By Meredith Galante, The Star-Ledger
ELMWOOD PARK, N.J.—Rocky needs to lose weight.
Before attending day camp, the 2-year-old would lie on the couch all day, leaving his comfy cushion only to eat meals. Rocky also has eaten rocks, three remote controls and a smoke detector, incidents that required a hospital visit and emergency surgery.
The 113-pound yellow Labrador retriever represents the 45 percent of the nation's dogs that are overweight or obese, according to the most recent study by the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity. An even larger number of cats—58 percent—are overweight or obese. According to the study, 6.7 million dogs are estimated to be obese and 34.9 million overweight. Again cats rank higher, with 20 million estimated to be obese and 54.3 million overweight.
"Rocky is a food-motivated dog," said Pat Paretti, Rocky's owner. "If you call him and he doesn't feel like moving, but then you tell him, 'Rocky, I have a cookie,' he comes running."
Rocky put on some extra pounds he wasn't able to lose after a stomach surgery last year. That's why Paretti is trying to get Rocky off the doggie treats and onto the treadmill.
Because she suffers from her own health issues—a bad knee because of Rocky's overly playful demeanor, she said—she hasn't been able to walk him as often. At Camp Bow Wow in Elmwood Park, Rocky's trainers hope he can shed his excess 33 pounds and correct his couch-potato lifestyle.
"Studies show that if your dog is overweight, it can shave two to 2½ years off his life," said Ernie Ward, a North Carolina veterinarian who founded the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity.
The Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity considers a pet obese when it is 30 percent or more over its recommended weight. Yesterday, veterinarians across the country conducted their yearly studies of patients to learn just how many pets are overweight, said Ward.
As with humans, obesity in pets can lead to health concerns such as Type 2 diabetes, respiratory and heart failure, cancer, kidney failure and arthritis.
The American Kennel Club says the ideal weight for Rocky's breed is 65 to 80 pounds.
"The same factors that contribute to people being overweight are spilling over to our pets. Eating too much, not exercising enough," Ward said. Those factors include a sedentary lifestyle, poor food choices and, of course, overeating.
"Most owners have no clue how many calories a day their pet should be consuming," Ward said. "If I could change one thing about the way pets eat in this country, it would be treats. I call them kibble crack.' These treats have so much fat and sugar that they change behavior and dogs beg for them even when they are not hungry."
The way pet food and treats sold in supermarkets are manufactured today—with sugars and processed fats—is not how dogs and cats were naturally intended to eat, Ward said. He calls processed foods and treats "poison" for dogs.
Ward suggests no- or low-grain pet food for dogs and cats. Meat should be the first ingredient, with no "byproduct" attached, he said.
Beyond diet, Ward recommends at least 30 minutes of activity a day for dogs, and he encourages playtime for cats as well. Laura Ortiz, a counselor at Camp Bow Wow in Elmwood Park, said she has seen dogs drastically lose weight after spending a month at Camp Bow Wow because their activity level jumps from zero to nine hours a day.
"It really breaks my heart when I see a fat puppy come in here," said Ortiz. They play so much less than the other dogs and are not as happy."
For dogs like Rocky, a play-focused day care center such as Camp Bow Wow provides an avenue for constant activity. Dogs can stay at camp for up to nine hours a day.
Rocky, a 113-pound Lab Retriever eats his daily food at Camp Bow Wow in Elmwood Park. The same factors of obesity that plague humans are now translating to their pets. Forty-five percent of household pets are overweight.
The rest of the day, Rocky and his fellow campers can roam the 7,200 square feet of indoor camp and 2,500 square feet of outdoor play space equipped with bridges, or swim in the camp pool.