After the gluttony of the holidays, it just seems fitting that January is national pet obesity month. But obesity in animals isn’t just an issue in cats and dogs, obesity affects all species of domestic animals in America. So as we are focusing on our own New Year’s resolutions to eat well and be healthy, let’s include our four legged critters as well.
Why does it matter if your Pug is a little pudgy or Clydesdale is a little cresty? (sorry we couldn’t help ourselves). Because it affects their health. Let’s re-iterate that: OVERWEIGHT ANIMALS ARE UNHEALTHY. No, it’s not cute, it’s not funny, there are literally owners out there that are feeding their animals to DEATH.
Now, I’m not going to get into the many different types of nutrition trends; grain-free, all natural, raw food diets… all would require blog discussions of their own (which will likely be done in the future). Today we are just going to talk about the SHEER NUMBER OF CALORIES we feed our animals. For the purposes of this discussion, horses, dogs, cats, cows, goats, etc. are all pets. Most people with production animals realize the detriment of overfeeding (both to the animal’s health and the pocketbook) but don’t think just because your animal lives outside you are exempt from this topic, sometimes pasture pets are the worst affected.
Let’s get started:
1. The Economic reason:
Good nutrition is usually about LESS IS MORE: Unless you are running the Iditarod (which some of my patients do) or are competing in three day eventing with your horse, odds are that you are feeding your animal too much. In this day and age we have become so accustomed to seeing overweight animals that many people can’t even comprehend what a healthy weight is!
Take a look at the pictures below for example:
Just about any animal that looks like a rectangle: from the side (with an abdomen parallel to the back) or from above (with the chest, abdomen, and hips all the same width) is overweight. Below is a picture of Body Condition Scores in cats and dogs, again you can see that a healthy weight animal has a tuck at the waist and an hour-glass figure from above.
Picture courtesy of Hill's Pet Nutrition
The funny thing about all of this, is that FEEDING LESS COSTS LESS! It’s such a simple fix! You don’t have to buy some expensive medication or nutritional supplement, you simply need to measure out food and actually give less. In fact, after reading the scientific reason below, you will realize that not only is feeding less saving you money, sometimes you can actually reduce medications when your animal is at a healthy weight.
2. The Scientific reason:
Fat is NOT JUST EXTRA WEIGHT. Fat (medically known as adipose tissue) is not just a substance that sits on the hips increasing physical pressure on joints. . This means that it is secretes hormones that have an affect elsewhere in the body. Adipose (fat) cells produce substances such as TNF and IL-6 that promote inflammation. Any disease that you’ve ever heard that ends in -itis (think arthritis, laminitis, dermatitis, cystitis) is a disease caused by inflammation. Extra fat on the body is adding fuel to the fire for any of these conditions making the inflammation worse. In turn this causes more tissue damage, more pain for your animal, and more medications to manage that inflammation and pain.
Aside from the pro-inflammatory effects, adipose cells also produce hormones such as insulin and leptin in such high amounts that their receptors become resistant, making the hormones themselves ineffective. In the case of insulin, this creates insulin resistance or type II diabetes in humans. Obese or overweight cats can suffer from a very similar disease where their diabetes is impossible to control because they have become resistant to the very insulin that we give to help control the diabetes. Leptin is a hormone that helps to regulate appetite. When an animal becomes resistant to leptin they never feel full and are constantly hungry.
Luckily decreasing the amount of adipose tissue in the body can decrease the production of these hormones. With time the receptors can reset and become sensitive to the hormones again. Decreasing your pet’s weight can also directly reduce the pro-inflammatory effects so the Rimadyl, carprofen, or bute that you are giving your critter can sometimes also be reduced or even discontinued.
3. The Emotional reason:
FOOD IS NOT LOVE.
This is my mantra in practice. Yes, your pet may come running to the fence for grain, nuzzle you for apples, or sit-down-roll-play dead-shut the door-and do everything but the dishes for a treat, but food is an intrinsic drive to animals. Most animals are naturally driven to seek out food since it is the most basic of survival instincts. Unlike us, they don’t savor something that tastes good, they gulp it down because their body sees it as more lifesaving calories, which we now know in many cases just isn’t true.
IF YOU LOVE THEM, SPEND TIME WITH THEM. This is perhaps the hardest sentence to write since I constantly feel guilty of not spending enough time with my animals, but ultimately animals love you for the time you spend with them. It isn’t expensive treats or fancy foods. It’s time spent playing fetch, cuddling on your lap, or training for an event. It’s the relationship that you build by communicating with your animal even though you don’t share the same language. So whether it’s grooming your horse, playing laser pointer with your cat, or hiking with your reindeer; spending time and not money on those you love is never wasted.