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O besity occurs in about one out of every four pets. Just as Americans are gaining more weight, pets are as well. Weight gain in pets occurs for the same reasons that it does in humans: Not enough exercise and too much food. Obesity can pose health risks to pets, and, therefore, it is important for pet owners to watch what their pets eat. A pet is considered to be obese when it weighs more than 15 percent over the healthiest weight for its sex and breed. Some problems associated with obesity are: heart disease, orthopedic issues, skin problems, increased risk during surgery, lung and liver problems, hip problems, digestive issues, arthritis, and diabetes. Obesity can reduce a pet's life by two to three years.

Dieting suggestions for pets mirror those of humans. For example, veterinarians suggest the best way to change a pet's diet is to do it gradually. A sudden diet does not work for pets, especially for cats, as they can develop liver problems. In addition, pets can have hormonal imbalances, which may lead to weight gain. Occasionally, veterinarians will test animals for thyroid function and can even recommend placing the animal on hormone replacement therapy in order to help them lose weight. While the causes and treatments of pet obesity may be similar to those in humans, animals do have dietary requirements very different to those of humans. Dogs do not have to eat a meal every day. In fact, a dog can go without food for five days before any negative health effects occur.

Cats are also at risk for weight problems. Many veterinarians report that over 70 percent of cats are obese, and obese cats are especially at risk for diabetes. A healthy weight for cats is 8 to 10 pounds for females and 9 to 11 pounds for males. Because cats are carnivores, they need protein, fat, water, and minerals in their diet, so they have some specific dietary requirements. One important study examined the relationship between diabetic cats and their diet. It showed that cats can benefit from a high-protein diet called the "Catkins" diet, a play on the human Atkins diet. Many cats on the "Catkins" diet no longer needed insulin shots for their diabetes. Cat treats should be treated like desserts, and most have many calories; therefore, it is best to refrain from these. Pet owners should feed their cats small amounts two to six times a day. Cats should not eat as many carbohydrates because they do not have any of the carbohydrate-digesting enzymes in their saliva that most mammals do. This makes it harder to break down carbohydrates. It is also recommended that pet owners not feed their cats too much dry cat food because it has too many carbohydrates. Canned diets are healthier because they provide more water, and it is easier for pet owners to control how much their pets are eating.

While dietary changes at home are usually the first recourse for owners of obese pets, some companies even market dieting food for animals. According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, obesity is the top health problem for the nation's dogs. Pet Ecology Brands, Inc. has created the first 100-percent fat-free dog treat. The dog treats are made from rice, garlic, and meat flavors. The treats are also sodium and cholesterol free. Pet Ecology Brands, Inc. also introduced a fat-free cat treat due to an influx of obese felines.

SLG/Mary Standen

See also Atkins; Metabolism

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