Pet Advice: Fighting Pet Obesity

Advice for Pet Owners - Pet Obesity
Dr. Ernie Ward - The Washington Post

Overweight pets increase their risk of heart disease, osteoarthritis, several types of cancer and a host of other illnesses

Ernie Ward,a veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, will discuss how to maintain a healthy weight for your pet and possibly lengthen his life. Ward is also an Ironman triathlete, certified personal trainer and an accredited USA triathlon coach.

Dr. Ernie Ward: I'd like to thank you for your interest in this important pet tropic. Pet obesity is now the second most common medical condition seen in veterinary practices in the US. It's second to periodontal disease, or poor oral health.

How Big is Pet Obesity?

The numbers are staggering. Veterinary industry estimates calculate that pet obesity costs pet owners almost $20 million per year. That's a lot of dog biscuits! In our nationwide 2007 study, we found the following results:

All Dogs and Cats

-An Estimated 48% of All Pets in the United States are Overweight or Obese

-An Estimated 15% of All US Pets are Obese

-An Estimated 78 million US Dogs and Cats are Overweight or Obese

-An Estimated 25 million US Pets are Obese


-An Estimated 43% of US Dogs are Overweight or Obese (BCS 3-4)

-An Estimated 10% of US Dogs are Obese (BCS 4)

-Over 32 million US Dogs are Overweight or Obese

-Almost 8 million US Dogs are Obese


-An Estimated 53% of US Cats are Overweight or Obese (BCS 3-4)

-An Estimated 19% of US Cats are Obese (BCS 4)

-Over 46 million US Cats are Overweight or Obese

-Almost 17 million US Cats are Obese

Our 2008 study was conducted in October 2008. The preliminary results are very similar to 2007. The final study results should be available by the end of February at .

But why should you worry if your cat or dog is slightly heavy? Excess weight, even as little as two pounds in a cat or small dog and five pounds in a larger dog, increase that pet's risk of developing:

-Type 2 diabetes

-Cancer - especially cats

-Pancreatitis - especially dogs

-Lower urinary tract problems

-Arthritis and other musculoskeletal disorders

-Respiratory issues

-Delayed wound healing

-Increased anesthetic risk

-Reduced life expectancy

The bottom line: if you want your pet to live a long and healthy life (and save money on medical bills), you'll keep them lean.

Is My Pet Fat?

How can you tell if your pet is overweight? Here are some simple guidelines you can perform at home or with your veterinarian:

Body Condition Scoring

There are two common body condition score (BCS) systems used by veterinarians to help determine a pet's ideal weight. One is based on a scale of 1 to 9 (1=emaciated, 9=morbidly obese) and the other is a 1 to 5 scale (1=emaciated, 5=obese). I prefer a 1 to 5 scale because of its simplicity. Whatever scale you use, be sure to ask your veterinarian to perform a BCS on your pet during each examination.

1 - Ribs, spine and bony protrusions are easily seen at a distance. These pets have lost muscle mass and there is no observable body fat. Emaciated, bony, and starved in appearance.

2 - Ribs, spine and other bones are easily felt. These pets have an obvious waist when viewed from above and an abdominal tuck. Thin, lean or skinny in appearance.

3 - Ribs and spine are easily felt but not necessarily seen. There is a waist when viewed from above and the abdomen is raised and not sagging when viewed from the side. Normal, ideal, and often muscular in appearance.

4 - Ribs and spine are hard to feel or count underneath fat deposits. Waist is distended or often pear-shaped when viewed from above. The abdomen sags when seen from the side. There are typically fat deposits on the hips, base of tail and chest. Overweight, heavy, husky or stout.

5 - Large fat deposits over the chest, back, tail base and hindquarters. The abdomen sags prominently and there is no waist when viewed from above. The chest and abdomen often appear distended or swollen. Obese.

Shedding Excess Pounds

Most pets will benefit from a specially-formulated reduced calorie food. It is important to note that safe and sustainable weight loss does not involve starvation or deprivation. If a pet owner decides to simply reduce the amount of food they're feeding, they may inadvertently create nutritional deficiencies or provide inadequate protein or essential nutrients that can result in muscle loss and illness. Your veterinarian will guide you through a safe weight loss program designed to improve lean muscle mass and overall health.

I prefer canned foods for cats that need to slim down. As few as 10 extra kibbles per day can add up to a pound of weight gain over a year. Cats benefit from the additional water found in wet foods and you are able to more accurately control the number of calories you're feeding. And did I mention most cats love a juicy meal?

Aerobic exercise is another important aspect of safe weight loss, especially for dogs. You should strive to take your dog for a brisk walk for twenty to thirty minutes per day. Avoid excessive stops to check the "pee-mail" or investigate a curious smell. Walking for fitness is different than a leisurely stroll. If you break a light sweat you're at the right pace!

