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A cat is weighed at the Bluffs Pet Clinic in Red Wing. Veterinarian Abbey Butler said all animals that come to the clinic are weighed and given a body condition score.

Is your pet a little chubby?

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Large brown eyes peering up at you from beneath the dinner table. A questioning meow as you sit down with a bowl of ice cream.

It might be hard to resist your pet's begging, but according to Abbey Butler, veterinarian at the Bluffs Pet Clinic of Red Wing, animal obesity is a growing -- and dangerous -- problem.

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"It is becoming a much more common, everyday finding," Butler said.

As many as 20 to 30 percent of the animals seen at the clinic are overweight, she said. While that figure generally refers to dogs and cats, Butler added that pocket animals -- like gerbils and hamsters -- aren't immune.

"Food is a part of our social life, and we do that with our pets, too," Butler said.

It may seem like sharing a bite of your meal with your pet is simply showing affection. But a small piece of human food could actually be adding quite a few unnecessary calories to the animal's diet.

"A piece of cheese is fine for us," Butler said. "A piece of cheese is half the (daily) calories for a cat."

But it's not just animals who share meals with their owners who run the risk of being overweight. Pets can also pack on the pounds just from eating too much of their own food.

"It comes down to ... eating too many calories," Butler said.

Cats should eat around 200 to 250 calories a day, which is about a half-cup of cat food.

"Unless they're extremely active cats," Butler said. "Most cats that are inside aren't very active."

As a general rule, dogs should consume about 1 cup of food for every 20 pounds of body weight.

Aside making the trip through the pet door a tight squeeze, animal obesity -- just like in humans -- can cause serious health problems, Butler said. Carrying around extra pounds can lead to arthritis, breathing problems and diabetes. It can also take years off a pet's life.

"Keeping pets at an ideal weight, or just slightly below, can prolong their lives for one to two years," Butler said, citing a study done by pet food company Purina.

So how do you tell if your animal is carrying around a few too many pounds or ounces?

One simple check is to look down at the animal's back from above, Butler said. Just behind the animal's rib cage, there should be a slight indent, Butler said.

"If it's one straight line, they're overweight," she said.

Another way to tell is to feel for the animal's ribs.

"The ribs should be easy to feel; you don't have to dig through a fat layer," Butler said.

If you do find your pet is a little chubbier than its ideal weight, Butler said the first step is to stop giving them table scraps.

"A lot of our foods are so rich, and there can be so many calories in those foods. It can be so hard to regulate that," Butler said.

Instead, treat your animal with low-calorie foods like green beans, carrots, a single Cheerio, ice cubes or even one or two pieces of their regular food.

"I know we think of treats and snacks as something different. For pets, they're getting something and it's exciting," Butler said.

In addition, it's important to stick to the ideal serving sizes for your pets. That includes regulating meal times and not having a full food dish out at all times.

If your pet is still begging at the dinner table, Butler recommended putting the animal in a different room or kennel while you're eating.

"If their pet tends to beg at the table, it's tempting to feed them," she said.

Once the animal starts losing weight, Butler said it's important to make sure they're not shedding the pounds too quickly. Cats shouldn't lose more than a half of a pound a month. Dogs, depending on their size, can lose up 4 or 5 pounds a month.

The best thing to do, Butler added, is talk to a veterinarian who can determine exactly how many calories an animal should be eating each day and help get a diet plan in place.

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Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.
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