April 06, 2010 11:45 AM

We’ve all done it before: Upon seeing our pet’s persuasive eyes looking up at us, we’ve slipped him a table scrap or two. But according to veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, author of the new book Chow Hounds, we’re singlehandedly contributing to the pet obesity problem: Today, 45 percent of dogs are classified as overweight or obese.

“It’s really been the evolution of how we feed our pets,” Dr. Ward explains to PEOPLEPets.com. “In the 1950s we were feeding dogs ‘normally,’ and as time has passed, we’ve started feeding them commercially-processed, canned and bagged food. They’re eating grain- and carbohydrate-based diets, instead of lean protein.” That richer diet – combined with a more sedentary lifestyle in urbanized families – has contributed to the “perfect storm of portly pets,” says Dr. Ward. (It’s even worse for cats – since the furballs are obligate carnivores, and eating more and more carbohydrates, their obesity levels are on the rise, too.)

Dr. Ward says when dogs approach us with those sad eyes, they’re not begging for food per se, but for pleasure. Calling sugary dog treats “kibble crack,” he points out that our pets are actually addicted to what we give them – and not necessarily as hungry as we may think. In fact, many pet owners are overfeeding their furry friends by 25 percent each day.

To combat weight gain in your pet – and subsequently cut his chances of developing deadly diseases – Dr. Ward says to first start with your vet. “Don’t be embarrassed, and don’t take your pet’s weight personally,” he urges, noting that many people don’t even realize their pet may be overweight, thanks to changing perceptions of obesity.

Next, find out how many calories you’re feeding your pet at each meal. “It can be downright challenging to find this information,” he admits. Some pet food companies do post nutrition facts on their packaging and Web sites, though, and if not, your vet can help.

Then, be sure to engage your pet in moderate physical activity daily. “There’s a difference between walking for pleasure and walking for exercise,” Dr. Ward says. “If you’re going to walk your dog for 10 or 15 minutes, make it brisk. They want that.”

Finally, Dr. Ward warns against confusing begging for food with begging for attention. “We equate food with love. But if your dog is looking at you with pleading eyes, whimpering, he’s not asking for food, but affection or interaction.” The lesson here? Less lounging, more love!

Check out Chow Hounds (Health Communications, Inc., $14.95), available in bookstores now.

Read more about pet health on PEOPLEPets.com:
Owner Says Cat’s Death from Cancer Saved His Life
$75,000 in Cancer Treatments Couldn’t Save Areba the Parrot

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