People aren’t the only ones who tend to stray from their regular diets during this festive time of year. Now pets are joining us in the annual battle of the holiday bulge.

It doesn’t take much, just an extra treat here, plus a few table scraps secretly given by Uncle Charley there – and by the time January rolls around, your once-trim pet can have a belly that might look cute on Santa Claus but is mighty unhealthy for him.

What can you do to keep your pet from gaining too much weight this holiday season? Author Barbara Denzer says you should start by setting aside time every day to play with your four-footed friend.

“People will often give their dogs and cats more treats during the holidays, because they feel guilty about overlooking their pets in the middle of all the shopping and other activities,” she said. “It would be much better if we took some time out to play with our pets instead of giving them an extra biscuit or two. They’d enjoy this more, plus they wouldn’t be putting on weight.”

Of course, enjoying special treats is as much a part of the holiday fun for pets as it is for people. So when we do give our pets some extra tasty morsels to enjoy this season, and let’s face it many will, Denzer recommends avoiding fatty table scraps in favor of products made specifically for pets, or better yet whipping up your own delicacies.

You say you don’t know how to begin making a holiday treat for a pet? Not to worry, Denzer recently published a cookbook, The Crazy Kids Guide To Cooking For Your Pet (available through www.amazon.com or www.crazypetpress.com), which serves up a variety of healthy treats like “Lolli-Pups” and “Mice-A-Roni” that kids of all ages can whip up for dogs and cats during the holidays.

If you do feed your pet an occasional scrap from the holiday dinner table, Denzer recommends avoiding the fatty pieces like the turkey skin or dark meat in favor of the leaner white meat, since this not only contains fewer calories, it’s also less likely to upset your pet’s stomach.

Dr. Rolan Tripp, founder of www.AnimalBehavior.Net suggests: “No more than 10 percent of the total days’ intake should be table food. If giving table food, it is best to give it after the meal – away from the table – and ask a canine to sit to earn the treat. The timing reinforces human leadership, the different location reduces begging at the table, and earning the treat reduces pestering.”

For canine fun and oral health, provide a rawhide dental chew for 10 minutes of dental cleaning daily. Harper’s Dental Chews are some of the highest rated, and available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here’s a tip if your dog is not experienced with rawhide; when the rawhide chew gets small enough to be swallowed, “trade up” meaning trade for a MORE tasty treat. Rawhide should be chewed on, not eaten.

An alternative is to give your pet something like the OurPet’s Gourmet Rawhide Bone. Made of ground and baked rawhide, it comes in flavors like “beef,” “bacon” and “chicken,” so it’s just about as enjoyable for a dog as chewing on the real thing.

Some “high value” chewies like rawhide can also encourage disagreements and object guarding (read growls and fangs showing) between dogs within a household-not something you want at any time but certainly not during the bustling, high stress holidays. If you see this occurring, replace the rawhide with lower value items such as a piece of their regular dog food or interactive toys or only give “high value” treats in their crates.

No turkey drumsticks,

Although dogs love to chew on bones, turkey drumsticks from the holiday table should be avoided since they can splinter and get caught in the throat or intestines. Try stuffing some of your pet’s favorite treats into an interactive Kong Toy, Molecuball or Buster Cube when dinner is ready. Chances are your pet will be so busy trying to work the treats out of these toys that he’ll forget to come begging. Just in case these distractions don’t work, it’s a good idea to remind every guest not to sneak your pet table scraps.

The added benefit of interactive toys is that they make your pet work to extract his treats, so he’s at least burning up some calories before he enjoys his holiday goodies. As an added weight control step, you can put some of your pet’s regular food ration in a Kong Toy during the holidays. Aside from helping your best friend burn up calories, this will also provide a healthy outlet for the extra nervous energy that most pets seem to catch from us during this hectic time of year.

If you have trays of chocolate goodies out during a holiday party, make sure they’re kept out of the reach of curious pets and avoid leaving wrapped presents containing food products where your pet can get them. Dogs and cats have a sense of smell that’s much more developed than ours, so even though they can’t see the chocolate, cookies or gourmet cheese that’s gift-wrapped for you, they can smell it, and may help themselves.

If your pet decides to help herself to that gift, she not only runs the risk of upsetting her gastrointestinal system from the food itself, but the ribbons, and other packaging material can become lodged in her throat or intestine.

Dr. Marty Becker is the coauthor of the book “Chicken Soup For The Horse Lover’s Soul” and a popular veterinary contributor for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Write to him in care of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, 790 National Press Building, Washington, DC 20045.


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