacks. (In addition to reenergizing your dog, these can be used to regain attention if he is distracted by something along the way.) Jog with only one dog at a time, though you may be able to walk with two. Watch out for signs of over-exertion and dehydration, especially in the heat, such as rapid breathing, heavy panting, salivation, fatigue, and staggering. Try to exercise in the coolest part of the day, or head to a shaded area. The human palm has the same sensitivity as a dog's paw, Becker says, so touch your palm to the ground. "If it's too hot for your hand, it's too hot for them to be walking," he says. "We have to be careful with all these activities. We wouldn't go out and run the New York City Marathon the day we decided to do it, but a dog would happily follow along until it collapses."