SOUTH SIOUX CITY, IOWA — With his pink tongue poked slightly out of his mouth, Thor paced in circles in a glass tank on a Friday morning.
The 9-year-old pug suddenly came to a standstill and his protruding brown eyes locked on Jean Gill as the tank began filling with water. When the water reached his fawn-colored chest, the treadmill below his paws slowly began to move. Thor's stubby legs responded, chugging along.
"Good boy," Gill, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner, said clapping her hands.
Although most of her canine clients view the exercises at Four Paws Fitness & Rehab as nothing more than fun and games, Gill said they work hard shaping, toning and shedding pounds. Thor is a veteran of "Doggy Fat Camp," graduating not once, but twice.
After slimming down from about 29 pounds to 23, Thor, like many people who struggle with weight loss, gained some of his weight back and had to resume an intense exercise regimen. Now, once again at a healthy weight, he visits Four Paws Fitness & Rehab, 1033 W 21st St., for occasional maintenance.
With human obesity at an all-time high, it's no surprise that dogs like Thor and cats are also battling the bulge.
State of Pet Health, a new report from Banfield Pet Hospitals, which saw 2.5 million dogs and 505,000 cats in 2016, reveals that 1 in 3 dogs and cats living in the United States is overweight. Being overweight or obese is the second most common diagnosis among Iowa's and Nebraska's dogs and cats, according to the report.
"He didn't have a waist. You could tell he moved a little slower," said Thor's owner Bill Conner, of Sioux City, whose veterinarian gently suggested that his beloved pooch lose some weight. "When he's down the weight, he's a go-getter."
Proper feeding is key
As with people, metabolic rate — the rate at which the body burns calories — differs among animals.
David Ray, a veterinarian at Perry Creek Animal Hospital in Sioux City, said overfeeding is the main reason why dogs end up looking like "watermelons with legs."
"People need to feed their animals by what they're looking like, not by what a bag of food says or how much exercise the animal is getting or whatever the genetics of the animal is," he said. "They need to look at the animal and if they cannot feel ribs easily, their dog's fat."
Ray frequently encounters pet owners who are concerned because their dogs have stopped eating. He said they often purchase a lower quality, better tasting brand of dog food, which the dogs consume for a while, before tiring of it too. Then, he said, owners start cooking for their dogs; and soon the cycle repeats itself.
"I gently but firmly sit them down and say, 'This animal is not eating because it doesn't need to eat,'" he said. "Once we get some weight off the animal, the animal will then start to eat better foods because it's now going to get hungry."
While Emily Gamm, a veterinarian at South Sioux Animal Hospital, said she tends to see more lap dogs, such as pugs and bulldogs, become overweight, she said it can happen to any breed.
According to State of Pet Health, owners of overweight dogs spend 17 percent more on health care and nearly 25 percent more on medications, while owners of overweight cats spend 36 percent more on diagnostic procedures.
Gamm encourages pet owners who are concerned about their dog or cat's weight to talk to their veterinarian.
"It's more than just a number on the scale. We look at more than just the pounds," said Gamm, who uses a body conditioning score to evaluate her patients' fitness. "Muscle weighs more than fat, so some dogs may weigh a little bit more, but may be more muscular."
When a pet is diagnosed as overweight, Gamm advises cutting back on excessive feeding and treating. She said treats, which pet owners like to give as a reward and to show affection, can be packed with calories and sodium. She also recommends slowly increasing an overweight dog's activity level, starting with a short walk around the block, to help peel off those extra pounds.
"Don't just start running a 5K with them, because they're not going to be able to keep up," she cautioned.
Feeling like a new dog
A dog too fat to wag his tail and play with the other pups.
That was the state of a black, middle-aged pug, who tipped the scales at 52 pounds when he was surrendered to the Sioux City Animal Adoption and Rescue Center.
Now in his new forever home, the dog has lost approximately seven pounds in eight weeks' time by maintaining a strict diet, going for walks and following his new owner around her rural home. When the pug slims down to 40 pounds, his new owner hopes to bring him to Four Paws Fitness & Rehab two to three times a week for "Doggy Fat Camp."
Dogs enrolled in "Doggy Fat Camp" spend at least four hours, if not the whole day, with Gill. They workout for a little bit, rest and then repeat.
"Some dogs, all I do is walk them around. They just stay with me on the leash helping me clean," Gill said. "They might not be able to stand on any of the equipment. We have to work up to that."
Dogs that can tolerate more intense exercise walk on underwater and regular treadmills, perform core exercises on inflatable stability equipment to strengthen their abdominal muscles, step over objects to work their joints and even don weighted vests while going through an obstacle course to burn more calories.
"Usually they think it's fun. Initially, they don't want to do it because it's hard work," Gill said of the exercises. "They just want to lay down and sleep and eat -- that's the pattern they've gotten into."
After a few sessions, Gill said her clients find themselves enjoying the workouts and feeling better as a result of the exercise. Their owners start to notice a change too, not only in body composition, but also in behavior.
"People say, 'I've got a new dog,'" Gill said. "They've gotten the weight down and their arthritis is feeling better because of the exercises that we're doing."