By Michael Hartwell
ASHBY -- Tipping the scales at 12 pounds, Melvin doesn't sound like he has a weight problem, but with a torso shaped like unsliced deli meat, veterinarians say this cat needs to get down to a healthy level.
"He's chunky," said owner Katie Jollimore, 18, of Ashby. "He's heavy to lift. I've seen fatter cats, but he's still pretty bulky."
Melvin is far from alone. A recent national survey shows that more than half of cats and dogs in America are overweight or obese, but pet owners have a poor track record of identifying animals with a healthy weight.
A survey from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found 52 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats to be overweight or obese by their veterinarian, which puts them at risk of diabetes, osteoarthritis, arthritis, urinary problems, hypertension and different forms of cancer.
However, of those pet owners with pudgy pets, 46 percent of dog owners and 45 percent of cat owners mistakenly identified their pets as having a normal weight.
Jollimore doesn't have any illusions about Melvin's weight. Her family's year-old gray and white cat loves to eat, sometimes to the point of vomiting. They have a kitten in the house, and Jollimore said they have to keep food out for the kitten and Melvin helps himself to it.
He's also an indoor cat who doesn't move around very much. The family lives in a wooded area, and Jollimore said it's dangerous for a cat where they live. Her parents have heard about animals being killed outside their home.
She said Melvin used to play more when he was younger but has gotten lazy.
"He's not a big mover," she said.
Dr. Samuel Yoon, veterinarian and owner of Twin City Animal Hospital in Fitchburg, said high pet-obesity rates are a major health problem, and the issue is rampant in his area, affecting about half of the cats and dogs he treats.
"It's the same as in humans," he said. "They eat more than they should and don't get enough exercise."
Yoon said a lot of dog food is high in calories, and many owners give their pets too much or for convenience sake leave food at out all times for their pets to feed themselves.
In addition, pets are spending more time indoors. Yoon said leash laws and a higher level of traffic are discouraging pet owners from letting their animals roam outside.
Yoon said pet diet food is easy to find, and some owners are putting their dogs on treadmills for exercise.
As for cats, Yoon said walking them on a leash is an option not many pet owners consider. He has his own cat fetch a tiny ball to get it to run around the house.
"Cats probably need more motivation," Yoon said.
He said pet owners can use things like a laser pointer to keep cats moving instead of sleeping all day.
Dr. Emilia Agrafojo, of Linwood Animal Hospital of Lowell, said animal obesity is the most common problem she sees. She said one study found that dogs at a healthy weight lived an average of 2 1/2 years longer than overweight ones.
She said the problem is so bad that a third of the animals they see qualify as obese.
"It's from people who show their love through food," said Agrafojo.
She said pet lovers should try showing their affection by giving animals attention, toys or taking them on walks.
Agrafojo said some animals could be overweight for a medical reason like a thyroid issue, and the best bet is to have a vet check them out. She said if a pet does need to lose weight, it's much easier to keep them from ingesting calories in the first place than to try to burn them out with exercise.
She said children are also a common cause of plump pets.
"Kids will just stuff them when parents aren't looking," said Agrafojo.
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