People looking for a way to lose weight may want to trade in pills for a pooch.
A first-of-its-kind experiment to put people and their pets on a diet and exercise program found that both lost weight and kept it off, though dogs did better than their owners and didn't drive them crazy begging for food.
With two-thirds of Americans and one-fourth of pets overweight or obese, there's huge potential for this novel buddy system, experts say.
"If you're looking for motivation and social support to lose weight, you probably don't have to look any further than the pet in your own home," said Dr. Robert Kushner of Northwestern Medical School in Chicago, who led the study.
It was funded by Hill's Pet Nutrition, which makes Science Diet and a prescription diet dog food. Results were reported this week at the national obesity conference.
Despite its cuteness factor, the research actually was a big hairy deal, said Kushner, who has done obesity studies for 20 years and designed this one after Hill's asked if he thought pets could help people lose weight and vice versa.
He and Kimberly Rudloff, a Chicago veterinarian, enrolled three groups: 56 people, 53 dogs, and 36 dogs and their owners.
The dogs ranged from pudgy poodles to husky Huskies. Some breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels, Shetland sheepdogs, Basset hounds and beagles are prone to obesity, and the study included many of these.
People attended weekly counseling sessions at Northwestern on diet and exercise, and were encouraged to walk at least 20 minutes and limit calories to 1,400 a day. Dogs were fed the prescription diet, and target weights were set according to a "doggie BMI" or body-mass index taking into account the animal's breed and age.
All were followed for one year.
The dog owners did slightly better than the dieters who walked and dieted alone. Overall, people lost an average of 11 pounds, or 5 percent of their body weight, in the first four months and kept it off for the next eight. The most anyone lost was 51 pounds. But the diet was less onerous and more fun for the dog-walkers.
The weight-loss for the dogs was even more effective. They lost an average of 12 pounds - 15 percent of their initial weight. One dog actually lost 35 pounds.
Of course, that's easier to do when someone controls your food dish. But the dogs didn't seem to mind as judged by something any dog owner can understand:
"Begging behavior did not go up," said Dennis Jewell, a Hill's animal nutritionist who did the dog diet part of the study.
Owners said their dogs had more pep and were anxious to go outside for walks and play.
Kathleen O'Dekirk, a 51-year-old Chicago lawyer, said that certainly was true for her paunchy Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Winston, who lost seven pounds during the study.
"He bounds up the stairs three and four at a time whereas before he used to just crawl up," she said.
She lost 13 pounds, and it encouraged her so much that she joined a fitness class and now does more strenuous exercise than she'd ever done before.
"I had never been on a diet," she said. "I dropped two pant sizes."
Kushner said the enjoyment factor is what sets this weight-loss plan apart from others, which usually inspire universal dread.
"These people across the board had fun doing it," he said. "Just leashing up your dog and going for a walk, along with the proper diet, is a fun way to not only take weight off but keep it off."
By Marilynn Marchione