The Biggest (Furry) Losers

As the obesity epidemic hits our pets, Deborah Linder, diet doctor to portly pooches and fat cats, helps them shed those unhealthy pounds

a slimmed down dachshund

All the signs were there. Instead of a trim waist and defined hips, Bella’s body plumped out in all the wrong places. With her big brown eyes and winning personality, though, her family found it easy to overlook the fact that the 4-year-old dachshund was losing the battle of the bulge.

The portly pooch is hardly alone. She’s one of 80 million dogs and cats in the United States that are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

“We never really thought about her weight,” says Bella’s owner, Pamela Borek. “It’s like when you see the same person every day. They just look normal to you.”

Like the overweight guy who gets serious about weight loss only after suffering a heart attack, it took a medical emergency for Bella’s family to realize a change was needed. When the dog started having trouble breathing, she was rushed from their home in Pawtucket, R.I., to the emergency room at Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals. “It was an hour-and-a-half drive with her in distress,” says Borek. “It was so awful to see her suffering.”

Bella was diagnosed with intervertebral disc disease, a degenerative condition that can lead to partial or complete paralysis. To prevent permanent nerve damage, Bella underwent emergency surgery at Tufts.

Dropping a few pounds was the dachshund’s best shot at a good recovery, and the weight loss might also prevent a flare-up of her disc disease. “We didn’t want her to have surgery again,” says Borek. “And if it was a matter of her losing six or seven pounds, we decided we’d do it.”

Fat Gap

Bella’s journey to doggie svelte began at the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals, one of the first in the country for overweight pets. Her story is a typical one. “I don’t think owners have figured out that they need us yet,” says Deborah Linder, V09, the board-certified veterinary nutritionist who heads the clinic. Pet owners usually book an appointment after they’ve been told the health consequences for their overweight pet.

“There is definitely the sentiment among pet owners that food is love. But we’ve got overwhelming evidence to show that overweight pets live shorter lives.”—Deborah Linder, V09

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention calls this phenomenon the “fat pet gap.” Its latest study found that 45 percent of dog and cat owners thought their pets were of normal body weight, even though the animals were actually overweight or obese. The association reports that 52.5 percent of dogs and 58.3 percent of cats are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians—a disturbing trend that amounts to fat pets being the new normal.

Unlike us, pets don’t make impulse buys of candy in the grocery checkout aisle or eat to make themselves feel better. But they do pack on the pounds for the same reasons we do: They eat more calories than they need (often in the form of treats) and don’t get enough exercise.

“There is definitely the sentiment among pet owners that food is love,” says Linder. “But when it comes down to it, we’ve got overwhelming evidence to show that overweight pets live shorter lives. Excessive treats will equal less time with your pet.”

Fat dogs and cats don’t develop coronary artery disease—common with human obesity—but being overweight leads to other serious health issues. Chunky pets are at risk for diabetes, orthopedic problems, respiratory issues, high blood pressure and many types of cancer.

Shedding those extra pounds isn’t easy, says Linder, whose faculty appointment at Tufts is funded by a grant from Royal Canin USA. Part of the problem stems from foods marketed as “diet,” “low calorie” or “lite.”

Linder conducted a study in 2010 of all the cat and dog foods that are touted to help pets lose weight. “They were all over the board in terms of calorie content,” she says. “An average canine weight-loss dry diet ran anywhere from 217 to 440 calories per cup.”

In addition, the feeding directions on foods that promote weight loss can be very confusing. “The directions are based on the pet’s weight—not its goal weight, but its current weight,” says Linder. “So if you’re feeding your pet according to those directions, you could feed it up to twice the energy requirements for their obese weight. Your pet is actually going to gain weight on that diet.”

Much like human dieters who neglect to count the calories in their beverages, pet owners often don’t recognize animal treats as calorie bombs. “Almost every dog owner gives a rawhide or chew for dental health,” says Linder. “And everything adds up. A 5- by 2-inch strip of rawhide is approximately 100 calories. If you have a very small dog, that could amount to a third of their recommended calories per day. I won’t even go into some of the bones—those can have up to 1,000-plus calories.”

The people who live with a pet often unknowingly contribute to their animals’ tubbiness. “I see many multiowner households—a husband and wife, an extended family member and three teenagers—so nobody knows who’s feeding what to the dog or how often,” says Linder. “There’s another family with an elderly member who has dementia. She can’t remember if she’s actually fed the cat or not.”

Other pets in the house can thwart weight loss as well, for example, when one cat is a grazer and the corpulent cat, acting like a feline vacuum, swoops in the minute its housemate abandons the food bowl.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Although she confesses that she doesn’t follow the work of any popular human weight-loss gurus, Linder shares many of their finer qualities. She forgoes Richard Simmons’ trademark spandex and sequins, but manages his trick of helping the overweight get lean without resorting to being mean. And like the trainers on the NBC reality show The Biggest Loser, Linder acts as both a coach and cheerleader—finding ways to solve their unique barriers to weight loss, setting small goals and then generously heaping on the praise at each successful weigh-in.

