Lisa Baruzzi admits she used to slip Richie a few too many treats. She just wanted to show him how much she loved him — “he’s just the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet.”
Then, Richie started having heart trouble. A cardiologist told Baruzzi the golden retriever would have a better recovery if he weren’t 20 pounds overweight, and referred the dog to a pet nutritionist.
America’s pets are having their own obesity crisis, studies show, with at least 35 percent of household dogs and cats above their ideal weight. And the nation’s two obesity epidemics — pet and human — are tightly entwined: Americans, it seems, are as indulgent with their animals as they are with themselves.
Last month, Dr. Deborah Linder of Tufts University opened an obesity clinic at the school’s North Grafton campus to help people help their pets lose weight. She recently taught Baruzzi to show her love for Richie with attention instead of bullysticks and Frosty Paws. The board-certified veterinary nutritionist also put Richie on a strict diet of kibbles, helping him shed 5 pounds in six weeks.
Linder expects to see a handful of cats and dogs a day while conducting research into pet obesity. The clinic’s standard care package costs $250 for an extensive initial session and six checkups, plus phone and e-mail follow-up, as needed.
Although there are other pet weight-loss clinics — and neighborhood vets regularly treat plump animals — few are associated with veterinary schools and staffed by specialists with training in pet obesity and other health problems.
The biggest challenge in addressing pet obesity, Linder and other specialists say, is that most owners are not good judges of their pet’s weight. Nearly 40 percent of owners of overweight pets think their animal does not have a problem, research shows. And veterinarians are leery of pointing out fat cats and dogs, because they do not want to insult the owners.
For most dogs, the best way to identify a weight problem, Linder said, is to touch around the rib cage, which should feel about as padded as the back of the owner’s hand.
For cats, “if there’s a fat pad in the abdomen between the back legs, that cat is overweight,” said Dr. Kathryn E. Michel, medical director and nutrition professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
The difference between ideal and overweight for a pet isn’t much. A small cat could be considered overweight if it weighs 10 pounds instead of 8; Baruzzi’s now 100-pound golden retriever should ideally weigh 85.
Pets get slightly different health problems than people from overeating. Heart disease in dogs and cats is not generally caused by obesity, though extra pounds can complicate the recovery. But diabetes and joint problems are common among overweight pets, and just like in people, losing weight helps improve and extend life, research has shown.
A labrador at an ideal size will outlive an overweight dog by two years on average, said Linder, of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts.
“What really gets me is that obesity and even [having] overweight animals is completely preventable,” Linder said. “We do the best we can to help them, but it would be better to prevent” obesity-related conditions in the first place.
As with people, weight loss for pets is complicated, takes time, and requires lifestyle changes — mainly on the part of the human.
“In theory, it should be easier [to help pets lose weight] because the willpower factor is taken out of the equation,” Michel said. “But it’s just transferred to the owner.”
In some families, one member will carefully monitor what Fido is eating while another sneaks scraps under the table.
Many people equate treats with love, as Baruzzi did. Studies show that 90 percent of dog owners and more than half of cat owners feed their pets treats.
“They want to treat their dog because they believe they’re showing it love, but they’re killing it with kindness,” said Rebecca A. Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine .
And today’s typical lifestyle doesn’t provide pets with enough exercise. Dog owners tend to get more exercise than people who don’t have dogs, but some simply open the back door and let their pet do its business in a small enclosed yard.
Cats, too, can have the same imbalance between food and exercise, unless owners provide opportunities for play and limit access to high-calorie foods.
Then there’s the issue of how much to feed a pet, and how much to cut back when it’s overweight. Food labels are helpful, but only to a point.
“Guidelines are based on average dogs and cats,” said Dr. Dorothy Laflamme, a veterinary nutritionist with Nestlé Purina. “Nobody has an average animal.”
A pet may need a little more food than a label says, or a little less, depending on the animal’s size, exercise level, and how many treats it gets. A further complication: Pet food companies are not required to reveal calories on labels, though veterinarians are lobbying companies to add that information.
Not surprisingly, people with overweight pets tend to be overweight themselves, which presents an opportunity for both to get in shape, said Dr. Robert F. Kushner, a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Kushner helped lead a yearlong study showing that weight-loss programs involving pets and their owners can be extremely effective. Pets lost 15 percent of their body weight. People in the study — whether they owned a pet or not — shed about 5 percent.
People preferred their dogs to a human workout partner, because the dog was a more reliable exercise buddy, and better at encouraging workouts, said Kushner, co-author of the 2006 book, “Fitness Unleashed!: A Dog and Owner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together.”
Pet owners said they were more motivated to lose their own excess pounds when they felt they were helping their dog. “They really felt good about doing something for a family member,” Kushner said.
Michele Arnold admits it has been a challenge to feed her 11-year-old miniature schnauzer a special soy diet and to pick up food scraps immediately so she won’t eat them.
But after Jazzy’s diet was switched and she shed more than 3 of her 18 pounds, her allergies abated, her knees stopped popping out of their sockets, and she became a more spry dog, said Arnold, of Hopkinton.
“It makes you think about what you eat and how it affects your body,” she said.
Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.