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Get Rover to roll over? Fat chance

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, at 7:53 a.m.

She has been in at least three fitness programs. She runs on the treadmill. She swims in a lap pool. Her trainers shout encouragement. And although her target weight still eludes her, Lolita remains optimistic, smiling gamely during her workout and snacking on carrots.

If only her legs weren’t so short.

Lolita is a 4-year-old dachshund, a breed that like the beagle and Labrador retriever is prone to putting on extra pounds. In her case, about 8 pounds too many.

But the problem of overweight dogs cuts across breeds. More than half of American dogs are overweight, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an organization founded by a veterinarian in 2005 to draw attention to the problem. And in dogs, as in people, extra weight is linked to diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure as well as kidney and respiratory diseases.

Reducing calorie intake is part of the solution, veterinarians and pet behaviorists say. But diet without exercise isn’t enough. So dogs have been hitting the gym for fitness programs at kennels and pet spas around the country.

At the Morris Animal Inn in Morristown, N.J., where Lolita works out, the pools and treadmills are part of a 25,000-square-foot building surrounded by nature trails. Staff members in khakis and polo shirts lead dogs through exercises and reward them with yogurt vegetable parfaits. Programs range from the Olympian, at a daily rate of about $100, to the Athlete, at about $40 a day.

Cesar Millan, the popular dog trainer whose books and television shows promote a philosophy of “exercise, discipline, affection,” said most dogs were overweight because of lazy owners who confuse food with affection and attention. Letting the dogs out in the backyard is no substitute for a walk, he added. And giving the dog a cookie doesn’t make up for not playing with him.

“Dogs today have butlers and maids,” Millan said. “They don’t hunt for their food anymore, but they should work for food.” And that work needs to include walks during which the dog is focused on obeying commands to be physically and mentally engaged.

For the last seven years, the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has offered a fat camp for dogs, inpatient and outpatient. But the dogs who live at the clinic tend to be more successful, said Angela Witzel, a veterinarian at the university who specializes in animal nutrition. “A dog can give me big puppy-dog eyes, and I’m still not going to give him a piece of chicken,” Witzel said, whereas an owner may not be able to resist the appeal.

In choosing dog food, she recommended checking the label on store-bought food for the endorsement of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an organization that helps develops nutritional standards for animal food.

And “if you are going to use a homemade dog food, consult a veterinarian,” Witzel said, because different dogs have different nutritional needs. “For instance, a dog doesn’t need carbohydrates unless she is pregnant or lactating.”

Bad diets are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of weight gain in dogs, said Ernie Ward, a veterinarian in Calabash, N.C., who founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and is the author of the 2010 book “Chow Hounds: Why Are Dogs Getting Fatter?”

Instead of ice cream, Ward recommended feeding your dog more of what you might eat if you were on a diet: vegetables like carrots, broccoli, asparagus and green peas.

“This is a human problem,” he said. “No pet is making a sandwich and eating a bowl of ice cream at midnight.”

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