If you Google hard enough, you’ll inevitably find that every day of the year is an awareness day for something or another. Most of these don’t concern me at all, but today does. Because today is:
National Pet Obesity Awareness Day
Yep, it’s an actual thing, and it was allocated to the 12th of October by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). You might be aware of pet obesity, you might not, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a huge problem that’s growing alarmingly – and it’s something I’m very passionate about. Here’s a few quick UK stats from PetPlan to drive home the point:
- 36% of dogs are obese
- 29% of cats are obese
This is horrifying, considering that ‘obese’ is the most severe category of overweight animals, which means that over half of all UK pets are likely to be overweight. But what I find most alarming is that 70% of pet owners say that their animal has never been overweight.
And that’s why this problem is so difficult to tackle. Some of those owners are right, but the rest are simply unaware that the problem is even there.
I desperately wish that I could share my dissection images with you, but this is forbidden by the university. During my first semester at vet school, I dissected numerous different dogs, and the worst were always the fat ones. Cowboys & Italians is my post from October of that year, and in it I briefly describe the dissection of an overweight elderly labrador. I distinctly remember staring at the body and saying to my partner, “I wish every dog owner had to see this… if they did, they’d take a hell of a lot more action to prevent it happening to their own dogs.”
It was a horrible wake-up call. Since I didn’t know his weight, I couldn’t tell you if he was overweight or obese, but it was irrelevant. Between the skin and the muscle was a layer of dense, lard-like grease that we spent the best part of an hour removing from one side of his body wall and shoulder. Once that was removed and in a pile, we spent another enormous chunk of time trying to remove the fat he had laid down between his muscles. My hands we cramping badly by the end, just from removing such large volumes of fat. During dissections of the abdomen, I received specimens with enormous quantities of fat packed into every crevice around their abdominal organs.
I sincerely believe that if animal owners were to see these specimens, they would be motivated to manage their pet’s weight more carefully.
An animal’s weight usually creeps up gradually, like a human’s, and so owners might not recognise the change over time. But what are the reasons animals end up like this? Vets told Petplan that there are 5 main reasons, all of which are a result of owner behaviours:
- Too much food
- Lack of exercise
- Ignorance of correct weight or shape
- Wrong food
I suspect many of us recognise some of these traits from our own eating habits! Except you’re in control of your diet and lifestyle. Your pet is not – like an infant, he relies on you totally for his health and wellbeing. In fact, Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act states that it is an offence not to take steps to ensure that your animal’s needs are met, which includes his need for a suitable diet and his need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
I don’t think for a second that anybody with overweight pet is being deliberately neglectful, and I’ve never personally heard of anyone being taken to court over an obese pet. So that wasn’t intended to be a threat, but it’s a necessary reminder of the responsibility that comes with owning an animal. And it’s a reminder that the law recognises starvation as an offence under the same act – both extreme body conditions are equally dangerous to an animal’s life.
The RSPCA warns of the possible consequences for an animal’s health, including massively increased risks of diabetes, heart disease, respiratory distress, high blood pressure, and multiple cancers. Diseases that we all know affect overweight humans too!
You might be looking at your bulldog and thinking “well he’s never going to look like a greyhound is he?”. No, of course not. More than humans and cats, dogs in particular display enormous physical variations from breed to breed. Some breeds are naturally leaner than others, and certain breeds are more predisposed to obesity, as are neutered animals, females, older animals and, interestingly, animals with obese owners. But no matter the breed of your animal there are just three simple checks the RSPCA recommends:
- You should be able to see and feel the outline of your pet’s ribs
- You should be able to see and feel your pet’s waist, and it should be clearly visible from above
- You pet’s belly should be tucked in when viewed from the side
Very furry friends will need to be felt rather than looked at, and healthy cats have a flat belly from elbow to knee, but otherwise these are good guidelines. If in any doubt at all, vets are extremely good at condition scoring animals and helping you achieve your pet’s healthy weight – so go and see yours!
In short, if your cat is looking more like a seal, she probably needs to trim down!
Going back to the owner behaviours, lack of knowledge is the root of a whole variety of health issues in all species. But the greatest thing about it is that it can be changed so easily! Veterinary practices have information on all kinds of species and their dietary requirements in leaflets and on their websites, and many offer weight clinics with a vet or vet nurse, who will readily answer your questions.
From my recent series of nutrition and animal husbandry lectures, it’s become very apparent to me that feeding many species correctly is actually a lot easier than you might think! It’s important to remember that pet animals are related to and descended from wild animals, which have evolved for millions of years to make the most out of every meal and stash away every bit of excess as fat. Many, many rabbits, rodents and birds are overfed because their owners feed too much high-sugar, starch and fat foods. But they wouldn’t necessarily find these in this quantity in the wild! Rabbits need lots of low-energy grass and hay with a little veg mixed in. Horses are built for fermenting lots of low-energy grass and hay, too, not lots of starchy grains! And practically all animals will selectively eat the sweet and sugary bits when offered a mix like muesli. Balanced formulated pellets or biscuits stops them doing this, and does all the science for you!
Coincidentally, I had a tutorial today that explored the human-animal bond, and what we find is that pet-owning humans have an instinctive need to care for and nurture their animals, and need to feel that they’re making them happy. We have limited means of fulfilling this need, and using food to reward and care for animals is how we like to go about this. As Dr. Ravetz, president of the British Veterinary Association says, “Many owners show love for their pet through food, but often this is a case of killing with kindness – most animals would instead enjoy playing or interacting with their owner just as much as getting a treat.”
But what can you change to help your pet achieve or maintain a healthy weight? Your vet is the best person to answer this, but common sense things like plenty of physical activity, food that can’t be selectively eaten, balanced formulated diets, using very tiny food rewards when training, not feeding table scraps, feeding according to your pet’s size and breed, and offering alternative rewards like affection and play all help.
I understand wholeheartedly how difficult it is to ignore those begging eyes, but the reality is that pets spend such a short time in our lives as it is, and being overweight will only take them from us that much earlier. And none of us want to see our pets suffering with chronic weight-related diseases like arthritis at the ends of their lives. Managing weight-related disease can be expensive in vet bills, and is an avoidable cost!
I feel so strongly about this preventable crisis that our pet-loving nation has got itself into. Please share the message this Pet Obesity Awareness Day – and every other day for that matter! – to give our pets what they deserve: a happy, long, healthy life.