Creature Comforts

One of my favorite cartoons is one I clipped out of a newspaper years ago. It’s only one picture spanning the page and is entitled, “Why Dogs Rarely Survive Shipwrecks.” In the background, the stern of a ship is ominously sticking straight up out of the water, about to sink. In the foreground is a life raft containing five dogs. The leader dog says, “Who’s for eating all the food now?” All the dogs, including the leader, are enthusiastically raising their paws.

This is why people can’t leave the family dog, paper-trained or not, home alone for a weekend with a big bowl of kibble to sustain him. Dogs don’t ration themselves very well if at all.

Ok, if you have the odd dog that can do this, you and your dog are special. But as for the rest of us, our dogs do not really grasp the concept of control when it comes to food. (Unless they don’t like their food, a topic for another time.)

If there’s more than one dog in the house, there is not only the danger of them eating all the provisions in the first hour of your absence, but also having a rip-roaring fight about it.

Most people with cats wouldn’t think twice about leaving a big bowl of kibble out for a weekend and trusting their cat to nibble slowly until their return.

In fact, even in multi-cat households, if the amount of food was calculated correctly, there will still be some left in the bowl upon the owners’ return. And all the cats will still have all their limbs. Cats are good at this. Dogs are not. That is why, when dogs and cats get fat, the veterinarian makes different recommendations.

Obesity in animals, as in people, is on the rise. It’s a touchy subject. When somebody points out that a beloved pet is a little chubby, owners become offended. Use the word “obese,” and owners simply stop listening altogether – though it is THE clinical term used to describe the medical condition of being dangerously overweight, it offends people’s sensibilities. We sometimes have to form an intervention that may take place over months, even years, to convince an owner that there is a problem. Sometimes, it takes an illness to shock owners from their state of denial. Once we can get owners to admit the animal is fat, then we have to convince them that probably more than 90 percent of the time, the cause is too many calories in and not enough burned up. In other words: the pet simply eats too much.

“But she only eats two cups of food a day!”

“What size cup?”

“A regular coffee can – that’s all we ever give her.”

Aside: a regular coffee can may be as much as 3 to 4 actual measuring cups.

“What else does she eat, besides dog food?”

“Nothing else. Well, except what my husband gives her while they’re watching TV. But that’s not much.”

Ah, but it is. A few corn chips for a person are bad enough, but to a 15-pound dog, it is a really big deal. Look at the bag. A serving of the guacamole chips I have in my kitchen at this moment contains 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. Wanna know how big a serving is? “About twelve chips.” Yikes, no wonder I can’t lose any weight. Tossing a few chips to a dog (a fraction of your size) is supplementing his diet, like it or not.

Now, back to the shipwreck. Another big reason some dogs have a weight problem is that their food is left out all the time. Owners often say, “Oh, he doesn’t eat that much, he just nibbles all day. We only fill the bowl once.” It may not seem like he eats much, but if we measured the amount he actually consumes in a day (including snacks) and compared it to the calorie needs for that dog, we’d probably be surprised. Amazed, even.

A related phenomenon is the bottomless food bowl. People enjoy feeding their pets. It makes them feel good. It shows they care, and they feel rewarded when they see the animal eating enthusiastically. So the bowl is never allowed to be empty. A dog learns to snack all day and overeat regularly, because it’s there.

Cats are good at grazing; they rarely eat all their food in one sitting. However, when a cat is too heavy, drastic measures may need to be taken, and limits to the bottomless food bowl may need to be set.

This often is an unwelcome change, and may bring protests at very inopportune times in the wee hours of the morning, but such is life. Cats need to be dieted very gradually, under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, since they are known to become very ill if treated incorrectly.

Note: Food is not love. Next time you visit the veterinarian, look for the weight management handout or poster somewhere on the wall. Don’t worry, you’ll find one.

Now, compare it to your pet. You won’t see terms like ‘husky’ or ‘big boned’ on the chart.

If your pet falls into the ‘overweight’ or above categories, don’t wait for the intervention – be proactive – ask for help! There are ways to get unwanted pounds off a pet, most of which involve reducing calorie intake in some way. It may require switching the food for a time. If your veterinarian suggests it, try it. Why? The same reason your own doctor harangues you about your weight and diet. It’s unhealthy to be overweight.

Like people, overweight animals are prone to diabetes, liver problems and are more severely affected with arthritis and back problems, due to the extra weight they carry.

And something newly discovered about fat tissue in both animals and people: it is not just a blob of stuff used for energy, but rather, an active organ, of sorts, secreting hormones, and pro-inflammatory compounds galore.

Obesity actually can cause animals and people to feel pain more acutely, and worse – the very state of being obese causes resistance to losing weight by ramping up hunger and slowing calorie burn. This translates into one sad fact: the fatter we and our animals get, the harder it is to lose the weight.

Luckily, dogs and cats don’t suffer heart attacks or stroke as people do, but they can have breathing problems that are worsened by the extra weight. Very commonly, they can have difficulty grooming themselves because they can’t reach the important spots.

A fat, greasy, smelly cat that snores on your bed at night is not a picture of health. Of course, if you’re content to wait until your 52-pound ottoman, I mean Beagle, chases a rabbit and blows out one of his cruciate ligaments, that’s ok, but then you’ll have two big problems, and one of them can’t be fixed surgically. Sorry, but liposuction just isn’t an option.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.