For cats, try playing with feather-dancers, remote-controlled toys or play "find the food." Divide your cat's food into small soy sauce bowls and distribute them around your house. This will force lazy cats to get moving. Place the bowls high and low to make them jump or climb to reach their reward.

The final simple step to weight loss is also the easiest: stop feeding high-calorie treats! Even tiny treats can contain one-quarter to one-half a pet's total daily calories! Substitute vegetables such as baby-carrots, broccoli, celery, and other crunchy healthy treats. For cats, I recommend discontinuing all treats. Due to their low daily calorie requirements, even tiny treats can sabotage your weight loss plans.


"Flabrador" Retriever question: A neighbor has one of the stocky Labs who is a terrible mooch, pestering constantly for food/snacks. She generally gives in...He has many joint issues due to his weight -- most recently 105 lbs. He also pants and huffs at even minor exertion. Other than starvation, do you have any guidance?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Weight loss is never about starvation or deprivation. Treats, snacks and assorted goodies will sabotage even the best diets. This dog's joints, heart and respiratory health are all in danger. She should have the dog tested for hypothyroidism and other underlying medical conditions before starting a weight loss program. No starving allowed!


St. Louis, Mo.: My dog is overweight, and I've been cutting back on her food based on my vet's recommendation. Last night she got into her food and ate about a week's worth of food. Now I'm not sure what to do about feeding her -- do I feed her the same amount in spite of her overeating, or should I give her just a little bit over the next week because she's eaten so much at one time? I don't want to starve her, but I don't want her to be overeating.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great question, one we get often! When dogs "binge eat", you really can't undo the damage by restricting excessive calories the following week. The best advice is to adhere to your dietary guidelines and try to increase aerobic exercise by 20 - 30 percent each day the following week. In other words, burn those "binge calories".


Jack Sprat and His Cage Mate: Thanks for taking my question! Back in August, my partner and I adopted two kittens from a shelter (they were four months old then, one male and one female, both fixed, not litter mates but cage mates). The male kitten has grown as expected, and is thinnish but very active and healthy. The female cat is... obese is putting it lightly. She looks like she swallowed my dog. I wish I could post a picture. She's not a year old yet, but should we switch her to weight-management food and feed them separately and all that? At the moment they're on Iams Kitten kibble and we fill the bowls a couple of times a day. Fat Girl doesn't play as much as the other cat; she mostly lies around, but she's extremely sweet and loves attention. What should we do? Thanks again!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Thanks for sharing your story -- you're not alone.

First bit of advice -- have your kitty examined by your veterinarian. You want to be safe and ensure that you're not dealing with a medical issue.

The fact is that we are seeing overweight and obese pets as young as 8 to 10 months of age. For this discussion, because I can't examine your kitty, I'll assume she's reached skeletal maturity.

I recommend separate feeding for most multi-cat households. It's not as hard as your might think. Simply pour the alloted amount of food into each bowl, separate them by a foot or more, and observe. The first few days they may continue to "graze" or slowly eat. After 20 to 30 minutes, pick up the bowls until the next feeding. Sure, you'll have to endure some complaints, but cats are intelligent beings. They'll catch on quickly. This will also prevent "bowl-bullies" from preventing a smaller or subordinate cat to eat. This is more common than you'd imagine. For most cats, twice daily feeding is adequate. For obese patients, I'll often increase the number of small feedings to four to six per day, based on the owner's schedule.

If your kitty is skeletally mature, I would recommend changing to one of the calorically-restricted diets. This should only be done under the supervision of your veterinarian. Obese cats can have serious complications if they don't eat or consume too few calories.

Also, avoid any cat treats. I call them "calorie grenades" because they contain so much energy or calories in such a small package. If you must give a treat, give a pinch (PINCH = 3/4-inch flake, not chunk) or salmon or tuna. Healthy, protein, not too many calories.

As for activity, try to engage your cat in play for five minutes two to three times per day. Feather-dancers, remote-controlled toys, balls, paper bags, whatever floats your kitty's boat! Just get them moving!

If you get your cat down to a normal weight of 8 to 10 pounds, she's much more likely to live a long life -- 15 to 20 years -- and avoid much suffering and cost associated with weight-related disorders such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Think of your efforts today as an investment in all the purrs and scratches you'll share in the future. Good luck!


Somerset, Mass.: Is it safe to feed a dog canned sardines packed only in water? They seem to be a good source of calcium and fish oil. We have two pit terriers and they already eat blueberries, chopped apples and canned pumpkin along with Pinnacle dry kibble. I give them omega 3 oil tabs daily but thought the sardines could be a tasty treat. Thank you!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great snack and one I personally recommend. Just be sure to keep the portions small, even in larger dogs. Feed more veggies! Keep the fruit portions small because that is where the calories can come from. Keep up the good work.


