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Fat camp for pets?

Not quite, but Chicago businesses are offering up just what the doctor ordered for obese dogs, cats

June 25, 2012|By Mick Swasko, RedEye

Telling yourself it's finally time to sign up for the gym and shed some pounds is hard enough, but getting your dog to drop weight?

That can be even tougher.

Erin Kowalski, 30, of Humboldt Park learned that a few years ago when her chocolate lab, Zeus, ballooned to 110 pounds—about 36 pounds overweight.

While a healthier diet and extended walking regimen produced noticeable results for her dog, Kowalski turned to a relatively new option to get Zeus to a healthy weight. She signed him up with a Logan Square pet clinic that specializes in animal weight loss. The clinic has all the bells and whistles you'd expect at a neighborhood gym—from laser therapy to acupuncture to workouts with exercise balls. Turns out, an underwater treadmill and resistance pool was the secret to Zeus' slimdown.

"He's got a better coat, he's got more energy—all around he's a better dog because of his weight loss," Kowalski said. "Everybody thinks he's a 3-year-old dog, even though he's 9."

Pet owners in Chicago are taking new measures to help Fido burn the fat. Specialty care facilities, which can cost hundreds of dollars for multi-week regimens, offer human-like ways for dogs and cats to shed pounds. There are even bootcamps designed for pet and owner to work out together. Meanwhile, pet owners across the country are spending tens of millions of dollars every year to treat issues that are brought on by their pets' weight.

While Americans themselves are facing a national obesity problem, their pets are tipping the scales as well. More than half of adult dogs and cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, and about one in five of them weighs in at more than 30 percent over its ideal body weight. The surplus pounds can lead to a host of health issues including arthritis, diabetes and problems with the hips, kidneys and liver. And while fat cats like Meow, the 39-pound feline whose photo was passed around online before he passed away last month, have been talk-show punchlines of late, experts say the issue is something to be taken seriously.

"Every time we see these horribly obese and overweight cats, there's always a little joke, a little asterisk attached to it," said Ernie Ward, author of pet obesity book "Chow Hounds." "As a vet, I see that that animal is suffering."

Ward said the issue of animal obesity has gained traction in recent years, going from a subject that was brushed off when the association was founded in 2005 to a topic that is beginning to open the eyes of pet owners.

Megan Ridley, a veterinarian at Integrative Pet Care, the Logan Square clinic that helped Zeus, said she treats animals she believes are morbidly obese.

"We come up with protocols for these animals," she said. "I usually put the No. 1 [goal] is weight loss."

Ridley said it's rare to see an animal come in for treatment solely for weight issues. Usually, she says, existing problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia and other issues that cause pets to be less active have been made worse by being overweight or obese. But it does happen. One recent client brought in a dog who was fed a diet of table scraps for a year and a half. The dog that should have weighed 65 pounds soared to 90.

"You could see it was starting to have issues with its wrists," she said.

Ed Heil, owner of Integrative Pet Care, said eight- to 12-week treatments range from $800 to $1,400, and can include boarding. Heil said the rehab and weight loss can prevent costlier procedures. Hip surgery for a dog or cat can cost at least $3,000 to $4,000.

Saq Nadeem, founder of the resort-style boarding service Paws for Pets, said he has seen a growing number of customers willing to pay for extra services that help their pets get in shape. The company didn't always offer treadmill fitness or nature hikes for dogs, but demand for those services has grown as owners increasingly spoil their pets as they would their own children.

"In general, I think there is a big trend toward providing comprehensive services," he said. "We've seen a trend of more and more places offering these add-on services."

Diana Ozimek, a trainer who runs fitness boot camps for women in Chicago, has her own solution. After seeing many pet owners who abandoned the gym to care for their pet, she developed a workout routine for canines and their owners alike.

The challenge, she says, is that pet owners see jogging as one of the only ways to work out in tandem with a dog. But her four- and six-week boot camps, which she began teaching about a month ago, incorporate light training for the dogs along with cardio and weight training for their keepers.

"You should definitely see a increased level of fitness for you and your dog," she said. "You should both be able to work better together."

WIDER PETS, THINNER WALLETS

A fat cat or plump pooch doesn't just cause problems for the animal; it also can wreak havoc on an owner's finances. Pet insurance provider Petplan said it saw a 348 percent rise in arthritis claims in 2011, as well as a 253 percent increase in diabetes and 32 percent incline in cardiac arrest claims, all of which are associated with extra weight. The company says costs add up.

Diabetes: $900 per incident, with costs reaching as much as $5,700

Ligament tears: $2,000 on average, and up to $6,000 in claims

Arthritis: $2,000 per incident, costing owners as much as $9,600

These figures don't include the basics of pet ownership. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates the minimum cost of owning a small dog in its first year is $1,314. That number rises to $1,580 and $1,843 for medium and large dogs, respectively. For cats, owners can expect to pay $1,035.

mswasko@tribune.com | @mickswasko

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