When your pet needs a weight-loss plan

Dog trainer and obesity-fighter Travis Brorsen with Gracie, one of the dogs he works with on My Big Fat Pet Makeover.

Animal Planet

Dog trainer and obesity-fighter Travis Brorsen with Gracie, one of the dogs he works with on My Big Fat Pet Makeover.

This is the week when New Year resolutions, often about fitness and health, are still going strong. So maybe this is a good time, without upsetting any of your own plans, to make a weight-loss resolution on behalf of your pet.

One estimate has it that one in three New Zealand pets carries too much weight. That means more illnesses such as diabetes, heart and joint problems, and shorter lives.

But pets can’t make resolutions or measure their food servings or change their lifestyles – we must make it happen for them. How on earth do we start?

The other day I talked to American pet specialist and trainer Travis Brorsen, host of My Big Fat Pet Makeover – a show that’s about to start on New Zealand screens. In the show, he takes owners and their overweight pets on a four-month weight-loss and behaviour modification journey with the aim of helping each pet live a healthier and happier life.

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The first question I asked Brorsen was the most basic one – how can we tell if our pet is overweight?

“The first thing I tell a lot of my clients here in New York City,” he says, “is it’s okay to ask someone else to see if they think your pet is overweight.”

Travis Brorsen checks the weight of one of his canine clients.

Animal Planet

Travis Brorsen checks the weight of one of his canine clients.

This is to counter a common reaction of denial, he says.

“We [owners] see the pets every day, we obviously love them, to the point that if there’s anything wrong we tend to turn our heads the other way. So any time I tell an owner that their pet is overweight, typically they get defensive and get their feelings hurt.”

But there’s also a simple test you can do with your pet – so long as you do it properly. With your pet standing on all four legs, run your hands gently over the pet’s sides, without pressing your fingers in. If you can feel that the ribs are there but can’t see them protruding, then your pet is a healthy weight.

Gracie was quite a size before her weight-loss programme, which included wearing an exercise tracker.

Animal Planet

Gracie was quite a size before her weight-loss programme, which included wearing an exercise tracker.

Can’t feel the ribs? Then your pet may be overweight. But don’t be tempted to press your fingers hard on your pet’s body in order to feel the ribs – that, says Brorsen, is a kind of denial.

Denial is the first of three common reactions that Brorsen sees among owners of overweight pets.

The second is that people simply don’t know that their pet is too fat.

The third is that the owner knows the pet is overweight but doesn’t understand the health risks, or even believes it’s cute. Often, says Brorsen, other people bolster that misconception by treating the pet as funny and giving it even more treats.

Beau Nugget the cat came to Travis Brorsen at twice the weight he should have been.

Animal Planet

Beau Nugget the cat came to Travis Brorsen at twice the weight he should have been.

Owners in those three categories are, sadly, unlikely to seek help in getting their pet healthy, says Brorsen.

In My Big Fat Pet Makeover, even with owners who are motivated enough to seek his help, Brorsen still tries to deliver a reality check. In one episode he meets a cat that is twice its healthy weight and eats four times the amount of food it needs. To illustrate this to the owners, he lays out a huge pizza on their table in front of them. Yes, they say, they’d be able to eat that. But then Brorsen produces a second pizza, then a third and a fourth. Of course they couldn’t eat all that, they say.

“I looked right at them and said, this is what you’re doing to your pet every day.”

In another segment, with a Beagle that’s 7 kilograms above its healthy weight of 16kg, Brorsen gets the dog’s owner to wear ankle and waist weights and carry kettle bells equivalent on a human scale to the dog’s excess weight.

That owner was brought almost to tears when realising he was doing that to his loved pet. But Brorsen says his approach is not about shaming or bossing owners around. “It’s about finding ways to make it real for the owner and then putting together a goal and plan that are realistic.  

Two dogs step up for their TV weigh-in.

Animal Planet

Two dogs step up for their TV weigh-in.

Oklahoma-born Brorsen FIRST sought his fortune as an actor in Los Angeles. The he and his dog Presley were chosen for a TV dog-training competition called Greatest American Dog – and won.

After five years as a professional trainer, he moved to New York and set up Greatest American Dog Trainers, working largely with celebrity-owned dogs.

He’s found that overfeeding is the unsurprising cause of most obesity in pets, but that excess feeding comes about for differing reasons. One owner might neglect exercising their dog because it’s hard to control on leash – a behavioural issue that needs solving first. In other cases a busy household or miscommunication can bring about too many feeds for a pet.


ROSANNA PRICE/Stuff.co.nz

Veterinary nurse Sarah Chew talks about assessing your pet’s weight, and why obesity is a problem.

The three main pieces of advice Brorsen has for a pet owner are these.

1. Measure your pet’s food. “Do it with a cup or by the ounce. I don’t care how you measure it, so long as you measure it!”

2. Base your pet’s rations on its ideal weight, not its current weight. If you don’t know the ideal weight, ask your vet.

3. If you need to get your dog exercising more and don’t know how much to do, start with three 30-minute walks per day, later increasing as needed.

On the question of what we should feed our pets, Brorsen says a healthy, complete food is important, but buy what fits your budget. “And always ask your vet – they’re a great resource.”

Once you’ve done all that, he cautions, don’t expect, or seek, to have your overweight pet lose weight dramatically.

“With dogs, they should only be losing between 3 and 5 per cent of their body weight per month to stay healthy. Cats can fall in the 4 to 8 per cent range.

“It’s not a competition where one pet is vying against another pet, it’s about adding years to the pet’s life by doing it as healthy as possible and changing not just the way you’re raising your pet now, but changing the way you raise every pet you have for the rest of your life.”

My Big Fat Pet Makeover, Saturdays from January 13, 6.40pm, Animal Planet, channel 076.

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 – Stuff

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