Charlottesville, Va.: My two male mix dogs (one mix beagle, one mix ?), each weigh a little over 40 lbs. and get moderate excercise, get the following to eat daily: 1 1/4 c.low cal. lamb/rice dry food (Calif. Natural) 1 big spoonful lamb/rice canned meat (Whole Foods) 1 T. oil blend for coat (safflower,sunflower) 1 T. lo-fat plain organic yogurt 1 t. brewers yeast That is in the morning. In the evening, they get two 100 percent dried sweet potato treats and one to two rawhide chewies. They are both large in the chest and appear to be somewhat overweight. Is there something I need to stop giving them?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Without knowing your specific pets, the caloric quantities seem high. I like your overall approach. I'm just concerned about the total volume and number of calories. You definitely want to have them evaluated by your vet and tested for hypothyroidism. Also, carefully (and truthfully) evaluate the actual amount of aerobic (brisk walk, working up a sweat) activity they are actually receiving. Add up those calories, visit your vet and keep up the exercise.


Overweight cat: Hello. Thanks so much for doing this chat. I have a 4-year-old female short hair cat who is overweight. I have a multiple cat household but do my best to feed her separately (so that she doesn't have access to food throughout the day). She gets about 1 1/2 cans of wet food (Wellness) a day, split up between morning and evening and a sprinkling of dry food at night. I live in a small apartment so exercise is limited. Any suggestions as to how I can try and get her to lose weight? Thank you.

Dr. Ernie Ward: First of all, we need to look at the caloric content of the food. Most cats only need about 160 - 180 kcals per day. As for exercise, refer to my intro and visit Try feeding the food on elevated surfaces to make them jump. It is vital that you separate the food. (see other response) Cats are the big story when it comes to obesity.


Arlington, Va.: My cat is 12+ years-old and falls into the overweight/obese category. I've been feeding him Science Diet's dry low cal/low hairball food. Would he be getter off eating something for "mature" cats?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Yes, but more importantly from a restricted calorie diet. Remember that "low cal" diets are still formulated for maintenance. When we restrict maintenance diets, we run the risk of reducing vital micronutrients.


Washington, DC: My cat is the sweetest and very affectionate. However, sometimes after petting her for awhile she begins to bite. It is usually playful and affectionate biting but it hurts. Why do cats do that and how do I get her to understand that it hurts?

Dr. Ernie Ward: This is typically normal cat behavior. If you e-mail me at, I can give you more information. If she is obese and biting you, well, that's another story...


Cleveland, OH: On the advice of my vet, I work hard to limit my cat's food intake to help him maintain a healthy weight. It's just that it seems he's so -hungry- all the time! Breaking into the pantry, jumping on the counters to get food, whining for food, etc. Is that just regular mischievous cat behavior, or should I take another look at the makeup of his food?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Many of these cats do have abnormal behaviors when it comes to feeding habits. One of the simplest tactics I use is small, frequent feedings. Some of my patients will be fed 6-8 times a day. Make sure that your cat is tested for hyperthyroidism. Sometimes it takes tough love (and a lot of patience) with these cats. You can do it! Maybe it's time to start a fat cat support group.


Phoenix, Ariz.: I have a 1-year-old mutt, mid-size, 50+ pounds, that has a propensity to be chunky as that's everyone's comment when they first see her, even her vet. I feed her three cups of dry food split between two feedings, less if I combine with human food. I limit her treats to one to two per day. She eats everything and always appears hungry. Is it okay to have a chunky dog because she seems healthy otherwise. Am I overfeeding her? I try to walk her every day -- but often its only around the block (15 minutes). She would love more exercise, but its a resolution I'm working on for 2009. Question: should I reduce what I give her to eat?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Even a few excess pounds can have serious health consequences. In the past decade, we have learned that fat isn't just a "lump" of inert tissue that is unsightly but rather a highly dynamic tissue that secretes numerous, potentially dangerous hormones. "Chunky" is not healthy. I like your resolution about increased exercise. That is probably the key with your dog. Replace the treats with veggies such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, etc. and try to get in 30 minutes of brisk walking each day, more on the weekends.


Clifton, Va.: Both my rough collies herd, and I monitor their weight weekly as does my herding instructor. If I cant feel their ribs running my hands down their sides then its time to cut back on food and treats. Some folks believe my collies are under weight. My boy just turned 10 years old, is 24 inches at the shoulder and weighs 54 pounds, and my girl is 22 inches at the shoulder and weighs 43 pounds at 3 years old. Once at my vets we met another collie owner who had a collie male about the same height as my boy and he weighed 102 pounds. Both my collies are elite athletes and working dogs. Unlike agility they need to be able to work at a trial for 10 minutes to 30 minutes, not 45 seconds and if need be all day. If you cant feel your dogs ribs he/she is overweight.

