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Helping Fido and Fluffy Slim Down

It's estimated that 45-to-60 percent of pet dogs in this country are overweight -- and the numbers are climbing, even as the waistlines their owners expand.

Obesity among pets is a serious concern, points out "The Early Show"'s resident veterinarian, Dr. Debbye Turner Bell, and can cause or worsen a variety of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and arthritis, and can considerably cut their potential lifespan.

But pets don't get fat on their own. We're the ones feeding them, so the responsibility lies with us to make sure they lead healthy lifestyles.

According to Bell:

It's tempting to think a plump pooch is cute, but obesity is serious, as are the health woes it can cause.

An overweight pet can live up to HALF of his potential lifespan. Plus, rotund animals are prone to skin problems, and heat exhaustion.

You can't tell if a pet is overweight simply by putting her on a scale. The desired weight of a pet depends on several factors, such as gender, breed, and age.

One way to tell if your dog is overweight is called the rib check. You should be able to feel your dog's ribs, but not see them. Looking at the dog from the side, the abdomen should be "tucked up" behind the ribs. And looking from overhead, the dog should have a "waist." He should have an hourglass figure.

For cats, it's a little trickier. You should see a slight indentation at the waist while looking down on them. From the side, they should have a rather flat belly. Although many cats do tend to accumulate fat in the lower abdominal region, what a cat should NOT look like is a "barrel on sticks!" There are some health-related conditions that would cause a big belly in cats, like pregnancy or intestinal parasites, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian before you change your cat's diet.

Just like with people, the way to help your pet lose weight is by reducing her caloric intake and increasing his physical activity. In other words, eat less and exercise.

How much should a pet eat? That's a tricky question, but there are a few guidelines. Start with the recommended feeding amount listed on your pet food bag. But those guidelines are for the average pet. Activity level, lifestyle, age, and general health all influence how much your pet should eat. For instance, for a very active, athletic pet, you should probably feed more than what's listed on the bag. If your pet is overweight, you'll want to feed less. Your veterinarian can help you with this. Also, work out what type of food and amount of food with your veterinarian. The trick is to give your pet the proper nutrients she needs to stay healthy without adding unnecessary calories that will put on extra weight.

Changing a pet's diet should be done gradually (especially with cats), adding a little of the new food, subtracting a little of the old food, over a week or two. Continue this process until you are only feeding the new food. It's especially important to change the diet of a cat very slowly. You can throw them into kitty anorexia, which causes a disease that's called hepatic lipidosis, the big word for something called fatty liver, which can kill the cat. And it's not just enough to feed your pet less of the food you're giving him now, because then he might not get all his nutritional requirements. It's important to get a low-calorie, high-fiber diet so they get their nutrients and lose weight.

Substitute play for treats. When a pet seeks attention, play with him instead of giving a treat. Most animals enjoy the affection and interaction just as much as food. It's important to do a family survey to find out who has been feeding the pet. You may discover that multiple family members have been feeding the pet. This will soon lead to a plump pet.

Generally our pet's lifestyle mirrors our own. If we are couch potatoes, then they tend to be couch potatoes. If we snack a lot, we tend to treat our pets with those snacks, too. Pets should have at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise daily to eliminate extra calories and sustain muscle tone. Make it fun. For dogs, take a walk, set up an obstacle course or join an indoor agility or obedience class. With cats, it's a little more challenging. Most cats like the thrill of the chase, so a pole with a feather attached to a string will usually get a kitty's attention. A good play session with the feather toy, or even a laser pointer, is great exercise for the cat. You can put food in different spots around the house to encourage cats to "hunt" for their food as they would in the wild. Maybe put a small amount in the bathroom, some on the dryer (just be sure the dryer door is securely closed!), and a little in a windowsill. The effort taken to get to the food is exercise that will also help the kitty drops some weight.

Contrary to popular belief, spaying and neutering a pet does not cause them to become overweight. Animals naturally become less active as they age which might contribute to obesity. And, I will admit, that neutered males have a decreased urge to roam (looking for love), so this might reduce their activity level a bit. But some good playtime will easily make up for this.

Remember that weight loss in a pet might be very slow. It may take months. But remember even if a cat only needs to lose 5 pounds, if it's a 15 pound cat, that's 1/3 of her body weight! That's a lot. It's like a 210-pound person trying to 70 pounds. So be patient and consistent. Your effort will pay off with a pet that is healthy, fit, and will be with you for a long, long time.

For more on Prince Chunk, the cat see with Turner, and the pet-assistance foundation started in his name, click here.