People think that having fat pets is cute, but it's not. They develop health problems and die prematurely. I wish people realized this.
Fat cats: Britain's porkiest pets - and their even fatter owners
By Jenny Johnston
Last updated at 10:00 PM on 10th July 2009
source: Fat cats: Britain's porkiest pets - and their even fatter owners | Mail Online
Puppy pram: Dorothy takes her dogs Gizmo and Gemma for a 'walk' along the beach
We may be a nation of pet lovers, but we are also a nation of KitKat and kebab lovers. Sometimes the combination can be disastrous.
That much would have been clear to anyone watching Dorothy Hodges, from Canvey Island in Essex, trying to take her dogs, Gizmo and Gemma, for a walk along the seafront earlier this year.
As she says herself, the term 'walk' would have been stretching it.
'It was always more of a crawl,' she confesses. 'Both dogs were too heavy to actually walk any distance, and I'm not exactly Zola Budd myself.
'It got to the point with Gizmo that she could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I'd actually had to go out and buy her a special doggie pram, so I could push her along. And Gemma wasn't that keen on walking either, so she used to get in with her.'
How could anyone let their beloved pet get into such a state? A quick peek into Dorothy's fridge to see what used to pass for dog food would have answered that one.
'The dogs have always loved their chocolate, and I'm afraid I've indulged them,' she confesses, with shame.
'Their absolute favourites were white chocolate mousses. I'd give them one each for dessert. They'd sit up beside me on the sofa to eat them, and I'd spoon them the mousse.
'I live alone and I had a bit of ill health a while back, which curtailed my social life. I only had my dogs. I've got two daughters and six grandchildren, but in the evenings they're not there, so I fell into this awful pattern of comfort eating. 'I'd sit on the sofa with the dogs for company. If I had a chocolate bar to cheer myself up, they had one too. No one ever told me feeding dogs chocolate was wrong.'
No one, that was, until her daughter - 'who calls me an eccentric old biddy', says Dorothy - signed her up for a brutal-sounding TV show called Fat Pets, Fat Owners.
The show - think You Are What You Eat meets Animal Rescue - puts overweight owners and their porky pets through a series of scans and health checks, then terrifies them into fighting the excess flab before it's too late.
Now, you'd think that having to go to the lengths of buying a doggie pram would have been enough to convince Dorothy it was time to put her two dogs, both nine years old and of the Llasa Apsa breed, on a diet. Not so.
'Oh I'd known about the weight issues for a while. Last year, Gizmo was desperately ill. I woke up one morning and found she couldn't move. The vet said she might never walk again, because the weight was putting so much pressure on all her joints.
'But I still didn't blame myself for that. It was only when I got involved in the programme, and they put all of us through those body scanners, did I really understand. They sat me down and told me what damage I'd been doing to my pets. It has been devastating, to be honest. For most of their lives, I'd been killing my darlings with kindness.'
She's not the only one. Ever heard of a dog whose idea of a balanced diet is some spare ribs with his chicken fried rice? Meet Snoop the Labrador, whose build bears an uncanny resemblance to that of his 23st owner, William Tripney, from Inverness in Scotland.
The pair were persuaded to sign up for Fat Pets, Fat Owners by William's partner, Pauline, who thought it obscene that Snoop hadn't been for a walk - not even a pram-assisted one - for two years.
'It's shameful to admit it, I know, but the bigger I got and he got, the less fit either of us was for it,' says William.
'It was like a vicious circle. The more we didn't go out and exercise, the more we sat at home and ate. And, looking back, both our diets were really rubbish. There would be lots of takeaways - Snoop was never fussy about what he had. He'd eat anything, except tomatoes.
'He's always loved crisps, pancakes, Mini Cheddars, Cornflakes and cheese. We've never been ones for giving him much sweet stuff, certainly not chocolate, because it's bad for dogs, but I had no idea that I was actually making him ill.
'When they did the scan, it came back that his body fat was 43 per cent, which is dire for a dog. I'd never even considered him as fat. I thought he was just a typical Labrador, with a hefty body and a small head. Looking back, though, there were signs. When he sat down and you looked at him from behind, he was just a big square.'
Emotional journey: Louise and her cat Buddy, who had 46 per cent body fat before the show
William himself was also rather more rotund than nature had designed. His body fat scan came out at a whopping 50 per cent (a healthy range of body fat is 14 to 20 per cent for men, and 17 to 24 per cent for women), which somehow shocked him.
'I'd always been fat, and had been bullied all my life for it. But my mother died a few years back and I think I turned to food even more. I got myself in this rut and I couldn't see a way out of it.
But even I didn't think I was that big.
'The problem is that I dragged Scoop down with me. I was gutted when they pointed all this out to me on the programme. They said Scoop would die if I didn't change things.
At one point they explained that, for a dog, just a forkful of Chinese takeaway is the equivalent of a whole plate for a human. It's really little wonder that Scoop was too fat to walk.'