Dr. Ernie Ward: This is what I call the normalization of obesity. We've become so used to seeing overweight pets and people that when we see a normal, lean individual they appear "skinny" to us. Sounds like you are doing a great job and I bet your dogs love you for all the play.


Silver Spring, Md.: My cat is almost 2 years old. He plays and runs around the apartment and when I last saw my vet, she said I was feeding him the right amount. When I do feed him dry food, I toss it so he has to run for the food. My question is regarding the physical signs of obesity. My cat looks fit except for a lack of abdominal tuck. He has a little "waddle" that hangs down. It isn't round like I would expect. Is this leftover from when his previous owner overfed him or is it a sign that I'm still overfeeding/under exercising him?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great question and hard to answer without seeing your pet. I rely on a cat's length which is similar to a human's height and their weight. Most cats are 19-21 inches long and should weigh 8-10 pounds. I'm amazed at the number of 20 inch cats that weigh 14 pounds -- clearly obese. Good luck. Hopefully "kitty tummy tucks" won't be the next big thing.


Beagles: My friend had two obese Beagles and her vet was really on her case to get them to slim down, even though she swore she was following his feeding advice exactly. Then they put in an electric fence and the dogs started slimming down. It turned out they had been getting handouts/getting into the neighbors' garbage and so supplementing their diet with things that weren't on the list!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Very common and thanks for bringing that up. People need to let their friends, family and neighbors know when they are trying to shed excess pounds from their pets. Tell the neighbor or friend to take them for a walk around the block or play with them whenever they feel compelled to give them goodies.


Arlington, Va.: I have two male overweight cats; they are brothers. One is really overweight, the other is only slightly overweight. We used to let them graze on dry food but now have a timed, wet food diet for them. We feed them a half a can in the morning and a half a can in the evening each. We feed them separately, and different canned food based on each of their individual needs. The problem is, now, all they do is beg for food. It never seems to stop. I am worried that they are seriously hungry, but I am also annoyed that I cannot sleep past 4 am. Am I feeding them enough? How can I get them to relax and get used to this new routine? FYI: we made the switch approximately two months ago, but we recently moved which may have added to stress for the kitties. Thanks so much for taking my question.

Dr. Ernie Ward: You are doing a lot of good things here and this is a common complaint. Small, frequent feedings work well for many cats. Give them their last meal as late as possible to help curtail "midnight munchies." You have to close doors and be patient. Invest in a good white noise machine. You will get through this and their schedule will adjust once they stop getting their way.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dr. Ward, do you have any suggestions for a dog that just won't stop licking? My Dachshund is almost 2 and had developed the very annoying habit of licking the same spot over and over, to the point where his fur is totally soaking wet, as well as whatever surface he happens to be laying on. We did have fleas at one point, a few months back, but have since eradicated them. The licking started around that time, but shouldn't it have stopped with the elimination of the fleas? I'm worried that he'll lick himself bald. What can I do? Thank you!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Sounds like your dog is working on his "licker license." My concern is that this is a very common behavioral condition know as "acral lick granuloma." This is most often associated with anxiety disorders or secondary coping mechanism. See your veterinarian. Based on your exam findings and medical history, your veterinarian has a wide variety of treatment options available. Good luck!


Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Ward, thank you for taking my question. My boyfriend has two indoor male cats (each is about one year old), which he keeps in a glass-enclosed sunroom since I'm allergic. It gets very cold in that room, and we were wondering the best way to care for them in wintery temps. Do they need anything extra-warm to remain healthy? Should they be given specific foods or vitamins? One appeared to be losing weight last week but has since seemed to gain it back. Thanks in advance for your help!

Dr. Ernie Ward: I'm in North Carolina and I get concerned when our patients are exposed to temperatures less than 40F. Provide ample bedding, a box or other carrier and perhaps a heat lamp (safely out of reach) to warm the room. Cooler temperatures require more calories to maintain body temperature so you may need to increase calories slightly if they are chronically exposed. Sounds like they are doing okay -- keep them warm. Omega 3 fatty acid supplements and a good multi-vitamin are recommended.


Fairfax, Va.: Vets don't recommend specific foods or servings. You have to assume the people who put the serving recommendations on pet food packaging know what they are doing. How do you know whether you are feeding your dog too much, too little or just the right amount?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Your veterinarian should recommend specific foods and serving sizes. As for food labels, you are correct. It's hard even for me to get information from some pet food manufacturers. The "proof is in the pudding" when it comes to whether or not you are feeding too many calories. Overweight dogs are simply receiving too many calories. Thanks for the great comment.


Cleveland, OH: I have a 15 pound (not actually fat, just large) tabby and I occasionally will give him bits of plain cooked chicken as a treat. Is that a good treat for him or could that be too high in calories?

