It’s fitting that when a rotund cocker spaniel came to Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in San Francisco last year, her name was “Cocoa Puff.” The 9-year-old dog weighed 40 pounds, a whopping 15 pounds above her ideal weight.
To make matters worse, Cocoa Puff couldn’t really exercise because she had kennel cough and needed to be isolated from other dogs.
Still, her smile and wagging tail made her zest for life obvious.
Muttville volunteer Christine Falletti, 42, fell in love with the dog the first day they met.
“There was this really, really overweight, really happy, ungroomed cocker spaniel,” she told TODAY. “We were not looking into adopting a dog but I really felt she was meant to be with us.”
Sure enough, Falletti and her husband, Dominic, brought Cocoa Puff home on her 10th birthday, June 15, 2018. They renamed her Penelope and vowed to help her lose weight.
“You could tell when we first got her that she wanted to play and walk a lot, but she just couldn’t do as much,” she said. “She was happy, but she wasn’t healthy. She was so overweight I knew it would shorten her lifespan.”
So within a week of adopting Penelope, they visited their veterinarian to develop a plan. (The couple has three other dogs.) First, the veterinary team tested her thyroid to see if a medical issue was causing her weight issues, but it was normal. They recommended a high-quality kibble and how much of it to feed to Penelope each day.
She quickly lost 7 pounds but then hit a plateau.
Undeterred, the Fallettis took Penelope to a canine rehabilitation center to work out on an underwater treadmill once a week for months. The water helped provide buoyancy to relieve pressure on her joints. They continued reducing her food intake and supplemented meals with slices of apple.
In less than a year, Penelope reached her ideal weight of 25 pounds.
The now-energetic dog fetches balls, races upstairs and leaps onto the couch to snuggle on the nearest available lap.
“She doesn’t know what personal space is,” Falletti said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘I know you lost a lot of weight, but you’re still not a 5-pound Chihuahua!’ She’s just really sweet and really happy, affectionate and friendly. She’s brought so much energy and comedy to our family.”
An estimated 50 million U.S. dogs — and 56 million cats — are overweight or obese, according to a 2018 clinical survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. While it’s a serious concern to the veterinary community, many pet owners don’t recognize their animal is overweight because the problem is so widespread.
Dr. Julie Reck, veterinarian and owner of Veterinary Medical Center of Fort Mill in South Carolina, said being overweight taxes pets’ joints and can also lead to kidney, liver and metabolic issues.
“If we want this pet not only to have the longest life possible but to have the best quality of life during that duration, keeping their weight in an ideal range is key,” she told TODAY. “It’s really one of the most important factors I see in my experience as a veterinarian.”
She stressed the need for animal lovers to respect to their veterinarian’s opinion about their pet’s weight, and not brush off concerns with comments like, “It’s just a few extra pounds.” Instead, work with your veterinarian to develop a weight loss plan as the Fallettis did for Penelope.
Reck said it’s crucial to get all family members on board with a pet’s weight loss plan, including grandparents and children, who might be tempted to sneak table scraps.
If treats are particularly important, consider offering carrots or snap peas to dogs. She also suggests not feeding meals in bowls. Rather, use food puzzles to provide mental stimulation and extend mealtime, hide the kibble around the home to play “find it,” or feed the meal bit by bit as a reward in training sessions.
Naturally, in addition to the mental workout, dogs will benefit from physical exercise. Reck noted a walk, playtime or a belly rub can be positive rewards for good behavior in lieu of treats.
“Realize there are other ways to engage with them other than just feeding them,” she said.
For inspiration, just remember Penelope, who recently celebrated her 11th birthday in style with her loving forever family — healthy and happy at her ideal weight.