While Americans spend this time of year vowing to lose weight, a local veterinary center is resolving to help pets do the same thing.

Angel Veterinary Center of Flower Mound has launched the Shed the Pounds contest in an effort to tackle a problem that has grown at the same rate many people's cats and dogs have.

Similar to, but not patterned after the hit TV show “The Biggest Loser,” doctors hope the contest helps pets as it aims to promote exercise and a healthy diet.

“What I would like to see is pets that are overweight and have problems associated with it to become leaner,” said Dr. Valarie Romo, “and for their owners to be happier because their pets have an improved lifestyle.”

Owners who want to participate must sign their pets up for the contest by Feb. 7. Between Feb. 16 and Aug. 7, pet owners will try to shed their animal's pounds with a combination of exercise routines and a diet that includes healthy food from Purina. The cat and dog that lose the largest percentage of body weight by the end of the contest will receive a year of free prescription food from Purina.

The contest includes weigh-ins every two weeks in which mini-prizes may be awarded. Prizes include items that are designed to keep the pets active, such as a Frisbee.

Any pet owner can sign up for the contest, though they will first need to schedule an evaluation appointment if they are not an existing patient.

“We are determined to educate our clients and to support them in getting their overweight pets back to an ideal weight," said Jessica Lee, hospital administrator at the center, “and to make the lifestyle changes necessary for them to maintain that weight. As with most things, the best way to do that is to make it fun, which is the reason we came up with the contest.”

As in humans, ideal weight varies based on the size of the pet. But doctors note that even a 1-pound weight gain in a 10-pound cat is a 10 percent increase, and that's too much. Doctors at the center also said that 40 percent of the country's pet population is not just overweight but obese.

Doctors use a body conditioning score to determine where the pet's weight should be. The scale ranges from one to nine, with one being severely underweight and nine being severely overweight. Dr. Beverly Unger said a five is an ideal mark but said she has seen plenty of pets come into the center at seven.

“We need to bring this to people's attention,” Unger said. “We look at it at the human level, so we need to leak it down to our pets. Overweight cats can develop arthritis and diabetes, and overweight dogs can develop diabetes. And they're also more prone to developing cancer.”

Unger said being overweight often translates to a decreased life expectancy, too. Doctors cite a study by Purina that concluded that dogs fed to a lean or ideal body condition throughout their lives had a median life span of 1.8 years longer and were considerably healthier than dogs that were overweight.

It’s facts like those that Angel Veterinary Center of Flower Mound doctors try to convey to their clients.

Once the doctors notice a pet is overweight, they consult with the pet owner. They tell pet owners what to look for in determining how overweight the animal is, such as the animal's ribs, waist and tummy.

Doctors recommend a diet routine based on the animal's body conditioning score. The animal’s data, including the score, is put into a computer, which in turns tells how much food the animal should eat. Every two weeks, the pet is weighed to gauge the progress, and the amount of food the pet is allowed to eat is adjusted accordingly.

Another component of the program is exercise.

“One example of that is tossing food to the cat or dog so that they have to get up to get it,” Lee said.

Doctors urge any type of activity to keep the animal moving.

For those wanting to take the extra step, the center has an underwater treadmill for dogs.

“Most of the dogs who use it love it,” Unger said. “It’s a safe way to keep dogs that are grossly obese moving. It forces them to keep at a certain pace. The water is shallow enough so that they won’t drown, and the treadmill can be shut off if the dogs get tired. It’s a very controlled situation.”

Romo said while the treadmill is effective, the majority of the program is based on owner behavior changes.

“You can't feed the pet everything, even when they beg,” Romo said. “You have to reduce the amount of food you give them and keep them active.”

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