Remember those old ‘disease of the week’ movies from the 70s and 80s, each week highlighting some obscure condition that has only happened five times since the dawn of man? We were treated to the scourge of pineapple skin disease (wherein the skin turns yellow and mushy, but sweet!) and the heartbreak of sore-eye-asis (where the eyes become quite sore) through the magic of bad TV. Well, there’s a new kid in town, and this one you probably won’t see on Lifetime: obesity. You’ve heard countless times about the obesity epidemic in humans, but the same thing is happening to our pets, big-time. I hope here to offer a few ideas to help you fight off the pounds and avoid having a pudgy pug or a Rubenesque Rottweiler.
How did we get into this sad and expansive state of affairs? In some respects, we are victims of our own successes and technological advances. Our excesses come on the heels of our successes. Life used to be a short and ugly fight for resources, but through the magic of agriculture married to technology, we are awash in a vast sea of food, no longer having to compete with animals or the guy in the neighboring village. Of course, I am speaking here only of ‘developed’ countries, although it seems like the only thing we are developing nowadays is XXXXL spandex pants and diabetes. Most of the world still suffers from extreme hunger and malnutrition, which makes the whole situation not only sad but well-nigh criminal as well.
Since almost all of human and animal history has been a competition to see who could squeeze the most calories out of that bush growing near where we sleep, practically all living things have developed the ability to store some calories in times of plenty, which were usually few and far between. Lean times were the norm. Since you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a fast food place anymore (believe me – I tried. Not recommended) we haven’t had a chance to reprogram our genes to not pack on the pounds. Add in some sedentary time in front of the TV and you can see this problem mushrooming into gargantuan, Orson Wellesian proportions. Rosebud, indeed! More like Rose-burger.
Since our pets are largely under our command as far as food goes, we can’t expect them to behave with any more control than we do when faced with a yards-long smorgasbord of food. And, we love to see them eat! When I have a sick patient in the hospital, I can spend 10 minutes on the phone explaining complex lab tests results and medical procedures, but the first question asked is invariably “Is Fluffy eating?” It is an innate drive to equate food intake with health and love. As a result, our pets' waistlines expand with the same alarming rapidity as ours – and with some of the same diseases cropping up. Arthritis and diabetes rates are on the rise, and cardiovascular disease and cancers have also been linked to excess poundage. Several studies have shown a direct link between lifespan and caloric intake, with dogs who eat fewer calories living longer than their Old Country Buffet cousins. Here’s the data, if you’d care to peruse:
AVMA Collections: Obesity in dogs
Impact of caloric and dietary restriction regimens on markers of health and longevity in humans and animals: a summary of available findings
The amount of food recommended on the package is usually too much, or at least at the high end of the range. Pet food manufactureers WANT you to feed lots so you have to buy more. They don't care if it makes your pet sick and costs you a ton of preventable vet bills. Plus, you will spend less on food.
Many people don’t know how much they are feeding their pets as they keep the dish filled all day (free feeding) or give a really broad interpretation of “giving one cup.” Use a measuring cup at every meal - one from your kitchen, not a cup from the gas station's soda fountain. Portion control is critical in preventing your pet from waddling, and the cornerstone of portion control is measuring. Ask your veterinarian how much food Fluffy should be getting and keep measuring it.
Photo by Teri Ann Oursler, DVM
All is not lost, though. It will take millennia for our genes to catch up with our dietary cornucopia (sadly, probably through the early deaths of those who over-indulge and the increased reproduction of those who can resist the siren song of the jelly donut). Luckily for us, however, we have these big old brains that can help us out. We might be able to think our way out of this problem, both for ourselves and our pets.
Here are a few tips on how to help your pets keep off the pounds, or shed them if they are already sporting them:
- Most pet treats on the market can really wallop your pets with calories. Try low-calorie treats like carrots instead (raw is fine – just no raisins, grapes or onions).
- Get moving! A brisk walk will get you moving, and get the pounds off of both of you.
- Try an active toy or activity for your dog like fetch or Frisbee.
- Cats, who typically are harder to walk than dogs, can go totally bonkers and batty (for HOURS!) over a laser pointer. While not great exercise for you, I can guarantee you will laugh your butt off, so there is that. (Note: Laser pointers can lead to compulsive behaviors in dogs. Walks are better for them.)
- Try walking your cat on a harness. It could happen.
- Substitute a portion of your dog’s food for cooked carrots or cooked green beans.
While this is not a problem we can fix with a snap of our fingers, there are things we can do about it. Veterinarians see obese pets every day, and they can be a part of the team to help fix the problem, both for your individual pet, and for all pets. Advice on diets, treating medical conditions that can lead to obesity (like hypothyroidism) and treating the diseases that come along with obesity, plus helping to raise awareness about this growing problem of growing size can all play a role in reducing the epidemic.
If that happens, we can all go back to watching faded stars lament their severe case of lanchonophbia on late-night TV like in the good old days.
October 18, 2015
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.