Battling the buldge

Vivian Walton of Hanahan makes sure her dog Zeus gets daily exercise, including runs on a treadmill.

By Ashley McGee

Many people exercise their four-legged companions to maintain or reduce weight. But a good diet, socialization, mental stimulation and being part of a loving family are all equally as important as exercise for keeping your pet fit.

Although weight is only one component of your pet’s overall fitness, it is an important piece of the puzzle. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 58 percent of cats and 54 percent of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese.

“There has been a significant increase in obesity amongst pet animals that mirrors the trend in humans,” said Dr. Pamela Austin of Westbury Veterinary Clinic in Summerville. “Obesity in pets is strongly linked to lack of exercise and overfeeding.”

Perhaps even more startling, the same study found that 90 percent of owners of overweight cats and 95 percent of owners of overweight dogs incorrectly identified their pet as a normal weight.

This discrepancy, also known as the fat gap, is largely attributed to a lack of a uniform definition. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention defines clinical pet obesity as 30 percent above ideal weight, but that definition varies among veterinary practitioners, industry stakeholders and pet owners. As a result, the organization is calling upon the veterinary industry to clearly define and classify pet obesity as a disease and adopt a universal Body Condition Score (BCS) scale for assessing pet obesity.

Some indicators for determining if your pet is at a healthy weight include: its ribs are easily felt, its stomach doesn’t sag and its waist is easily noted when viewed from above.

Like people, neglecting a pet’s weight problem can lead to a host of other serious health issues, including osteoarthritis, diabetes, liver disease and heart failure. For a dog or cat, just a few pounds can make a difference between healthy and overweight.

Denied exercise, household pets don’t just gain weight. They can become destructive, noisy or generally antsy in the effort to relieve tension and pent-up energy. This is especially true of young dogs, which are often crated while the owners are at work.

“Most dogs will remain fit with a good walk or run every day,” said Shelley McGee, owner of Walk N Walk, a Charleston-based dog walking and pet care business. “Some dogs don’t enjoy it or can’t physically do it. Activities including throwing a ball or toy, playing chase or agility courses are good alternatives.”

Vivian Walton of Hanahan has a 2 1/2-year-old dog named Zeus. He’s a Dogo Argentino, also known as an Argentine mastiff. This large breed can weigh up to 100 pounds, making daily exercise especially important.

“Zeus pulls my husband on the bike a few times a week,” said Walton. “But, when we aren’t able to get outside, we make sure he at least runs on the treadmill.”

Another factor to consider is the extreme temperatures in the Lowcountry. In the summer months, it may be too hot to take your dog on a run.

“If your dog enjoys swimming, you can head over to James Island County Park or one of the local beaches during their dog-friendly hours,” said Mallory Cooper, co-owner of Charleston Dog Walker. “Swimming is great exercise and works well for older or injured dogs because it reduces stress on bones and joints.”

While we may take our dogs out for a brisk walk or jog, cats aren’t designed to perform that sort of activity well. They are easily bored and can turn destructive, so play time is important for them, too. Keep in mind, cats prefer the 100-yard dash to the marathon, and to hunt rather than chase.

“Several 10- to 15-minute play sessions throughout the day work best for cats,” McGee said. “That’s just how their bodies work. They’ll have a blast playing with a feather wand, chasing a light or playing in boxes.”

One thing they do have in common with dogs: Any activity that you can devise is better than none at all.

Contrary to popular belief, pet fitness isn’t just about exercise. Nutrition plays a major role in the overall health and fitness of pets. Like exercise, caloric intake varies based on the species and breed. A 50-pound indoor dog requires a daily average of 700 to 900 calories, whereas a 10 pound cat only needs 180 to 200.

“Numerous owners tell me they are only feeding ‘one scoop, twice a day,’ thinking this equates to one cup twice each day,” said Dr. Jennifer Au of Charleston Veterinary Referral Center. “When I have them measure with an actual measuring cup, they realize they are feeding significantly more.”

Even more complicated is the fact that our cats evolved on a diet based on protein as opposed to humans and dogs that can eat vegetables, proteins and fats. For this reason, many cats will do better on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for weight loss.

When considering whether your pet is receiving adequate nutrition, it’s important to consider not just the quantity, but the quality of their diet. Understanding pet food basics such as ingredient lists and product labels can help owners make educated decisions about their pet’s nutritional health.

“We feed Zeus grain-free dog food,” said Walton. “We also supplement with fish oil, which I’ve heard is good for joints and helps give him a shiny, healthy coat.”

When selecting food for your pet, always consult with a veterinarian rather than seek guidance from the Internet or other sources. According to Au, as long as you are selecting a good quality dog food, supplemental vitamins are not recommended and in some cases increase the risk of development conditions.

“However, there are several studies in dogs that have shown that omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) reduce inflammation in osteoarthritic joints,” she said. “So I do recommend fish oil for pets with osteoarthritis.

You can also improve your pet’s diet by abstaining from feeding them table scraps, monitoring the amount of food you give them and limiting treats. The amount of calories in treats has been found to be a major factor in the rise of pet obesity.

When you combine exercise with proper diet and lifestyle, you extend the years you’ll have with your four-legged friend. Not only will you add years to your pet’s life, but there are emotional and physical health benefits for you as the owner, too.

Since every pet is different and has his or her own particular set of needs, owners should consult with a veterinarian to ensure their pet is healthy prior to starting any diet and exercise regimen.