Does Your Pet Need to Go to Fat Camp?
It should come as no surprise to most people that America’s obesity epidemic has, well, grown exponentially in the past few decades. But the battle of the bulge isn’t limited to humans.
“A correlation can actually be drawn between the human obesity epidemic and pet obesity,” says Dr. Jules Benson, BVSc MRCVS, a veterinarian at the Doylestown Animal Medical Clinic and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA). “Since we’re responsible for our pets’ nutrition, it’s reasonable to believe that some of the causes of obesity are passed from owner to pet, like a sedentary lifestyle and a lack of portion control.”
Weight-Loss Camp for Fido (or Fluffy)
Just like the multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry for humans, the market is responding to the problem of pet obesity with a growing number of weight-loss camps for animals across the U.S.
Is it time to sign up your own furry family member?
Well, it depends on a number of factors. First, you need to determine if your dog or cat is obese. This can be trickier than it sounds, given that the APOP study found that 22 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners characterized their pet as being a normal weight — despite the fact that the animal was actually overweight or obese.
A better way to tell? “Run your hands over your pet’s sides,” says Dr. Benson. “You should be able to easily feel the ribs beneath the skin. If there’s quite a bit of ‘padding,’ your pet may be overweight.” Of course, you’ll want to ultimately check with your veterinarian, who can best determine what your pet’s ideal healthy weight should be based on such factors as age and breed.
If your cat or dog could stand to lose a few pounds (or more!), your veterinarian will run tests to “make sure that there is no underlying medical reason behind the obesity,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, the founder of APOP and the author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter.
Once that’s complete, your vet can devise a healthy diet and exercise plan for you to adopt at home. “Sometimes it’s as easy as keeping a food diary,” says Dr. Ward. “Write down everything you put in your dog or cat’s mouth for a week.” In doing so, you may become aware of just how many table scraps and extra treats you’re unknowingly doling out, contributing to the problem.
If you’re still not seeing progress, it might be time for a more drastic intervention — like pet fat camps.
“They’re great for owners with no willpower or self-control,” says Dr. Ward. “The ones that can’t put down the cookies or treats, so to speak.”
Dr. Benson agrees. “Pet fat camps work for many of the same reasons that Weight Watchers works for people,” he says. “Not only is it a morale-supporting group effort, but having other people involved, and making a commitment to a group, puts positive pressure on you to live up to that commitment. Without that support, it can be more difficult to fully adhere to a plan.”
How Pet Fat Camp Works
In order to glean a better idea of what weight-loss camps really look like for dogs and cats, we checked out two reputable programs.
Dog Fat Camp at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville, Tenn.
Length of camp: 2 to 4 weeks
Does the dog stay overnight? Yes
Can owners visit? Yes
Cost: $650 to $1,000
What to expect: “The camp includes an exam and consultation by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and a board-certified veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation specialist,” says Dr. Angela Witzel, DVM, assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. The dogs also get full room and board, multiple walks, a personalized nutrition plan and 10 underwater treadmill sessions (depending on physical ability).
Fat Cat Boot Camp at Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center, Shoreline, Wash.
Length of camp: 16 weeks
Does the cat stay overnight? No
What to expect: “Our goal in creating the camp was to educate owners on the benefits of a safe weight-loss program for cats, and to provide a framework that encourages them to help their pets achieve a healthy weight,” says camp director Dr. Sarah Brandon, DVM. A Cats Exclusive veterinarian performs an initial consultation to determine the obese feline’s health status, as well as plan a healthy and effective weight-loss program. Owners then receive support from the staff via follow-up calls and monthly pet weigh-ins. At 12 weeks, there’s another consultation with the vet to either determine a long-term maintenance plan or adjust the current plan if weight-loss goals haven’t been met — before the final weigh-in at 16 weeks.
Finding a Camp in Your Area
The APOP is currently working on a credentialing process to help owners find safe and reliable pet weight-loss camps. Until then, Dr. Ward suggests that owners do a thorough investigation before signing up their pet with a program. “Find out what type of training and credentials the program has, and make sure they work with a veterinarian,” he says. The best way to find a credible camp in your area: Ask your own veterinarian for recommendations.
And remember that keeping your pet trim and healthy starts at home. “Every time you reach for a goodie, stop and ask yourself, ‘Can I throw the ball, pick up the leash or scratch him behind the ears instead?’ ” says Dr. Ward. “Pets crave interaction and affection — not treats.”