Seven Secrets to Keep Your Pet Trim

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Humans aren't the only ones waging a fight against fat.  Man's best four-legged friends are waging the obesity battle too.

According to the latest veterinary surveys,  more than  half our nation's dogs and cats are overweight.  That means 94 million pets are at risk today for developing crippling arthritis, debilitating diabetes, catastrophic kidney and heart disease, high blood pressure and many forms of cancer.

PHOTOS: Pets Working it Out at Doggy Fat Camp

How can you slim down your supersize pets, keep them fit and reduce their risk of developing many serious diseases?

 Ernie Ward, veterinarian, author and the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, offers  these seven tips to help your pet lose the paunch.

1. Calculate Calories - If you don't know how many calories your pet needs each day, you don't know how much to feed it. And don't think you can trust the bag; feeding guides are formulated for adult, unspayed or unneutered active dogs and cats. That means if you have an older, spayed or neutered indoor lap potato you'll probably be feeding 20 percent  to 30 percent too much if you follow the food's instructions. Instead, ask your veterinarian to calculate the proper number of calories your pet needs each day.

Another good starting point is to use this formula: Divide your pet's weight by 2.2. Multiply this figure times 30. Add 70 and you've got a good idea of how many calories you should be feeding a typical inactive, indoor spayed or neutered pet. Of course, each pet's metabolism is different, so be sure to consult your veterinarian before starting a diet.

2. Measure Meals - A pet owner's single greatest tool in the fight against excess weight is a measuring cup. Too many pet owners simply fill the bowl or guesstimate how much they're feeding. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention has done studies to show that giving as few as 10 extra kibbles of food per day can add up to a pound of weight gain per year for  indoor cats and small dogs. After you calculate how many calories your pet needs, determine how much food you should provide for each meal - and measure it.

3. Tactical Treating - I am not anti-treats. I am anti-junk treats. If you're going to give your pets extra goodies, make 'em count. Too many pet treats are calorie grenades laden with sugar and fat blowing up our pet's waistlines. Choose low-calorie, no-sugar goodies that provide a health benefit. I like single ingredient treats such as sweet potatoes or functional treats that provide a bonus, such as helping to keep teeth clean or promote mobility. Whatever treats you give, be sure to count those additional calories.  Many pet owners feed the proper amount of food but sabotage their efforts by adding one or two snacks throughout the day. As few as 30 extra calories per day means your pet gains more than 3 pounds in a year. Better yet, dogs don't do division. Break treats into small pieces and divvy them up whenever your pet earns it. Be cautious of guilt-treating - the practice of giving your pet a treat because you feel guilty leaving it home alone. Instead, use treats only as a reward for good behavior. Pets (and people) need to learn to earn extra goodies.

4. Vital Veggies - As an alternative to highly processed store-bought treats, try offering baby carrots, green beans, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, sliced apples and bananas or ice cubes. These naturally nutritious tasty tidbits are a healthy option for many dogs. For cats, try a flake of salmon or tuna when you're feeling generous. While you're at it, put down the potato chips and share a carrot with your pooch. You'll both be healthier for it.

5. Hustle for Health - When it comes to living a long, pain- and disease-free life, research proves our most powerful partner is daily exercise. Speaking of partners, anyone with a dog has a built-in, no-excuse exercise buddy. For dogs, as few as 20- to 30 minutes of brisk walking is all it takes to boost immune function, improve cardiovascular health and reduce many behavioral problems. For cats, try playing with a laser pointer, remote-controlled toy or ball of paper for 5 to 15 minutes each day. Do yourself and your dog a favor and commit to daily walks, rain or shine. The health benefits of walking extend to both ends of the leash.

6. Smart Supplements - When it comes to keeping fit and trim, a couple of supplements may help.  Almost every dog, cat and person can benefit from taking a daily omega-3 fatty acid supplement. These powerful fish oils pack a potent anti-oxidant punch that has been proved to help prevent numerous diseases. In addition, they may help ease achy joints and perhaps encourage weight loss. L-carnitine has been shown to aid weight loss and promote lean muscle mass. I've been prescribing (and taking) l-carnitine for more than 12 years and been impressed with the results. Ask your veterinarian if either (or both) of these supplements make sense for your pet's condition.

7. Cut Down the Carbs - most pet dogs and cats don't need a high-carbohydrate diet. Yet that's exactly what most of us feed our pets. Many diets contain 60 percent or more carbohydrates when you analyze the food label. Look for low- or no-grain options with a protein source as the first ingredient.

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