Butters the yellow Labrador retriever may have dodged death at the shelter, but he had another large obstacle to overcome: his weight. The 142-pound pup (pictured above) inspired animal activist Heather Hines to start Doggie Fat Camp in Vernonia, Ore. “He had no hope of being adopted when we found him,” Hines says. “No question.”
Hines saved Butters from being euthanized at a county shelter in April 2011 through her nonprofit organization Indigo Rescue, which she founded in 1998 in an effort to reduce euthanasia in shelters and give “unadoptable” dogs and cats another chance to find a home. She also owns and operates Indigo Ranch, a cage-free boarding business, to fund the rescue work. Now the ranch can add another line to its list of services: fat camp. “We kept seeing these chubby dogs coming in and thought, ‘Man, we need a doggie fat camp,’” Hines says. “It was kind of a joke at first.”
Then Hines met Butters. The 3-year-old dog’s weight was no laughing matter. It took four people to load him into Hines’ vehicle. He wasn’t just obese; he was greasy too, Hines says. Butters smelled foul and had huge patches of hair missing. Hines knew the pudgy pooch would have to lose a considerable amount of weight if he ever wanted to be adopted. First, Mark Norman, DVM, owner of Bethany Family Veterinary Clinic in Portland, Ore., examined Butters to make sure a weight-loss regimen was appropriate for him and checked that there weren’t any other medical conditions that needed to be addressed.
“If there’s an animal with a specific medical issue—dermatologic, metabolic or orthopedic—then Indigo Rescue directs the pet to us,” Norman says. “Our role is to assist, treat and advise. If we can facilitate correction of the problem we do.”
The doctors and staff members at Bethany Family Veterinary Clinic donate their time to the organization and Norman provides treatment at cost. The clinic also serves as a clearing-house for these rescued pets. Staff members decide what dogs can be treated and sent to a foster family and determine which animals need to visit a specialty clinic—or fat camp.
“Whether it’s an owned pet or one coming out of a shelter, those pets are all checked by a veterinarian before they go into the fat camp,” Norman says. “Then a strict diet and exercise program is established.”
Aside from the fact that Butters was extraordinarily obese, he was otherwise healthy with normal blood work results. Once Norman gave the all-clear, Doggie Fat Camp at Indigo Ranch had its first attendee.
In the beginning, Butters couldn’t stay on his feet long enough to exercise—he was carrying so much weight he had to lie down to eat and straddle the dish between his legs, Hines says. She controlled his portions and fed him grain-free, lean protein kibble twice a day—with a little bit of steamed veggies, like green beans, thrown in as well. Over time, through gradual weight loss, he become more active and Hines pushed him to walk around the 16-acre ranch.
“Halfway through his journey he suddenly realized, ‘I can run!’” Hines says. “It was very gratifying to see this dog, who could barely walk a few weeks ago, be able to run.”
Four and a half months later, Butters slimmed down to a trim 84 pounds—the equivalent of another large dog in weight lost, Hines says. “We placed him with a family and, of course, our contingency was, ‘You need to keep him on this diet.’”
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Now the camp is in full swing and Ozzy the rat terrier (pictured above) is Hines’ first client dog on the road to better health. Pet owner Linda Phillips of Hillsboro, Ore., dropped Ozzy off at Indigo Ranch weighing 46 pounds. Her veterinarian says he should weigh 29 pounds at the most. Phillips and her husband had coddled Ozzy throughout his life because when he was a puppy he’d experienced necrosis in his right hip. Their veterinarian had to remove the joint and stretch the muscle over the area to act as a ball and joint.
“We felt so bad for the little guy,” Phillips says. “We just couldn’t stop giving him treats. The longer we had him, the larger his waist became.” She says their veterinarian would “groan” at Ozzy’s weight, so they bought therapeutic dog food and walked him, but they didn’t have much success in helping Ozzy shed the extra weight.
“We were embarrassed for Ozzy. Kids, being blunt, would point and say, ‘That’s a fat dog!’” Phillips says. “I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re killing him with kindness.’ We needed some help.”
Until he reaches his goal weight, Ozzy stays at Doggie Fat Camp Monday through Friday and goes home every weekend with measured portions of Indigo Ranch’s diet food. It’s been only a few weeks but Phillips says Ozzy is already jumping and running—acting like a new-and-improved dog.
When people think of a doggie fat camp they might picture a dog strapped to a treadmill—that’s not what this is about, Hines says. Staff members take Ozzy on a half-mile walk alongside the Nehalem River twice a day. Initially he couldn’t make the entire walk without lying down periodically to rest. Now Ozzy isn’t panting or gasping for air, Hines says. She says the dogs feed off the fresh air and their energy levels improve just from being in the country.
Doggie Fat Camp costs $800 a month, plus the cost of food, which Hines says is basically the price of boarding. The pups weigh in once a month and stay until they get fit. However, it’s useless to train the dog if you don’t train the people, Hines says.
“I tell Ozzy’s mom and dad it’s going to be a waste of money if they go back to their old ways with him,” Hines says.
Phillips says that won’t be an issue. She and her husband are so relieved that Ozzy is forming healthier habits, they vow never to return to the way they were. The rat terrier used to sit tableside at every meal—now he’s confined to the bedroom during lunch and dinner. Ozzy needs to continue exercising and dieting at the fat camp for at least one more month, but Phillips says his saddlebags are getting smaller every week.
“Ozzy’s head used to be out of proportion with his body but now the collar around his neck is loose,” Phillips says. “He’s a happier dog and we’re happier people.”Click here to view more before-and-after photos of Butters and Ozzy.