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Human/Animal Bond

The Worst Form of Animal Abuse
October 4, 2012 (published)

Years ago, I read a comment that has stayed with me.

When asked by a local animal control officer to name the most common form of animal abuse that he had ever seen, a veterinarian’s answer on a message board I read for equine veterinarians was easy, if unexpected: overfeeding.

That’s right. Overfeeding.

So, right about now, I would guess that you are doing one of two things:

  1. Preparing to move to another web site. 
  2. Staring at the potato chip you were about to hand to your dog.

Put down the chip, but stay here for a minute. I’ll explain.

I’ve had this same discussion with horse owners, animal control officers, and the concerned public. It may be counter-intuitive, but in more than a decade of veterinary practice I’ve seen far more health issues arise from animal obesity than from emaciation. Most of the underfed animals that I’ve seen in recent years - usually horses because I am a large animal vet - have done just fine once they were given some decent groceries. (Some exceptions definitely apply here, particularly for growing or sick animals or those fed bizarrely unbalanced diets.) Obese animals, however, can develop a raft of problems, many of which are irreversible.

The other problem with overfeeding is that the abusers are usually sweet, loving people who have no idea that they are destroying their animal’s health. Yeah, I’m looking at you, holding the bag of Ruffles and the bucket of grain that you were about to take to the barn.

In my experience, conversations regarding feeding the overly voluptuous animal tend to go something like the following.

Veterinarian (hesitantly, and backing slowly away): You know, Muffy looks like she’s been putting on some weight. What are you feeding her?

Horse owner (with beaming smile): I know, she’s finally filled out. She gets alfalfa twice a day, a bucket of grain, and her bran mash.

Veterinarian (studying Muffy, who has not only filled out, but is filling the barn aisle): I see. I think you may want to start cutting back a bit. Maybe cut the grain, or substitute some grass hay for the alfalfa?

Owner: Oh, but she would be so sad without her grain. And she won’t eat grass hay. We offer it free choice, all day, but once she eats the alfalfa she just tramples the grass hay around and lays in it.

(NOTE: Alfalfa is the equine equivalent of chocolate cake or a good steak dinner, and grass hay is analogous to steamed broccoli. If you gave me a chocolate cake or filet mignon twice a day, I’d probably nest in the broccoli too.)

Veterinarian: You know, carrying all of this extra weight will make Muffy more likely to develop insulin resistance, arthritis, and laminitis. She’ll also grow horns and a second head. (Ok, not the last two.)

Owner (somewhat affronted): She’s never had any problems and I think horses look better when they’re a little conditioned. (Rolls Muffy back into her stall.)

This conversation could be replayed with a dog, cat, or pig owner with the appropriate dietary changes. In developed societies we increasingly love our animals and our food. These twin obsessions have created a monstrous chimera: pet overfeeding. It’s bad enough that humans manage to consume more than a full day’s worth of calories in one lunch, but the existence of weight loss medications for dogs seems to me to be a sign that First World nutrition has gone off the deep end.

Will some animals have a physiologic propensity for being overweight? Sure. Just like humans, some animals have musculoskeletal problems that limit exercise or metabolic issues that prevent them from burning calories normally. Certain breeds tend to be “easy keepers.” However, just as with humans, a major cause of obesity in animals is the most simple one: the energy equation is unbalanced. Calories in are greater than calories out.

Newsflash: while your pet does not care if she looks good in a bikini, she does care if she can breathe, walk, chase a ball, or run through a pasture. Your pet will not be insulted by being called fat. She will, however, suffer if her joints are forced to carry extra pounds for years.

Sure, your pet likes food treats. Who doesn’t? However, just as I can reward myself with a new book instead of a donut or margarita, positive reinforcement for your pet can come from somewhere other than the grocery or feed store.

Ultimately weight management in pets, as in humans, should not be about emotion, status, appearance, or self-worth. It should be about one thing only: health.

Your veterinarian can help you understand and monitor the ideal body condition for your animals. Because, yes, an animal who is being starved is definitely being mistreated, but so is the animal that is fed so well that he’s starting to resemble a couch.

Editor's Note: An obese cat had to be rescued from between two fence posts after she got stuck trying to get through. The cat weighed 14.4 pounds.

6 Comments

oaty
April 18, 2017

[Editor's note: this post was slightly edited to comply with VetzInsight's comments policy.] Yes this is key to understand. And it fuels the vet culture.  They are hand in hand and that's why when you search for animal abuse you get the horrific but atypical abuse methods (hitting, torture,ect) but this is the COMMON mass induced sickness , overfeeding.  99% of pet owners I know or see, have fat animals. My own family has no clue. I had to take in my moms cat for a while because it had so many crystals in it's urine, and was in pain constantly - could not clean it's butt ect and was only 4 years old.  He got better within a month but I had to give him back and even with very strict instructions, my Mother went back to trough style feeding and buying the cheapest food possible (they are not poor) but then again my family eats terrible choices in food, so the problem is systemic in society / culture we live in. More is more and quality is less. So a paradox. And Jess...the problem with overfeeding animals is so bad that almost everyone is doing it..  You misunderstand or emotionally react to the article but it's a critical message to all animal owners.


Lori 
July 21, 2013

I think the abuse of animals like hitting/burning/torture or any kind is horrific. That is being done by cruel evil people who are soul less imo. The problem with over weight animals and why it is so scary is it is done by people who love and genuinely care about their animals. I am not offended by the title because the people it is referring to are good people who think they are doing the best for their animal. They are not cruel or heart less. It is a hidden abuse. As a breeder of a giant breed of dog, we have people who just love to get their dog as big as possible and claim look at how large my dog is...when in reality he is a fat dog on the verge of all kinds of joint issues!!


Christy Corp-Minamiji
June 20, 2013

Dear Jess, Thank you for your feedback.  The title is very definitely hyperbolic but was chosen deliberately.  One of the things we attempt to do at VetzInsight is to provoke people (including ourselves) to take a fresh look at some of the issues in animal health.  Sometimes we do this through silliness, sometimes seriousness, and sometimes by taking a sideways look at something familiar.This title falls into the last category.  The statement from which the title was taken was one that struck me when I first heard it, exactly because it seemed so ridiculous.  But, once I had heard the statement and contemplated it, I never forgot it, and I never forgot to discuss the impact of over-feeding again. I do understand your concerns, and the title of the piece is definitely not meant in a literal sense.  Severe forms of cruelty including those you listed do exist, and as a veterinarian, I by no means take them lightly.

Jess 
June 20, 2013

Really? As an animal advocate and dog rescuer I am disappointed in the asinine title of this article. I have seen dogs tortured, burned, fought, vocal cords cut, beaten, duct taped,and dogs starved and left for dead. While I am not saying overfeeding is not an issue, it is certainly NOT in any way shape or form the worst form of abuse.


Christine Hurst 
June 20, 2013

I totally agree- and It goes for we humans as well- and ME.  I Know I can tell a difference in my stamina and joints when I put on a few pounds, and studies show obesity causes all sorts of problems in humans- makes sense that it would do the same to animals.


Holly
October 18, 2012

Until you've dealt with IR, founder or laminitis, it is sometimes unclear how an obese horse is at risk. Any one of these issues can kill a horse.

That said, my dogs are probably 5# over what is considered ideal (they are 40# and ideally should be at 35#) and my horses all have well covered hips and spine (tho no rolls or cresty necks). I recently had a dog get very sick, and she did not eat for over 5 days. She needed those few extra pounds. That is NOT the norm tho and there is a big difference between slightly over ideal and obese



 
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