Man and Dog Workout Team

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, many people are planning fabulous feasts and festivities. Everyone knows a turkey dinner is a holiday tradition, complete with mashed potatoes and stuffing, topped off by a warm slice of pie a la mode. And who can resist the leftovers? Pumpkin pie for breakfast might seem like a good idea at the time, but trying to squeeze into pants that were once baggy is not a fun way to start the new year.

At least half of the adults in America are overweight or obese. We hear about it every day on television and radio and we're inundated with suggestions about how to undo the damage.

What many people do not take into account, though, is that our pets are getting fat right alongside us. The percentage of dogs and cats who are overweight or obese is also just about half, and rising every year.

"Obesity is the most common nutritional problem that we see in our canine and feline companions today," said Dr. Andrea Fascetti, associate professor of nutrition in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis.

"The road to obesity is a complex one and a multitude of factors often contribute to its development. It is one of the easiest problems to diagnose and one of the most difficult to treat," she said.

The implications of weight-related health problems in animals -- the same increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, joint ailments and other complications that face humans -- are even more immediate and dire. Dogs don't have the cushion of a 70-plus-year life expectancy to ease the impact of their weight gain. With an average 12-year life span, they need every health advantage they can get.

Small dogs begin to suffer health problems with just a couple extra pounds. One extra pound on the frame of a 10-pound dog is the equivalent of more than 20 pounds on an average adult human. Research shows that trim pets live about 15 percent longer, or an average of two additional years. For pets, the fountain of youth may just be putting less food in their mouths and more miles on their feet.

Not coincidentally, research suggests that overweight people and overweight pets often live in the same homes.

To help my clients understand how extra weight can affect their dog's vitality, in my veterinary practice I used to keep cans of pet food on the exam room counter. On the table in front of me would be an overweight 22-pound dog, 10 percent over its target weight of 20 pounds (20 percent over is considered obese). I'd give the hound's owners two cans of pet food to hold in each hand, then tell the owner, 'realize this extra bulk is on your dog 24/7/365.'

We understand the problem, but what can we to do about it?

Anyone who's ever tried to launch an exercise program on their own knows that the entire process can be a drag, especially when your initial enthusiasm wears off or when the weight won't seem to come off. Research has long shown that folks trying to lose pounds have a better chance if they have the support of a workout and diet partner.

If your weight-loss program is going to the dogs, you'll love this: the results of the first-ever, yearlong people and pet weight management study were announced Monday at the National Association for the Study of Obesity meeting in Las Vegas.

The People and Pets Exercising Together study by Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Hill's Pet Nutrition demonstrates that dogs can serve as social support for their owners for weight loss and weight maintenance.

If you give your dog a chance, not only can he be a supportive partner in a weight-loss program, he may be the most committed, reliable, supportive, out-and-out fun workout partner you could have ever hoped for. A dog never offers excuses why today isn't a good day to exercise; you won't catch them checking their watch thinking, "I only have this much time to give you."

Dr. Tony Buffington, a veterinarian and companion animal nutritional specialist at Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says using different words can make exercise more palatable.

"Many people panic at the thought or sound of the "E" word. Exercise. But with our pets towing us or in tow, or by tossing a tennis ball as we walk, we can just call it play or activity, not exercise," he says.

Buffington, whose paper on obesity therapy was published in the June 2004 "Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association," found that successful weight loss is not just about the food. His research shows activity also burns calories, but equally important, provides stress reduction for owner and pet alike, which appears to promote adherence to a new, healthier lifestyle.

Here are three reasons why dogs are excellent exercise partners:

1. Dogs elevate exercise from drudgery to joyful routine. The fun dogs find in the adventure of getting outside and working out with you is infectious. Not only is a dog good social support, but he will catch on to the new routine quickly, then make your life miserable if you try to slack off and skip a day.

2. Dogs take the focus off you. Undertaking a walking or jogging routine alone can make anyone feel excruciatingly self-conscious. Walk or jog with a dog, however, and suddenly you are a doer of good deeds, an animal lover, a good sport who doesn't mind being dragged around the block a few times by an eager dog. The difference may be about the perception of the neighbors, or all in your head, but studies show most people really do feel more comfortable walking with a dog than without one.

3. It's a good deed. Many of the participants in the P-PET study reported that they never would have undertaken -- or stuck to -- an exercise program were it not for the fact that they were doing it for their dogs. Changing your routine to make a change in your own health can seem like a decision that can be put off indefinitely, but for devoted dog lovers everywhere, a health condition caused by a pet's extra pounds is plenty of motivation.

In the study, the dogs shed an average of 12 pounds -- or 15 percent of their initial body weight -- and their owners lost an average of 11 pounds -- or 5 percent of their initial body weight. What the owners gained was the motivation to stick to specific diet and exercise strategies with their dogs and succeed at weight loss not just for the moment, but for the long term.

Chicago-based participants, Roseann and Spats, are a true success story. Roseann lost 30 pounds and Spats (a Lab/Husky cross) lost 13 pounds, 15 percent of his initial body weight.

"Caring for and loving my dog is what motivated me to be a part of this program," said Roseann. "It is a real lifestyle change. We worked together, lost weight and kept it off over the course of a year, and now there's no turning back."

Kathleen and Winston (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), who also call Chicago home, have covered a lot of ground through their participation in the program. Their lengthy daily walks and dietary changes have helped Kathleen drop two dress sizes, while Winston lost six pounds, or 20 percent of his initial body weight.

To give yourself an idea whether your pet is too plump, you can do the three-step weight check, which includes a "should be able to feel the ribs" check, a profile check (should have a tucked waist like a wasp) and an overhead check (pet should be shaped like an hourglass). Instructions for performing these checks or for outlining an exercise program for your pet can be found at www.petfit.com.

In January, local veterinary clinics will be offering the P-PET program. Owners should talk to their doctors before starting any weight loss or exercise program.

Dr. Marty Becker is a veterinarian, author, educator and a regular guest on ABC News' Good Morning America