A fat dog, which is not in the care of the Morris Animal Inn. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The Morris Animal Inn, located in scenic Morristown, New Jersey, is a state-of-the-art spa for pets. It caters to the same people who might give their dog a Bark Mitzvah.The 25,00-square-foot facility offers such amenities as a heated indoor pool, luxury pet suites, room service, happy hour with homemade treats, and doggy tuck-in service. There are "doga" sessions (yoga for dogs), a gym equipped with canine treadmills, and a grooming facility that offers pedicures, blueberry facials, and baby-powder belly rubs.
But the Morris Animal Inn is not merely a luxury dog spa. It's also a doggy fat camp, complete with personalized exercise plans to help overweight pets lose weight."There could be a lot of reasons why pets are overweight," said Deborah Montgomery, the Morris Animal Inn's marketing manager. "Nowadays, everyone is very busy. They're working or maybe don't have time [to exercise their pets]. So that's where we come in and do it for them."Lola, one of the regular residents at the Morris Animal Inn, is a miniature dachshund who once tipped the scales at 12kg. She's since slimmed down to 10kg. (The ideal weight for a miniature dachshund is 5kg.)"Because she spends a lot of time in bed with me, my guilty conscience throws treats at her, so she won't be bored," Lola's owner, Roxana Sheikh, told me. "It started as one treat a day, and it has gone up to many, many, many treats."When Sheikh noticed Lola was having a hard time breathing and quickly got exhausted on walks, she turned to Morris Animal Inn's canine exercise program."I needed to start doing something," Sheikh told me. "Obesity for children is discussed, obesity for people is discussed, but our animals are our children, and we are responsible for them. I'm her mother, and I feel responsible for her health and well-being."As with humans, carrying extra weight is associated with a multitude of health risks in dogs, including diabetes and heart attacks. Even a couple extra pounds can shorten the already-short life of a dog. But in the United States, obesity rates among dogs are swelling: Roughly half are either overweight or obese, according to research published this year from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. In 2014, Nationwide—the largest provider of pet health insurance—reportedly received 42,000 claims for arthritis in dogs, a condition that's exacerbated by extra weight.
"I do see an immense number of overweight and obese pets, so it is a topic I frequently discuss with clients and help develop some basic weight loss strategies," said Lisa Kerwin, a veterinarian with Boston Valley Animal Hospital in Hamburg, New York. "I find it interesting that people will happily part with their money for things they could do themselves—exercise their pets and feed them properly—yet ignore sound advice from their veterinarians on how to properly maintain their pets."At the Morris Animal Inn, chefs create all-natural daily treats and even smoothies, with ingredients like peanut butter, kale, and carrots, served up in martini glasses. Exercise packages range from the "Athlete" (at a daily rate of €35.50) to the "Olympian" (€88.70 a day), on top of the daily lodging fee (€39.90). The exercise programs are tailored to meet the individual needs of each dog.Sheikh told me when Lola first arrived, trainers put her on a canine treadmill and ran her up and down a set of stairs. Afterward, she was rewarded with a healthy treat—a mixture of yogurt, string beans, carrots, and granola. Then she'd paddle laps in the indoor heated pool, kept afloat by a dog-sized life jacket. On other occasions, Montgomery said dogs take part in aquatic games like "barko polo.""When you have a pet that has more weight than they can handle, we don't want them to work too hard, because they won't want to come back," Montgomery explained. "Our main goal is that [they're] happy and healthy, so that [they're] able to move around and do those things that little dogs like to do."
Sheikh said she's seen an amazing difference in the three years that Lola has been visiting the Morris Animal Inn, and that her mobility and breathing issues have eased up."This is crazy," said Ginger Hughes, practice manager at Northside Veterinary Clinic in Brooklyn. "The pets didn't get fat by themselves. Fat camp may help them slim down, but it's the owner that needs to be educated on how to maintain healthy weight for pets," which she summed up as monitoring a dog's diet and giving them basic exercise.Even the benefits of the luxury grooming services seem overstated, according to Hughes. "It is hard to say whether or not these services have any more or less benefit than grooming or services performed at conventional boarding facilities," she said. The antioxidants in a blueberry facial might help tear staining, but "it works better if you just feed your pet blueberries." And as far as the specialty smoothies go, those are "not ideal. Dogs like to chew, not drink a smoothie."Kerwin, the vet in New York, said she'd rather see dog owners spend money on veterinary care than fancy boarding facilities. "But someone saw a niche and jumped on it," she said of places like the Morris Animal Inn. "I think it plays on the guilty conscience of pet owners who don't take the time to regularly exercise their dogs."Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter.