Fat dogs, fat cats: Time for a ... pet obesity clinic?

We are getting fat. And so are our cats and dogs  -- it’s estimated that 60% of them are overweight or just plain obese. Bring on the pet obesity clinics! Tufts University has opened one of the first, in Grafton, Mass. They say it is the only in the nation to be staffed by a full-time, board certified veterinary nutritionist.

What goes on at a pet obesity clinic? Weight Watchers meetings? Treadmill exercises? Classes about how to fill the segments of MyPetPlate? (I made that up, but a Google search revealed that there is, in fact, a MyBowl for cats and dogs that was developed by PetMD and Hill’s pet food.)

We talked to Dr. Deborah E. Linder, the above-mentioned vet who will be running the place, to find out.

She says that even though owners have the power to regulate what goes into their pets’ mouths (far more than parents do with their kids), about 50% of veterinarian-supervised weight-loss plans fail, for poorly understood reasons. One factor could be that commercial weight-maintenance pet foods vary widely in calorie counts: “Foods ranged from 217 calories per cup to up to 480 calories per cup .... You may unknowingly switch your pet to a food marketed for weight loss and it may be higher in calories than the one you’re currently using,” she said.


And then, of course, there’s human psychology to contend with. “We have some studies showing that owners consistently score their pets as weighing less than a vet would deem them to be.” Also, “there’s a sense that food is love.”

There is no body mass index for pets but there is a body condition scoring system, in which the vet will see how much fat he or she can pinch over the pet’s rib cage. “The rib cage shouldn’t be any more padded than the back of your hand right over the knuckles,” Linder said.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat or dog for which that is true.

There are no weekly Weight Watchers meets. But the whole family is encouraged to come in to the first consultation and every last bit of kibble and table scrap that enters a pet’s gullet is carefully noted in a food diary.


Fun fact from Linder: “Just rawhide chews can be 50-100 calories per two-inch-to-five-inch piece.”

After the program is embarked upon, patient and human visit once every four to six weeks. One lesson they need to learn, Linder says: “Begging isn’t necessarily begging for food. It’s begging for attention, for that interaction -- and there are so many ways owners can interact with pets to give them the attention they crave to increase the bond but not increase the calories.”

The program involves working out a diet that everyone’s comfortable with. If some parts are non-negotiable -- say, Rover’s been getting a Frosty Paws dog ice cream treat (has the world gone mad?) ever since he was a pup -- then that’s worked into the daily calorie quota,  perhaps scaled back to half a serving, she says.

Calorie reduction is at the core. But that doesn’t mean exercise is neglected. Especially stocky dogs may have to start with underwater treadmills, and they are referred to facilities that have those. This equipment does not work well for cats. One strategy for felines is to hide their food in places all over the house so they have to go searching for it. Interactive food dispensing toys are also to be had.


Take a look at this Facebook page devoted to “a standard dachshund on a mission to lose 40 pounds,” if you need a breather from whatever your work involves. It’s quite something. Post an inspirational comment, if you like.

But a cat or dog doesn’t have to be quite so very ... stocky to suffer the consequences of extra lard, Linder says. Shortened lifespan, joint problems, increased rates of diabetes -- all can result from less-extreme adiposity.