Dr. Ernie Ward: It may be time for a get real moment. A healthy 15 pound cat is a really big cat. Think 23+ inches. Plain cooked chicken as a treat in very small amounts (1/2 inch cubes) is okay. Remember 1/2 of a chicken breast with no skin has over 140 calories. A better snack options is salmon or tuna in no more than 1" flakes. Refer to the other comments for weight loss tips.


New Jersey: My cat is not obese, but she absolutely will not eat any canned food. I've tried wetting her dry food too. I've tried mixing canned and dry. I've tried tempting with tuna. Nothing. It isn't a problem now, but getting medication down her, or getting her used to soft food in case she loses any more teeth (she was a shelter cat with gum disease), will be a problem. Any ideas? She is a very timid, and rigid, cat who is nevertheless good and loving.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Many medications can be formulated in transdermal or liquid formulations that may help you. Talk to your veterinarian about alternatives to pills. We avoid pills in cats whenever possible.


Alexandria, Va.: When you say you recommend discontinuing all treats for cats, does that include freeze-dried salmon? This has no other ingredients except salmon, so it seems to me that it wouldn't have any more calories than regular food if integrated as part of a sensible diet.

Dr. Ernie Ward: I am a firm believer in treats. As you have seen from many of my answers salmon and tuna are great treat choices for cats. The key is to keep it in small portions. Many times the treats people are giving have the same number of calories as a meal.


Follow-up question on Overweight Cat: Hello. Thank you for answering my question about my overweight cat in a multi-cat household. You recommend low calorie foods, however I am torn with using the low calorie foods because I don't really trust what the cat food makers are putting in those low calorie foods (I think low calorie food contributed to my dog's death a few years ago due to cancer). I like using Wellness because they use good quality (human grade) ingredients. You said that 160 to 180 is a good amount of kcals for a cat -- can I just try and feed her that amount of kcals (the food label says that a 5.5 oz can contains approximately 220 calories, so use that as a guide). Again, I am not a fan of the low calorie foods. Thanks!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Sorry to hear about your dog. You should be feeding the correct number of calories based on your cat's size and needs. That is a lot of calories in a small amount so be careful. I wish cat foods were formulated with realistic caloric contents that better reflect today's primarily indoor cat needs. Good luck.


Arlington, Va.: I think the cat weight guidelines need to have a footnote that there is variation amongst breeds. People that own Maine Coons for example know that these giants can get significantly bigger than your typical house cat.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Maine Coons are typically much longer than 19-21 inches. Thanks for the comment.


Washington DC: Hi Dr Ward. I have a 10-year-old female spayed Scottie. She gets dry skin in winter (her weight is good -- 18 pounds, and a nice "waist"). Any recommendations? Thanks!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Omega 3 Fatty Acid supplements are a great start. Most cases of dry skin are related to diet. Make sure it is not due to hypothyroidism or other hormonal imbalance. Sounds like she has a nice waist!


Dr. Ernie Ward: Thank you again for your interest in bettering your pets' lives.

The love you share with your pet is a special and unique bond. As a veterinarian, it is our duty to uphold that bond and help you enjoy your pet for as long as possible. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with people such as yourselves who care so much for our furry friends. Be safe and be well.

For more information on pet weight issues, visit

Caring for pets and helping people,

Dr. Ernie

Thanks to Kathy in Bhc, Az

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Angry Man Throws Cat at Wife

A man in New York is being held on a charge of harassment after hurling his pet cat at his wife during a heated argument

Police say the 25-year-old man not only threw the cat but also punched a hole in the wall of the couple's trailer home.

The cat was not declawed and struck his wife on her back.

Neither the cat nor the woman were injured but the man is now facing counts of criminal mischief, harassment and cruelty to animals.

Dog Talk Still Hounding Inbox
Waseca County News

We continue to get letters to the editor here regarding a dog that was found in a Dumpster behind Subway in late December.

Obviously, the story struck a nerve with a lot of readers. I was pleased to see one today, especially since I was up at 2 a.m. today cleaning up after a sick dog.

To the Editor:

First of all I want to thank Paula Andersen for writing about the abuse of the dog found in the dumpster. I too am a lover of all kinds of animals and it makes me sick and sad to think some humans are really this abusive. Again these people should be charged with animal cruelty.

I also applaud Andrew Hinna for caring so much for this poor defenseless animal and to take the time to call the authorities. Hopefully, this poor dog will not be handed back to the owner, only to be put to more abuse.

I too get very angry when I hear these stories about abused animals. Some people have no conception of what animal abuse is. Even leaving your pet outside for long periods of time and never getting the care/proper shelter/food/water they need is called "abuse". Sometimes these poor animals are locked up in cages without any human touch ever and AGAIN we ask why do these people have animals??? We need to be the voices for these animals and I am truly glad to see that the News Media is getting out the messages of abuse. Almost every night we hear cases of animal abuse. We need to put a stop to animal abuse and the only way to start is by reporting these kinds of abuse to the right authorities.

