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Does your pet need to shed some pounds? Just like for people, diet and exercise are the keys.
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updated 12/19/2005 12:55:52 PM ET 2005-12-19T17:55:52

Dear Diary,

Fido here. It’s the holidays, and I’ve been paying very close attention to how my people celebrate them. There’s lots of food involved, and I find that if I stick close, some of it usually comes my way. A little too much, maybe. Last night I heard the woman saying that I looked like a Vienna sausage on toothpicks — and I don’t think she meant it in a nice way.

I’ve noticed that they’re busy thinking up things called New Year’s resolutions, which seem to involve changing themselves for the better. Maybe I should make one to lose a little weight. I’ve been reading up on the latest news about obesity in pets — it’s epidemic, apparently — and here are some ways people can help me (and my other cat and dog friends) look slim and trim next year:

Really look at us
It’s funny how people don’t really seem to see us, even though they’re looking straight at us. I’ve been waddling for months, but my people don’t realize I’m fat. If people would just use their eyes and hands, it would be easy for them to tell if we’re overweight.

Tony Buffington, a professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus, says that when people look at us from the side, our abdomen should be tucked up. When they look at us from above, we should have an hourglass figure, with the waist curving inward just before the hind legs. When they pet us on the side or back, they should be able to feel the ribs or spinal bumps but not see them. If we look like a basketball with legs and a head, we’re obese. How hard is that?

Get us off the couch and on the move
All my dog pals love a brisk walk or game of fetch — when they can get it.

And my cat buddies go wild for those fishing-pole toys with the mousie or birdie on the end. Sometimes they sit for hours in front of the closet where it’s stored, just hoping someone will bring it out. A few minutes of this several times a day gets them moving.

Veterinarian Jim Richards, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in Ithaca, N.Y., says to encourage activity by wiggling the pole so the object on the end of the string mimics a little critter scurrying along the ground or around a door. If you don’t tell them it’s a cat toy, dogs think chasing the fishing pole is a fun game, too.

Give cats an indoor 'tree' to climb
Achieve this by providing a scratching post that’s at least 6 feet tall. Some go all the way to the ceiling. Those rock! Check out the Indoor Cat Initiative for more ideas.

Measure our food
It’s easy just to leave food out for us all the time, but in case you haven’t sampled it, that stuff is tasty! It’s hard to just say no, especially when there’s not much else to do around the house when you’re gone. Consult our veterinarian about the amount we should be eating. Cats, especially, shouldn’t go on crash diets.

“There can be some really serious hits on their health when cats lose weight too quickly,” Richards says. Obese cats that lose weight rapidly are prone to a condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, which can be fatal. Slow and steady weight loss is the way to go.

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Consider 'Catkins' diet for feline friends
A cat’s natural diet is mainly meat, and recent research in feline nutrition shows that cats do well on a high-protein, low-carb diet, says veterinarian Susan Little of Ottawa, Canada, president of the Winn Feline Foundation.

“We’ve been getting away for years by feeding cats dry foods with high-carb content because they can live on it,” she says. “It’s technically nutritionally complete, but the price they pay is that those excess carbs are stored as fat, which is why we’ve got this epidemic of obesity. It’s easily the most common health problem in cats; 40 to 50 percent of cats are obese.”

Lacking a regular supply of mice, or faced with a cat that turns up its nose at a diet prescribed by the veterinarian, try switching to a good-quality canned food. “All canned foods are lower in carbs than dry foods,” Little says. “Even that little switch can make a difference.”

Make us work for our meals
I think I can safely speak for other pets when I say there’s nothing to do all day but eat and sleep. “Hunting” for food would help me and my friends feel as if we’re living up to our potential. You can place small amounts of dry food in different areas of the house for us to find during the day, put food up on the washer or dryer so cats will have to make a bit of an effort to get to it, or put it inside food puzzles such as Buster Cubes so we have to work to get it out.

Little says you can make a food puzzle at home by taking a clean yogurt container with a lid and poking a hole in it that’s just a little bit bigger than pieces of dry cat or dog food. Put the dry food in the yogurt container, put the lid on and then show your pet how to bat and roll the container so a few pieces of food at a time will drop out.

Back off on the treats
Sure, we like them, but they’re not what we’re all about. Sometimes, we just want attention. When we rub up against you or nudge your hand, try playing with us, petting us or running us through a quick obedience routine — then reward us with a piece of kibble instead of that potato chip or french fry you’re eating.

You know, losing weight is just as healthful for us as it is for you. Fat cats and dogs are more prone to musculoskeletal problems that contribute to arthritis. All that extra weight on our joints make us more likely to suffer soft-tissue injuries, too. It’s harder for my fat-cat buddies to groom themselves, so they develop skin problems. And the big bad that’s linked to obesity is diabetes. Believe me, you don’t want to start having to give us insulin shots.

So anyway, that’s my New Year’s resolution. Maybe one of yours will be to help me achieve it.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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