Fat dogs and Englishmen

We love to overindulge our pets. One London vet has set out to undo the damage.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Little did Beverley Williamson realise, when she rejected the soft centres in favour of the nut clusters, that she was steering Dusty, her beloved Cairn terrier, towards glory. The greedy hound was quite happy to devour the coffee creams, and it was only when Mrs Williamson took her to the vet on account of her bad breath, that the level of her addiction became clear. The vet refused to administer the anaesthetic necessary to clean the dog's teeth, as she was too fat. But now, as the reigning Pet Slimmer of the Year, she's a shadow of her former self, having shed 3.6kg on the Hill's Prescription Diet.

The "old" Dusty typified an increasing number of overweight pets. Recent statistics indicate that at least one third of dogs and one in 10 cats are overweight, but some experts believe that up to 50 per cent of our 14 million domestic pets could do with shedding a few pounds.

Steve Andrews, veterinary marketing manager at Pedigree and a qualified vet, remains convinced that the key factor is overindulgent owners. "People don't feed their pets according to the amount of exercise they're taking. In winter, for example, they still get the same amount, plus all the snacks. The poor pet has very little to do with it."

According to Andrews, owners are too easily taken in by those hungry eyes. "Begging for rewards is something we teach our pets to do and it's a big problem during the weight-reduction programme. People think their pet is really hungry when often, a good play around with a ball is what they want just as much as a biscuit."

And it's not just vanity which is at stake. There can be serious health implications. "Any illness that you can think of can be made worse by being overweight, especially arthritis and hip problems," Andrews insists. "There's the risk of heart disease and diabetes and obesity can make the most simple operation very difficult."

Once you've established that your pet is carrying excess baggage, there are numerous courses of action. Ideally, you should take your animal to the vet for a full health-check. Bradley Viner, who has a practice in Pinner, Middlesex, is one of a growing number of vets organising clinics specifically for obese pets. "Usually, a change to a calorie-controlled diet is required," he insists. "The pets then come for weighing on a fortnightly basis. We start with an eight-week programme, at the end of which we reassess things, see how much weight has been lost and if more needs to come off. Once they've achieved their target, the animals must then be put on a long-term diet to maintain it."

The good news for those owners who feel they're condemning their pets to a life of bland, bran-filled food, is that the latest products are much more palatable. With sales exceeding a billion pounds a year, pet food is big business. So our animals' tastebuds represent the battleground on which the big guns, such as Pedigree and Spillers, compete for our pets' affections. The result is an endless stream of new menus: high-fibre, low-fibre (also effective in keeping dog mess to a minimum), dry or moist, vegetarian or meat. Even habitual snackers should not feel hard done by, simply substitute those cholesterol-laden cheese crunchies for Good Boy yoghurt drops. And Hill's Prescription Diet Canine goes one step further, promising to clean your dog's teeth as it munches.

An additional incentive comes in the shape of slimming competitions. The Pedigree Slimdown and the Hill's Nutrition Pet Slimmer of the Year, organised in conjunction with vets' surgeries, between them attract almost 1,000 animals. Last year's eight finalists in Slimdown lost a total of 72.9kg.

But it's not simply about the amount of weight lost. "If it was done on this alone," Andrews explains, "then the Rottweiler would always win over the chihuahua." It's the overall amount of effort which counts. As Andrews points out, for example, the battle of the bulge can be much more of a struggle with felines. "Cats on a diet tend to go out and catch mice, or even leave home, so for one to reach the final is a great achievement."

But not all owners are prepared to knuckle down, or even to accept, the task in hand. This is where pet counsellors can be invaluable. "People think about their pets in the same way as they do about their children," Andrews explains. "You can't just blunderbuss in and say 'Your pet's overweight, it's going to die, it's got to lose weight'. It has to be tackled very carefully."

And a delicate situation can become potentially explosive if the owner, as well as the pet, is on the large side. This is where pet counsellors really come into their own. "Overweight people tend to have overweight pets," Andrews says. "This can make it difficult for the nurses running the weight-watchers' clinic. So we train them in the best way to talk to clients, how to explain it from the pet's point of view."

The Boutros Boutros-Ghali award for diplomacy must surely go to Christine, one of the Pedigree counsellors. "She's actually a bit overweight herself and finds it easy to talk to clients and encourage them to slim down with their pets," Andrews says. "So Christine gets on the scales, the owner will get on the scales and the pet will get on the scales. At the end of the day, if you want to lose weight, it has to be fun."

Dusty has certainly enjoyed a fuller life since shedding a third of her bodyweight. The 13-year-old has, for the first time in her life, embraced exercise, especially chasing squirrels. And the dog's new dietary regime has even rubbed off on her owner, Mrs Williamson. She has almost given up chocolate and her husband has kicked the habit completely. And all because the terrier loved Milk Tray.