I just read a short story titled "Just a Dog" (author unknown). This author said "I hope that someday people can understand it's not "Just a Dog". It's the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being "Just a Man or Just a Woman."

So the next time you hear the phrase "Just a Dog", smile, because "THEY just don't understand"

Jill Tobin

St. Louis Cats, Dogs Feeling Foreclosure Pinch
St Louis Post-Dispatch

When a bank foreclosed on an Imperial home and the former owners cleared out, they left one thing behind: a skinny cat without food or water

No one knows what they called the tabby, but the rescue group that has been nursing him back to health since November named him Riley. Volunteers with the St. Francois Society have been feeding him kitten food and tuna fish to get his weight up. They recently nursed him through a lung infection. He's getting healthy again and is up for adoption at the PetSmart on Lemay Ferry Road in south St. Louis County.

"He's just skin and bones, but we're fattening him up," said Connie Konersman, a St. Francois Society volunteer who took charge of Riley. "Once we get him fattened up, he'll make a great little guy for somebody."

The St. Francois Society and other animal rescue groups say Riley's story is all too familiar as the effects of a tough economy trickle down to Fido and Fluffy.

"It's been overwhelming for us to be able to keep up with," said Karen Rugg, the group's volunteer coordinator. "It's almost beyond our ability to handle, it's that bad."

The St. Louis-based Humane Society of Missouri is finding itself conducting more large rescues in rural parts of the state that seem to be related to the economy.

One day earlier this month, it was 33 dogs and two cats from Cass County. Two days later, 19 dogs from Grundy County. The same day, 15 cats from Harrison County. More big rescues are in the works.

"Finances are a major factor," said Tim Rickey, director of rescues and investigations. "There definitely is a surge over what we usually see."

Layoffs and financial challenges are figuring in, but the economy's tough even for the employed, from what Rickey sees.

"Everything is more expensive," he said. "Food and fuel and taxes and everything else have steadily gone up. People are facing tough choices, between paying the mortgage and the rent and the utilities and feeding their animals. The animals oftentimes are the first to suffer."

Rickey said he has sympathy for those who have hit hard times, but that animal owners are responsible for their pets. That's something the group is trying to emphasize to those adopting pets, to ensure that anyone heading home with a new dog or cat or other pet know that they are making a long-term commitment.

So far, the Humane Society hasn't seen a big surge in pets dropped off at their adoption center, though more of the pet owners that have come in have cited the economy as a factor in giving up their animals, said Cyndi Nason, adoption centers director. The group has braced for an increase in drop-offs that may be yet to come.

For the St. Francois Society, the uptick in economy-related rescues began last spring. In one home over the summer, the group rescued seven cats from 100-degree conditions after the animals' owner skipped out. And late last year came Riley.

"I don't know how people can drive off and leave their pets behind, but it's happening more and more," Konersman said.

The upswing local groups are seeing is no surprise to Steve Zawistowski, executive vice president of the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He said animal welfare tracks with human welfare. Our peaks and valleys trickle down to our pets — the Great Depression was shadowed by a pet depression, with shelters taking in many times the normal number of animals, Zawistowski said.

"Every time financial hard times have hit the country, pets have been affected," he said.

This time around is no different, with animals facing a possible "triple whammy," Zawistowski said. People are losing their homes and their jobs and are having a tougher time taking care of pets. Shelters and rescue groups, meanwhile, are having a tougher time raising funds or are seeing tax dollars slashed. Finally, potential adoptions can go down as fewer people feel financially secure enough to take on another mouth to feed.

Tales of pets left behind by foreclosed-upon homeowners are not rare, especially in the areas where the real estate bubble was biggest when it burst, places such as California, Arizona, Florida, Nevada.

There are some bright spots, stories Zawistowski hears of vets waiving fees, and pet food companies donating supplies to balance the stories of abandonment.

"(Economic hard times) bring out the best and the worst in us," he said.

He encouraged those concerned about animals to follow that lead.

"If you're doing OK, check on some of your neighbors," he said. "See if they need an extra bag of dog food or kitty litter."

The prospects for pets likely will get better when the prospects for their owners do. Of course, no one knows when that will be.

"We certainly don't think it's going to get better anytime soon," Zawistowski said.

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Pet Health Care Insurance Options
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

As 2009 gets under way, pet owners might want to take advantage of modern health care insurance options for their animals.

You can get catastrophic care plans, major medical, pre- ventive care, comprehensive care, optical and dental plans.

For those who can fit it into their budgets, the preventive-care plans make the most sense. They ensure that you will have the money to keep problems from happening to your pets by paying most of the cost of routine visits, and even help pay for certain prescription foods, screening lab work, dental prophylaxis and vaccinations. The annual or, better yet, semiannual physical examination is the foundation of your pet's preventive-care program, and this plan helps make it possible for you to be financially prepared to keep those visits happening on schedule.

