(Jun 29, 2010) Toronto Frankie is one big loser. The Labrador-Collie mix has trimmed 11 pounds, or 8.5 per cent, of body fat from his 76-pound frame since owner Lynn Atkin-Phillips registered him in the Woof Watchers program at Toronto's Canine Wellness Centre.
He's still not the leader of the pack in a 12-dog race to win the centre's Biggest Loser title. So far Jersey Girl, a small mutt, has lost 5 pounds or 9.5 per cent of her body fat. Xander, a German shepherd, is close behind, at 9.4 per cent.
Frankie was one of the first dogs to join Woof Watchers, which dog rehabilitator Tania Costa started in 2008 when she realized dogs were suffering from a very human ailment: obesity.
Just as we become more sedentary, so do our canines, many of whom have extremely limited periods of physical activity every day, particularly in the city. Most pet owners use food or treats to show affection. It's hard to resist those beautiful, beseeching eyes.
Then there's the problem with "people food." Costa has had owners admit to feeding their pets pizza, cheesies, Popsicles and even Coke, which she likens to killing them with kindness.
"We are in 100 per cent control of what goes in their mouths, " she says. "They can't make informed decisions, so we've got to make them for them."
Cats suffer as well, but it's harder to exercise them and there are no outside programs.
When Frankie started limping two years ago, his vet referred Atkin-Phillips to Costa. His gradual weight gain had resulted in joint problems.
"I certainly exacerbated it by not holding the reins on treats," his owner says, proud of his now-lean, 65-pound frame. "I think they were more of a knee-jerk thing for me."
After a vet approves an exercise program, Costa determines the dog's fitness level, then starts setting three-month targets, with hopes of a half-pound loss each week. An initial assessment is $45 and participants must commit to two weekly swim sessions, which average $30 each.
Costa uses her two pools for low-impact exercise. Where a fit dog can easily do 15 minutes on the pool's treadmill, the heart rate of an obese dog can get dangerously high after five minutes, she says. "You're in a bit of a Catch-22 situation," she says.
At the Rosedale Animal Clinic, registered vet technician Nicki Devitt sees several animals a day that hobble in, crippled by severe arthritis.
"A lot of it could be alleviated just by losing the extra weight."
The clinic is part of the seven-member Ontario Veterinary Group that recently started a Points for Pounds incentive system throughout the chain. It is free to clients when a pet has passed a wellness exam. For every 1 per cent of body fat their pet loses, the owner gets 10 points, which they can redeem for toys and diet food.
Just like humans, obese dogs are prone to chronic inflammation, tissue damage and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, liver disease, hormonal disorders, kidney disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Some dogs gain weight for legitimate medical reasons: a thyroid condition, pituitary gland problems or food allergies. But a lot of them are just fat.
Just a couple of extra pounds causes greater risk for health problems and shortened lives, studies show. One lifelong study by Nestle Purina showed Labradors that kept lean lived 15 per cent longer and dogs moderately overweight were less likely to live beyond 12 years. The overweight dogs also required medication for osteoarthritis or other chronic health problems as much as three years earlier.
"Having even an extra five pounds on them is huge," says Devitt, equating it to 20 pounds a person. "It's a lot of extra work on every system of their body."
Many owners laugh off an extra few pounds, says Devitt, "They think it's cute."
Then there's the emotional quotient.
"(People) come home from work and feel guilty for not spending all day with them and instead of taking them for a half-hour walk -- because they're exhausted from working -- they give them a bunch of cookies," Devitt says.
But your dog will be just as happy with praise, attention and exercise.
Devitt suggests starting with small steps. "You have to change your lifestyle and theirs, " she says. "You have to take them for a walk."
WEIGHT LOSS TIPS
* Start with a visit to your veterinarian, to rule out health issues and have your pet's doctor involved.
* Don't provide an unlimited supply of food. Feed measured amounts at designated times.
* Know how many calories your pet should have each day, at each life stage, and set a daily limit.
* Use a low-cal food that's high in fibre.
* Say no to table scraps.
* Give healthy treats, such as homemade sweet potato chips, green beans, baked chicken pieces or commercial low-calorie cookies.
* Remember, size doesn't matter -- it's all about the smell -- and, for some breeds, it will never seem like enough anyway. Don't be fooled by that. Break large treats into pieces.
* Take a minimum 30-minute walk around the neighbourhood at least once a day, walking a regular pace for five minutes, speed walking for 30 seconds, then slowing down for another five minutes. Swimming is the best exercise and easy on the joints.
* Play fetch with a ball or toy.
* Hide toys around the house for your dog to find.
* Use praise, attention and exercise as rewards, not treats.
* Set realistic expectations and commit to the long haul and a new, healthier lifestyle.
SHOULD YOUR DOG LOSE A FEW?
A dog's weight at age one or two years is considered ideal, in most cases. If you aren't sure, here are some signs of excess fat that may make you want to consult your vet:
* Ribs that are hard to feel or covered by a lot of flesh.
* Fat on the lower back or base of the tail.
* No waist, or very slight one, when viewing from above.
* Thickened trunk near the hind legs.
* Trouble getting comfortable, not sleeping for long periods before moving.
* Playing less and getting tired more.
* Drinking lots of water and general lethargy.
* Has difficulty jumping on furniture or climbing stairs.
* Stiff when walking, pants more than usual.


* Taken from TheSpec.com