Love me slender
Published 13/02/2013 | 06:00
Much like his namesake, Elvis eats like a king. The Jack Russell terrier gorges on chicken and cooked sausages dealt out by pensioners at Dublin's Fairview Park and often dines on lamb shank and ham at home.
As a result, the one-time rescue hound has packed on the pounds, despite being walked three times a day. Deirdre McDonnell, Elvis's owner, gets up at 7am to walk him before work and pays Una Furlong, a professional dog walker, to ensure he gets exercise during the day.
"The vet said he's fit-fat and just carrying a bit too much weight," McDonnell said. "She has told me he needs to lose over a kilo. If he doesn't lose the weight by April, when I have to bring him in for vaccinations, she's going to put him on a diet.
"But Elvis is a clever dog. He has friends in the park who he gets treats off. Some retired people who walk in the park turn up with bags of cooked sausages and chicken for the dogs.
"I'm a vegetarian so I feel guilty about him not getting enough meat. I cooked him a lamb shank last week, and I have proper dog biscuit treats, give him dry food and wet food. But I'd rather he kept his exercise up because dogs have to enjoy their food too."
Elvis may not be a contender for the title of Ireland's heftiest canine, but he is an example of the country's growing pet obesity epidemic. Man's best friend is simply eating too much of his food.
Fat cats and pudgy pooches are often the result of well intentioned animal-lovers – who often carry a few extra pounds themselves – showing love for their pets by giving them calorific scraps and treats.
But even small amounts of human food, such as biscuits or cheese, can have more of an effect on an animal's waistline than their owner's. One small plain biscuit, for example, is the human equivalent of a hamburger.
Thanks to the over-generosity of their owners, one-in-three dogs and one-in-four cats are now obese. Those statistics resonate with David Thompson, a senior partner at City Vets in Waterford. Thompson treats overweight pets with calorie-controlled diets and ReductAid, a slimming aid that helps animals feel full. Bringing up the weighty subject with a pet owner, however, can be tricky.
"Sometimes you're going on about the dangers of obesity for pets and then you look at the owner and think 'oh my god'," he said.
"In 2008, we held a sort of equivalent of Operation Transformation for dogs. We picked six or seven for an eight-week weight-loss programme. One of them was a dalmatian weighing 42kg. This dog lost weight in the eight weeks and, five weeks after that period, was down to 25kg.
"That was the best success I've ever seen. The dog went from pretty well moribund to walking for six or seven miles at a time."
Vets say pet-lovers fail to realise that obesity puts them at risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and early death. One study of labradors, carried out over 14 years by Purina, a maker of dog food, found that the dogs that ate less lived an average of two years longer.
Luckily, myriad methods have emerged to help pets shed the pounds. More vets are offering weight classes for dogs, prescribing diet drugs for extreme obesity and recommending hydrotherapy.
Some 40 dogs a week now work out at the underwater treadmill in a heated pool in the Canine Country Club near Sallins, Co Kildare, according to Mick Murphy, the club's owner.
Older dogs and those with injuries often struggle to lose weight through walking and running because of the strain it puts on their joints and limbs, he said. Training in water, however, reduces the relative body weight of the dog.
Murphy recommends a course of 10 treatments, which cost €315. The club, which also has boarding kennels, provides wetsuits for the dog's owners so they can join in as the hydrotherapist puts their animal through their paces.
"We have a King Charles cavalier in the pool that is double the size he should be," Murphy said.
"Dogs are becoming grossly overweight. People feed them tidbits off the table whenever the dog looks for food. If you give dog a choice between a bowl of nuts or a leftover curry, he's going to go for the curry. The owners don't even realise their dog is overweight until the vet gives them a bollocking.
"People are getting breeds of dogs because they saw them in a film. They don't do background checks so they don't know that certain breeds, like Great Danes, need to be let loose and get a lot of exercise.
"In Dublin, there are very few parks or beaches where you can let a dog off a lead. And if you can't exercise your dog properly, he's going to get overweight."
Joe Doyle brought Jess, his 13-year-old springer spaniel, for hydrotherapy at the Canine Country Club when the dog developed arthritis and found it difficult to exercise.
"The swimming definitely helped her," he said. "She was finding it hard to get up steps but she's in great shape now.
Not every pet owner is as dedicated, according to Janine McEvoy, a nurse at Brookpark Veterinary Hospital in Dunmanway, Co Cork. The hospital runs a weight-loss clinic called Brookpark Binge Busters, where pets are put on a high-fibre, low-fat diet and then measured and weighed until they reach their target.
"We mention weight problems to owners a lot more than we treat them," McEvoy said. "We once had an 80kg boxer, which is the weight of two or three boxers. I don't know how that dog could move but that guy wouldn't put the dog on a diet. He said he's 'grand as he is'.
"You have to be tactful because people get the hump if you say their dog is overweight. Often the owner is overweight, too, so you have to be so careful with your words.
"Most things are covered under pet insurance, but weight-loss diets are not. The insurers will say it's not the animal's fault it's overweight – it's the owner's."
Increasingly, courts are saying the same thing. In the UK, the RSPCA brought an elderly couple to court in 2009 for having a dangerously overweight dog. Taz, a five-year-old border collie which had ballooned to twice its ideal weight, was taken into the care of Brighton and Hove city council after his owner, Ronald West, ignored repeated orders to improve the animal's diet. West was found guilty of failing to ensure the welfare of an animal.
The same year, the RSPCA took away a labrador called Ben from its owner because at 70kg, the dog was too fat to even get on the scales. It took three vets to lift him on the table. His owner, Melvyn Davies, was fined for causing Ben unnecessary suffering.
Last September, Obie, the world's fattest dachshund, was almost fed to death by his doting elderly owners in America.
A vet who took Obie in when the owners became unable to look after him put the dog on a diet and took him for hydrotherapy to help him lose 18kg. Obie's efforts were documented on his own Facebook page.