Some pet owners figure they can handle the routine visits, but want to be able to make the best choices in case of a catastrophe.

Talk to your pet's doctor on your next visit about what pet insurance companies and policies he likes. He will be able to advise you about a plan that best fits your situation.

Pit Bulls To Have Their Day In Court
By Kafia A. Hosh - Loudon Extra

A Loudoun County judge has set a trial date for a lawsuit that could decide the fate of pit bulls taken to the county's animal shelter

The suit seeks to overturn a long-standing county policy that bars adoption of pit bulls by the public. At a hearing last month, a judge scheduled the trial for May 5-7

At issue is whether the county is violating a state law that gives people the right to adopt the dog of their choice from a publicly funded shelter. State law also says that "no canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous dog or vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed."

For years, Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls. The county revised its policy in 2007, allowing the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions if the dogs passed a temperament test. The change came soon after Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a nonbinding opinion saying that pit bulls taken to public pounds could not be euthanized based solely on their breed.

The plaintiffs in the suit, filed in 2007, are a Norfolk-based animal rescue group and Ronald Litz, a Sterling man who was turned down when he tried to adopt a pit bull from the shelter that year. They contend that the county treats pit bulls differently from other breeds and that the public should be allowed to adopt the animals.

County officials have cited public safety concerns. They also say that pit bulls undergo the same screening as other dogs at the Loudoun shelter.

Laura Rizer, spokeswoman for the Loudoun Department of Animal Care and Control, said that all unclaimed dogs go through a comprehensive evaluation that includes behavior monitoring.

The dogs are given a temperament test in which "we try to recreate normal situations that an animal would encounter in the home," she said. "Can you check their teeth? Can you give them a hug? Can you play with them? If they are determined to be adoptable, then we will look at options."

The plaintiffs' attorneys question whether such tests are a fair and accurate way to determine pit bulls' suitability as pets. For example, if a test involves a toy being yanked away from a dog, one would expect a pit bull to react differently than another breed placed in that situation, said Anthony F. Troy, who represents Litz and Animal Rescue of Tidewater.

"Is it fair to say that a pit bull fails the test because it happens to growl and pull back?" Troy asked. "Is that really a proper analysis for determining that a dog is really dangerous?"

Troy said he plans to have an animal behavior expert testify to raise questions about the merits of the temperament tests.

The Loudoun county attorney's office declined to comment, saying it does not discuss pending litigation.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Board of Supervisors considered but ultimately rejected allowing the public to adopt pit bulls cleared by animal behavior specialists.

Board members stand behind the ban on pit bull adoptions.

"We believe that the policy that we have is a good one and protects the public and also provides for an appropriate discharge of those dogs," said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge.)

Since July 1, 49 pit bulls and mixed pit bull breeds have been euthanized, and three have been transferred to other shelters or animal rescue groups, according to the Loudoun shelter. Seventeen of the dogs have been transferred since that became an option in 2007.

Transferring a pit bull "is not an easy process, but we have had really good success," Rizer said. She said that although there is no time limit for housing a dog at the Loudoun shelter, living in a kennel can affect an animal's behavior. At least one pit bull deemed adoptable was euthanized after shelter officials spent three months trying to transfer the dog.

"Her behavior unfortunately deteriorated," Rizer said.

Dog Owners Are Warned About Chicken Jerky
The Washington Post

Advice for Pet Owners

The Food and Drug Administration continues to caution consumers about a potential connection between dogs becoming ill and the consumption of chicken jerky products (also described as chicken tenders, strips or treats) imported from China.

Symptoms include decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea (sometimes with blood) and increased water consumption and urination. Although most dogs seem to recover, some reports indicate that dogs have died from renal failure. The poison has not been identified.

Veterinarians and consumers should report cases of animal illness associated with pet foods to the FDA consumer complaint coordinator, at, in their states.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I recently read your response to a reader about how animals are being over-immunized. I wish I had found this out a few years ago, because then maybe our wonderful 8-year-old German shepherd might not have gotten lung cancer.

The last time I took Max to his regular vet, his bloodshot eyes were dismissed, and I forgot to mention that he had a runny nose. Nevertheless, Max was given all of his shots, including a rabies vaccine.

A few weeks later, we took Max on a two-mile hiking trip, and he was somewhat exhausted when we got home. Suddenly, he was breathing as if he had run a fast mile. This never changed and, in a matter of weeks, Max was gone.

Is it possible that Max could have come down with cancer because too many shots compromised his immune system? Max had also been treated for Lyme disease two years ago. Perhaps this weakened his immune system?

All in all, learning about over-immunization has come at a terrible cost for my family and me. I just wish I had taken a more proactive approach as a dog owner. Hopefully, other pet owners will give this matter serious consideration.

