When Amy Long adopted Minnie from the Lawrence Humane Society three years ago, the dog was overweight. With portion control and healthy snacking, the miniature pincer went from 22 pounds to 15 pounds.
Overweight pets might experience loss of visible body contour, lethargy, difficulty breathing and increased risk of heart disease or diabetes. Shedding and keeping off pounds requires a strict regimen of portion control, smart snacking and exercise.
When it comes to weight control, pets are more like their human counterparts than you might think.
Studies indicate that 50 percent of pets are overweight, and 25 percent of those are obese, said Miranda Meppen, a veterinarian at Clinton Parkway Animal Hospital. Those numbers aren't wildly different from statistics for overweight humans.
"Sadly, the way that people go is the way that pets go," Meppen said.
The same goes for the ups and downs that often come with losing weight and keeping it off.
"It's hard," said Mary Berg, vet tech and practice manager at Gentle Care Animal Hospital. "It takes a little bit of what I refer to as tough love on the owner's part, but it is possible to do it."
When she visited the Lawrence Humane Society three years ago, Long said she never expected to walk out with a pudgy, middle-aged, miniature pincer.
But there was something special about Minnie, who had been rescued from a puppy mill. She was calm with sweet eyes, and when Long asked to see her, the Humane Society staffer's eyes lit up.
"Oh, Minnie's such a good girl," she told Long, "and nobody wants her."
When Minnie ran up and jumped into Long's lap, her decision was made.
A visit to the vet revealed Minnie was, well, more than just pudgy.
At 22 pounds, Minnie weighed almost 50 percent more than she should. The vet suggested Long work to get Minnie down to 15 pounds.
"I was like, 'OK — I don't know how we're going to do this,'" Long said.
To determine whether a pet is overweight, Meppen's office uses a body condition score, not unlike body mass index calculations for humans. She measures fat cover on the animal's ribs and spine — you shouldn't see them but should be able to feel them easily, she said. She also looks for an "abdominal tuck" — pets should have a visible contour where the belly meets the body.
"Just like in people, we want that hourglass look," she said.
When pets are overweight, they're more likely to develop joint problems, heart disease and even diabetes.
Meppen recalled working with a table-scrap-loving bulldog that weighed about 75 pounds when he should have been closer to 45. He had knee and hip problems, as well as respiratory issues — a problem bulldogs already have by nature.
"If you compound that with weight, you're making that even harder for them," Meppen said.
The most common culprits of overweight pets aren't surprising.
"It can be over-feeding, it can be treats . a lot of times we see it from being fed people-food," Berg said. "Sometimes it's just inactivity. We have more and more dogs that are becoming couch potatoes."
When prescribing a pet weight-loss regimen, correctly measuring food is one of the vet's first orders of business.
Asked how much they're feeding Fluffy, pet owners often respond with, "Well, I don't know. I just fill the bowl." Or, "I only feed one cup a day" — which turns out to be a big soda cup from the convenience store, Berg said. Berg said she's seen more than one owner's eyes open wide in disbelief when she presents them with a true 1-cup container.
Simply keeping a pet's food bowl full is popular, especially with cats, because it's easy, Meppen said. But it also enables bad habits.
"Some pets are good at self-control, but in general I'd say that they're not," she said.
Vets may also suggest changing the type of food you're feeding your pet.
A lot of pet food is high in calories but low in nutritional value. Quality, high-nutrient, high-fiber food helps pets feel full without taking in as many calories, Berg said. Vets may also prescribe special weight-control food, which follows the same principle.
Most people pass off pre-sliced carrot discs in the produce section as a salad topping, but not Meppen.
"When I see them, I always think of them as a bag of dog treats," she said. "They're the perfect size."
Vets often suggest replacing traditional, high-calorie dog treats with veggies, either as rewards or snacks. Fresh or canned green beans, carrot pieces, peas — they're full of fiber and nutrients, low in calories and, believe it or not, a lot of dogs love them.
Another idea is holding back some of the pet's measured amount of dog food each morning, Berg said, saving the extra kibbles to give as treats throughout the day.
When it comes to exercising pets, dogs are simple. Play with them in the yard or take them on a long walk.
Cats aren't always as easily amused, but Berg suggested working with them to figure out what makes them play. Laser pointers are a good toy to try, she said.
Berg said that instead of leaving their cat's food bowl full, owners could dole out small portions throughout the day, or put bowls throughout the house to make the cat hunt.
After a couple of years of yo-yoing, Minnie's weight has stabilized at about 15 1/2 pounds.
Long reduced Minnie's food portions and switched to diet food. At night before bed, she treats Minnie with a few no-salt-added canned green beans.
"She loves them," Long said. "That's her late-night snack."
The pair also walks about a mile together almost every day, and Long has eschewed eating at the coffee table, where it's easier to give in to slipping Minnie scraps, for more meals at the table.
Long said Minnie's body contours have reappeared, and her energy level is up.
"It's awesome to see the results," she said.