If you're an overweight dog owner, there's a good chance that your pooch is packing a few extra pounds as well.
While the United States struggles to overcome an obesity epidemic, more than half of American adults and a third of our nation's children are still too heavy.
Humans aren't the only ones plagued with excess poundage. Obesity is the leading nutritional disorder affecting America's canine population. Nearly a third of dogs seen in private veterinary practice are considered to be overweight.
Daisy, a 7-year-old beagle, is one of the millions of overweight dogs in this country. Her owner, Gail H. of Knoxville, Tenn., said, "My bad habits were rubbing off on my dog. We were both couch potatoes and big eaters, and we were both getting fat."
Packing on extra pounds can be hazardous to people and their pets. Obesity contributes to a number of serious conditions, including respiratory and digestive disorders, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.
When Daisy got so heavy that she could no longer climb to her favorite spot on the couch, Gail decided to take action. "The veterinarian told me to give Daisy less food and more exercise," she said.
Like Gail and Daisy, many humans and their hounds could stand to shed a few pounds. Recognizing the rising trend of obesity in dogs and their owners, Allan Green and his research group set out to determine if people and their pooches could team up to lose weight successfully.
"It's a well-known fact that people who partner with exercise buddies are more successful in their fitness programs than people who try to do it alone," explained Green, director of the Bassett Research Institute in Cooperstown. "We wanted to see if dogs could help motivate their owners to exercise more," he said.
Green and his colleagues conducted a pilot study in collaboration with the Iams Company, a manufacturer of dog food. For the study, 12 overweight humans and their overweight dogs were recruited.
Pet owners weighed in at the start of the program and then received nutritional counseling from a registered dietitian. The owners were asked to follow a low fat diet that included plenty of fruits and vegetables.
The participating dogs were also weighed, and then placed on a diet. Their owners were instructed to feed their pets a low-calorie dog chow made by Iams, and to carefully measure the dogs' portion sizes each day. Researchers beseeched owners not to feed the dogs any table scraps or snacks.
Although they weren't given strict exercise requirements, the participants were asked to walk their dogs as often as possible. At the end of the six-month program, the owners reported walking an average of seven miles each week with their dogs.
How did the study participants fare in terms of weight loss? "The dogs in the study did very well," Green reported. Of the 11 canine participants, 10 dogs lost at least 10 percent of their body weight, for an average weight loss of about five pounds.
The human participants, on the other hand, weren't quite as successful at shedding their excess weight: Six of the 11 dog owners lost an average of three pounds. "The reason the dogs did so much better than the humans," Green explained, "is that the dogs couldn't go to the refrigerator and fix themselves snacks. Unlike their owners, the dogs didn't cheat on their diets."
In spite of the fact that dog owners didn't slim down dramatically, Green said that they all reported feeling healthier and fitter. "The dog owners felt that they and their dogs benefited from the program, and most of them plan to continue," he said.
Although the Cooperstown study included only adult dog owners, Green believes that the program could be extremely beneficial for children. "Overweight kids often have a hard time participating in rigorous sports, either because they find the activities too difficult or because they feel too self-conscious doing them," he said.
Taking the family dog for a walk, on the other hand, is something that most kids can manage, and even enjoy. Pets tend to love their owners unconditionally, and can make excellent exercise partners for older children and teens.
After a month of daily walks, Gail and Daisy are making progress. "When we first started walking, I'd have to drag her out the house," Gail said. "Now, she's the one that gets me up and moving. When it's time for our walk, she's already sitting by the door, ready to go."
Dr. Rallie McAllister is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn. Her Web site is www.rallieonhealth.com.