In terms of public humiliation, the programme certainly delivers. All the junk food the participants have been feeding their pets, when a bowl of Winalot would have sufficed, is duly laid out on long tables, a la You Are What You Eat.
For Louise Collis, from Reading, self-styled 'mum' of Buddy the cat, that alone was a jolt.
'I started to laugh, but deep down I was horrified. I mean, I'd gone into the programme denying that Buddy even had a problem. Yes, I used to joke that he was a lager lout of a cat, the ultimate couch potato, but I'd genuinely always thought he was big-boned.
I think I only agreed to take part in the show because I thought I'd be proved right. How wrong I was, though. They came back and told me his body fat was 46 per cent. I knew so little I said, "Is that bad?"'
To be honest, it shouldn't have taken a body scan to prove that Buddy had something of a weight problem. Louise herself admits that, in a bid to force him outside to exercise, they bought him a lead. It wouldn't go round him.
The happy news is that all three owners did agree to submit both themselves and their pets to a diet and exercise regime. Vets packed them off with tiny portions of dried pet foods, and dieticians warned against fry-ups.
'It's been awful,' admits Louise. 'I've never found dieting easy myself, but to have to subject Buddy to it - well, I was in tears at one point. I fell at the first hurdle and gave Buddy some ham when he was going mad for food. They expected him to just have one teeny-weeny bowl of cat food, but I couldn't do that to him.'
So concerned were the programme-makers that Louise was going to walk out of the project, that they brought in a special animal psychologist to observe pet and owner. The results make for truly jaw-dropping television.
'It turns out that a lot of the issues both Buddy and I had were as a result of past traumas,' says Louise. 'I'd lost another cat, Ted, whom I'd had for 11 years. He'd had cancer and I'd had to make the most difficult decision anyone can have to make regarding their pet, and he was put down. I think I'd projected all my love, worries and grief onto Buddy, and he, in turn, had acted like a naughty teenager, always demanding food in return for affection.
'If I gave him some, he'd come and sat with me. He'd push his way onto my lap while l was eating and demand some himself. I'd let him lick the lid of my trifle pot, but that wouldn't be enough and he'd want a spoonful. He'd end up eating whatever he liked - pork scratchings, crisps, pudding and cream. He'd chase me round and bite my leg if I didn't give him what he wanted. It was like I was being held hostage. I'd give in for the sake of a cuddle, but it wasn't right, and deep down I must have known that.
'It's been a real rollercoaster for me, too. As part of the programme, I had a trainer to help me work out, but there was a particular day in the park that I came close to breaking point and wanted to quit. My reaction surprised me, to be honest. I always considered myself a laid-back person, who doesn't get upset over things, but I found it all pretty stressful. I did persevere, though, and I'm so glad I did. I always knew I had a lot of weight to lose, and confronting that is one of the best things I've ever done.'
So, a few months on from the start of the project, what has happened to the podgy pets and their overweight owners? We can't give too much away, but we can reveal that waistlines are moving in the right direction.
'It turns out that Buddy wasn't in the slightest bit big-boned,' says Louise. 'He's actually quite a tiny cat. The best thing is that his lead fits him now - in fact, it does up to the second notch. I screamed when I realised that.
'He's like a different cat psychologically, too, much more settled. He behaves more like a cat now, because I had to learn not to indulge him and pick him up when he wanted. It has worked. Before, I really do think he was suffering from depression. Now he is full of beans. It was such a shock to discover that if we'd carried on the way we were, Buddy could have died sooner than he should. I love him to bits and never want to do anything to make his life shorter.'
In Louise's eyes, though, Buddy is still not just a cat. 'Oh, no. Buddy is my baby, and always will be. And I do still indulge him, but within reason. If he needs a snack now, I won't give him a packet of pork scratchings, I'll give him a teaspoon of tuna.' And Buddy is not the only member of the household to benefit - Louise has dropped a few dress sizes and the parrot is weight-watching too. 'We kind of got used to giving the parrot inappropriate treats,' says Louise. 'I'd think nothing of giving him a huge chunk of currant bun. Now, I think twice about that.'
But what of Snoop and William? 'Snoop and I have gone for walks for the first time in years,' says William. 'And I can tell you a bit about salads now.'
And Gizmo? 'I suppose it was actually easier sticking to the regime,' says Dorothy, 'because all three of us were dieting together. When I first put out the portions of dog food they had provided for my dogs, I wanted to cry. There wasn't enough there to feed a budgie. But the vets reassured me that dogs don't need that much to survive and thrive. Still, their mournful little faces as they looked at the fridge was heartbreaking at first.'
Gizmo may have had to sacrifice those chocolate mousses, but there have been compensations for that. 'She's coming on a dream,' says Dorothy, beaming with pride.
'When filming started, I wanted her to look good, so I tried to put her in her tutu, but it wouldn't even do up. Now I can get all the fastenings done again. She looks a million dollars.'
Fat Pets, Fat Owners is on Sky Real Lives from Thursday at 8.30pm.