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

I sympathize with you, but please don't blame yourself. Cancer is a complex disease, some forms of which have multiple causes. It is simplistic to put all of the blame on your dog's history of being over-vaccinated. Genetics can play a role, as can any illness that disrupts the immune system, such as Lyme disease.

Certainly, a dog as old as Max with a presumably consistent vaccination history should not have needed all those shots in combination with the rabies vaccination, which some vaccine experts say should be given separately. Blood titers can be taken to test whether follow-up vaccinations are necessary. One of the rules of vaccinating is never to vaccinate an animal showing the slightest signs of illness, such as red eyes or a runny nose.

In my opinion, Max was already fighting the undiagnosed cancer, and the revaccination simply pushed him over the edge.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a healthy, 1 1/2 -year-old male Yorkie. My vet wants to give him the full dose of the Lyme disease vaccination in two shots, two weeks apart. I requested that she give him half the normal dose because he is so small. She told me she wouldn't do that: The FDA hadn't approved reducing the dosage for small dogs.

We live on a lake in an area with a high deer population.

I am very uneasy about the amount of vaccine given to such a small animal.

Montgomery Village

Veterinarians have often questioned the notion that one dose, regardless of body weight, fits all dogs, and it is a contentious issue.

Why don't manufacturers make smaller-volume vaccines for smaller dogs? Why wouldn't a half-dose for a half-pint dog produce a good immune response? Apparently, regardless of the dog's size, the same amount of vaccine must supposedly be given to stimulate an immune response. I find this hard to believe.

Many veterinarians do not adhere strictly to all FDA regulations and recommendations, because common sense and clinical experience with various pharmaceuticals lead them to follow their protocols on a case-by-case basis. With regard to your tiny dog, I would seek a second opinion. I would not vaccinate, because protection cannot be guaranteed: An estimated 70 percent of dogs are protected. Also, some dogs develop an arthritis that is similar to Lyme disease and is not responsive to antibiotic treatment. Use a flea comb at least once a day on your dog, twice a day during tick season.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a 5-year-old Yorkie-Maltese. She was recently diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. She is on a strict venison diet, and she gets half of an Imodium tablet daily and 2.5 mg of prednisone every other day. She also drinks distilled water. I tried taking her off the prednisone, but the urgency to defecate and the mucus in the stool returned. I've come to believe that long-term prednisone is potentially harmful.

Do you have any other suggestions for controlling this chronic disease?


Inflammatory bowel disease in dogs and cats seems to be more prevalent than ever. I suspect that genetically manufactured corn and soybean in pet foods that contain lectins and other foreign proteins might be a contributing factor. Laboratory tests on animals fed genetically manufactured foods develop similar symptoms. Soy, corn and wheat gluten are major concerns. Cats and dogs, like many people, develop gluten sensitivity and a number of associated health problems.

I would put your dog on a homemade diet or find organically certified dog food. Up to a tablespoon daily of aloe gel orally (by using a syringe if he fights a spoon) can help soothe the bowels. A strong tea of chamomile and peppermint might also help. Get your veterinarian to back off the prednisone and explore safer alternatives, such as turmeric, fish oil, glutamine and lecithin supplements.

Dear Dr. Fox:

We have a 3-year-old ragdoll cat, Gus, who is an extremely fussy eater. When we first got him, we fed him soft food and bit of dry, hard food as a supplement. When so many cat foods were recalled, I tried making his food, but he wouldn't eat it.

His teeth are not healthy. Not long ago, our veterinarian had to pull four teeth and prescribed a diet of dry food by Science Diet formulated for cats with bad teeth. Knowing what we know about nutrition for cats, we were uncomfortable feeding him only dry food, so we introduced him to Spot's Stew, and he is wild about it. We feed him the stew once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We do not give him the recommended amount for his size, but we do give him the prescribed dry food as a supplement. On average, he eats about one-fourth cup of the prescribed food daily.

How can we help him maintain the health of his teeth? We've tried many methods for brushing his teeth, but none proved successful.

Woodstock, Md.

Dental problems are common in cats and can be linked with other health problems, including diabetes mellitus and underlying chronic viral infection.

I don't see how a hard/dry food can benefit a cat with bad teeth, gum disease and recent tooth extractions. High cereal content in the dry food could bring on diabetes, obesity and liver disease.

Add a few drops of cod liver oil -- it has anti-inflammatory effects and will help the gums -- to his food. Try getting your cat used to having his teeth rubbed with a piece of gauze that has been dipped in a mixture of baking soda, salt and a few drops of oil of cloves or thyme and propolis (available in many health stores). A piece of raw chicken wing tip or thin strip of beef shank bone meat will also help clean his teeth.

Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. More pet care information is available at his Web site, Write to him at United Feature Syndicate, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

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