Amy DiRocco, of Quincy, Mass., was referred to Tufts’ obesity clinic for her 7-year-old cat Tinkles. The case was challenging because Tinkles lives with another cat and requires a low-calorie diet that also supports intestinal health. Now DiRocco herds her cats into separate rooms at mealtime. Tinkles now weighs 13.1 pounds, down from 14.6 pounds, closing in on her goal weight of 12 pounds. Photo: Alonso NicholsAmy DiRocco, of Quincy, Mass., was referred to Tufts’ obesity clinic for her 7-year-old cat Tinkles. The case was challenging because Tinkles lives with another cat and requires a low-calorie diet that also supports intestinal health. Now DiRocco herds her cats into separate rooms at mealtime. Tinkles now weighs 13.1 pounds, down from 14.6 pounds, closing in on her goal weight of 12 pounds. Photo: Alonso Nichols
“I like to have lengthy discussions in person and see as many family members as possible coming to the appointments,” says Linder. “A lot of times, a successful weight-loss plan depends on us just working out the logistics of multiple pets and kids. Normally, you don’t think about your veterinarian being the person who organizes your schedule. But sometimes I fix that, and the pet’s weight comes off.”

Generally, Linder recommends a pet lose 1 to 2 percent of its body weight per week. If the weight loss exceeds that, she says, the animal is at risk of losing more muscle than fat, developing such behavioral problems as begging and regaining the lost weight. In cats especially, extreme weight loss can lead to fatty liver disease, which can be fatal.

You might expect a fat cat to show gusto for chowing down on just about everything, but often the opposite is true. Many cats are partial to the feel of a particular texture in their mouth, says Linder, who will prescribe a diet using food in that particular shape
(be it little stars or triangles) instead of the ubiquitous round kibble.

Other pets may need a new method of taking their medications. Linder recalls one case in which she and the other veterinarian couldn’t figure out why a dog wasn’t losing weight. They eventually videotaped the portly pup at home and discovered that the dog was on a daily medication they didn’t know about—and that the only way the owner could get the dog to take it was to hide it in a stick of butter.

To manage weight loss in a multi-pet house, Linder might ask owners to feed the healthy-weight cat in a box with an opening that the rotund cat can’t squeeze through. If the bigger cat manages to bust into the box, she’ll recommend a high-tech covered bowl that only reveals food when the microchip on the healthy-weight pet’s collar gets close enough to tell it, “Open Sesame.”

In homes where Fido may be indulging in a daylong smorgasbord because family members don’t know who’s already fed him or how much, Linder creates a fail-proof system for portion control. “After the initial consult, I provide a list of the pet’s favorite treats and their calorie content. Each evening, someone in the family measures out the pet’s allotted amount of food, selects treats that add up to the pet’s daily treat calorie allowance and places everything into a ‘food allowance box’ for the next day. Once the box is empty, the pet is out of calories,” says Linder.

A similar strategy is working for Bella, the dachshund.

“I have three kids, and everybody feeds Bella,” says Borek. “She still gets treats, but those are limited to no more than 10 a day now.” And for the dachshund with the discerning palate, Linder found two foods that Borek serves in rotation.

Five months after her disc surgery, Bella is well on her way to a full recovery and a trimmed-down figure. She has lost more than 6 pounds—27 percent of her starting weight. (Think about a 200-pound person slimming down to 146 pounds.)

“Bella is now a speed demon in the exam room,” says Linder, who credits the family’s determination for the daschund’s weight-loss success.

“Once they knew Bella’s health was at risk due to her excess weight, they completely changed their routine and haven’t looked back since,” says Linder. “There are so many diseases where it’s frustrating, because all veterinarians can do is help the animal live a little bit longer or improve its symptoms. We do the best we can, but we can’t always cure their problems. But with obesity we can. Obesity is not just preventable—it’s a totally curable disease.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at

Tell-Tale Flab

Is your pet overweight? It’s pretty simple to find out.

Because dogs and cats have different shapes, sizes and types of coats, you can’t judge if an animal is fit or fat just by looking at it, says Deborah Linder, V09, head of the pet obesity clinic at Tufts. “You have to actually feel your pet.”

Here’s how:

Feel your pet’s ribcage.

Now hold out your open hand, palm down, and feel the back of your hand over your knuckles. That’s how the ribs of a healthy-weight pet should feel.

If your pet’s ribs feel as soft as the palm of your hand, your pet is too plump.

If your pet’s ribs feel like your knuckles when your hand is closed in a fist, it’s too thin.

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