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Animal Obesity - When Too Much Love Can Kill
Killing With Kindness
There's a lot of talk these days about the obesity epidemic and the associated health problems. An increase in Type 2 Diabetes, at ever younger ages, has led to some fearing that the young people growing up now may be the first generation not to outlive their parents.
It's true that many people overeat and encourage their children to overeat. Part of the problem may be that cheap food tends to be unhealthy. But another side of it is that for all of the educational attempts made, some people genuinely equate love with food.
It's when this happens that people end up with obese pets. Just like some obese humans may have metabolic problems such as underactive thyroid, so some obese pets may have medical conditions that underlie the problem. In many cases, however, pet obesity is simply a side effect of too many treats.
There are other contributing factors to pet obesity. Three come immediately to mind:
1. Neutering and spaying. Overall, people are encouraged to spay and neuter dogs and cats in order to control breeding and prevent low quality animals from being born. However, it is not at all uncommon for metabolic changes to follow sterilization. The legendary 'fat eunuch' could just as easily mean a neutered dog. Vets seldom mention that once your pet has been 'fixed', then their weight should be monitored and their food reduced if necessary. This is particularly true if your pet has undergone 'pediatric' spay or neuter - before the age of six months for males or first heat for females. Some vets will not perform this surgery.
2. Pet food manufacturers. It's been my experience that the recommended amounts on a can or bag of dog or cat food are generally way too high. I've kept fixed dogs healthy and lean on no more than half the recommended amount plus a few treats. Strictly following the 'recommended amounts' and ignoring how your pet is looking can be a quick route to balloon dog or balloon kitty.
3. Sedentary lifestyles. Many people, these days, are working long hours and have little time to spare for their pets. In addition to not exercising themselves, they don't exercise their animals. A dog that is crated all day and gets two five minute walks, one in the morning and the other in the evening, is unlikely to be getting enough exercise.
Associated Health Problems
Dogs and cats get the same obesity-related problems that humans do - diabetes, thyroid problems and heart disease. As with humans, all of these problems tend to increase in middle age. Excess weight can then exacerbate other problems of age, such as arthritis.
Obese cats, specifically, are prone to liver failure, caused by fatty deposits that destroy the liver's ability to filter out toxins.
In herbivores, obesity symptoms can end up being quite different. For example, in horses, the classic 'obesity disease' is laminitis or founder. Laminitis is an inflammation of the soft tissue between the foot and the hoof, that causes a weakness in this tissue. Founder happens when the weakened tissue fails to support small bones within the hoof, causing the foot to rotate. In some cases, laminitis has been known to result in hoof loss. Laminitis can be fatal or result in permanent unsoundness.
In rabbits, to give another example, the most common result of obesity is sore hocks or problems with the digestive tract and urinary tract. Obese rabbits also tend not to groom themselves properly resulting in dermatitis.
Herbivores generally do not get heart disease (heart attacks in horses, for example, are known but generally the result of a defect not plaque build-up), but they can still suffer greatly from obesity-related complaints.
Prevention and Treatment
First of all, some obese pets do have underlying health problems. If your dog or cat suddenly starts packing on the pounds despite no change in food or activity levels, it is worth taking them to the vet and having blood work done to check for hypothyroid. This can be treated with medication. (If the weight gain is associated with a reduction in coat quality or changes in behavior such as increased anxiety then you definitely need to get them to the vet).
Assuming, though, that your pet is just fat, then the treatment is the same as for humans - less food and more exercise. For cats, stop feeding free choice. The majority of cats are sensible enough not to eat too much, but obviously the ones that aren't that smart are the ones who get fat. For dogs, eliminate table scraps and reduce the amount of food. Feed proper dog treats instead, and choose ones lower in calories. Increase the dog's exercise (which will probably help you as well). If possible, leave the dog in a dog-proofed room, ideally with yard access, rather than crating. Take the dog to the nearby dog park if there is one, as nothing gets a dog active faster than playing with other dogs.
Rabbits should not be kept in a hutch all the time...make a run on the lawn or tether your bun and give them more freedom of movement.
For horses, restricting grazing is important, especially in the spring. Ponies and some other breeds including Morgans and many Mustangs are notorious for being 'easy keepers' and need their weight carefully monitored. A weight tape will tell you more or less how much your equine weighs. Reduce or eliminate treats and feed no grain at all. Most horses that are not competing heavily do not need grain and gain no benefit from it. If that does not work, then soak the horse's hay to reduce its nutritional content. If at all possible, increase exercise. Bear in mind that a fat horse is a lazy horse. It may be time to get out the crop and/or spurs and be a little cruel to be kind.
Cruelty is Kindness
Above all, remember that if you are dealing with an animal prone to obesity (some dog breeds, like some horse breeds, get fat far more easily than others - labradors are infamous for it) then cruelty can literally be kindness.
Sometimes you have to steel your heart against those begging eyes or the 'pony pathetics' and refuse to give the animal what it so obviously wants. Find ways to reward that don't involve food such as extra attention or a game.
Remember that a thin, healthy animal pretending to be miserable over treats is ultimately happier than an overweight and sick one.
Take a look at your pets. Do you have to be cruel to be kind? While you're at it, could you yourself stand to lose a few pounds? Maybe it's time to take Fido out for a nice, long, calorie-burning walk.