LIKE THEIR owners, pets are facing an obesity epidemic. According to the latest research, more than 50 percent of American pets are overweight or obese. Fat cats and pudgy pooches are no laughing matter, because overweight pets face the same health problems overweight people do.

Being overweight or obese shortens your pet's life span and puts it at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, kidney and liver disease.

When it comes to lifestyle habits, our pets do as we do.

That's right. If you overeat and lead a sedentary life, your pets (and, studies show, your children) are more than likely going to follow your lead.

There are all kinds of pet-to-human weight comparisons out there, but the Association for Pet Obesity breaks it down like this: a 12-pound Yorkie (normal weight is 5 to 8 pounds) is equivalent to an average woman weighing 218 pounds. A 90-pound female Labrador retriever (normal weight range 55 to 75 pounds) is the same as a 5-foot-4-inch woman weighing 186 pounds or a 5-foot-9-inch man weighing in at 217.

Several sources on fatty felines suggest that a 15-pound kitty (average weight 6 to 10 pounds) is similar to a 218-pound, 5-foot-4-inch woman.

Generally, every time we snack, so do our pets. I know someone who keeps her dog in a cage all day. When she gets home, probably out of guilt, she feeds the dog hot dogs and ice cream. For Pete's sake, I know that can't be good for the dog's long-term health!

In the past, dogs roamed outdoors and got plenty of exercise. (Hmm, that sounds familiar . . . the same goes for our kids.) Now we treat our pets like family members - all of us chilling, channel-surfing and wolfing down supersized snacks and treats.

Sadly, this means that not only are we contributing to the rapid decline of our pets' health, we are also spending enormous amounts of money at the vet's office. Most of this needless suffering is avoidable by simply changing your pet's diet and exercise habits.

If you suspect that your pet is overweight or obese, first take it to the veterinarian for a checkup and diagnosis. Don't put your pet on a diet until you get proper recommendations from the veterinarian. But in the meantime, stop feeding the dog junk and be sure it gets daily exercise.