The most common form of animal abuse is overfeeding.
Years ago, I read a comment that has stayed with me.
When asked by a local animal control officer to name the most common form of animal abuse that he had ever seen, a veterinarian’s answer on a message board I read for equine veterinarians was easy, if unexpected: overfeeding.
That’s right. Overfeeding.
So, right about now, I would guess that you are doing one of two things:
- Preparing to move to another web site.
- Staring at the potato chip you were about to hand to your dog.
Put down the chip, but stay here for a minute. I’ll explain.
I’ve had this same discussion with horse owners, animal control officers, and the concerned public. It may be counter-intuitive, but in more than a decade of veterinary practice I’ve seen far more health issues arise from animal obesity than from emaciation. Most of the underfed animals that I’ve seen in recent years - usually horses because I am a large animal vet - have done just fine once they were given some decent groceries. (Some exceptions definitely apply here, particularly for growing or sick animals or those fed bizarrely unbalanced diets.) Obese animals, however, can develop a raft of problems, many of which are irreversible.
The other problem with overfeeding is that the abusers are usually sweet, loving people who have no idea that they are destroying their animal’s health. Yeah, I’m looking at you, holding the bag of Ruffles and the bucket of grain that you were about to take to the barn.
In my experience, conversations regarding feeding the overly voluptuous animal tend to go something like the following.
Veterinarian (hesitantly, and backing slowly away): You know, Muffy looks like she’s been putting on some weight. What are you feeding her?
Horse owner (with beaming smile): I know, she’s finally filled out. She gets alfalfa twice a day, a bucket of grain, and her bran mash.
Veterinarian (studying Muffy, who has not only filled out, but is filling the barn aisle): I see. I think you may want to start cutting back a bit. Maybe cut the grain, or substitute some grass hay for the alfalfa?
Owner: Oh, but she would be so sad without her grain. And she won’t eat grass hay. We offer it free choice, all day, but once she eats the alfalfa she just tramples the grass hay around and lays in it.
(NOTE: Alfalfa is the equine equivalent of chocolate cake or a good steak dinner, and grass hay is analogous to steamed broccoli. If you gave me a chocolate cake or filet mignon twice a day, I’d probably nest in the broccoli too.)
Veterinarian: You know, carrying all of this extra weight will make Muffy more likely to develop insulin resistance, arthritis, and laminitis. She’ll also grow horns and a second head. (Ok, not the last two.)
Owner (somewhat affronted): She’s never had any problems and I think horses look better when they’re a little conditioned. (Rolls Muffy back into her stall.)
This conversation could be replayed with a dog, cat, or pig owner with the appropriate dietary changes. In developed societies we increasingly love our animals and our food. These twin obsessions have created a monstrous chimera: pet overfeeding. It’s bad enough that humans manage to consume more than a full day’s worth of calories in one lunch, but the existence of weight loss medications for dogs seems to me to be a sign that First World nutrition has gone off the deep end.
Will some animals have a physiologic propensity for being overweight? Sure. Just like humans, some animals have musculoskeletal problems that limit exercise or metabolic issues that prevent them from burning calories normally. Certain breeds tend to be “easy keepers.” However, just as with humans, a major cause of obesity in animals is the most simple one: the energy equation is unbalanced. Calories in are greater than calories out.
Newsflash: while your pet does not care if she looks good in a bikini, she does care if she can breathe, walk, chase a ball, or run through a pasture. Your pet will not be insulted by being called fat. She will, however, suffer if her joints are forced to carry extra pounds for years.
Sure, your pet likes food treats. Who doesn’t? However, just as I can reward myself with a new book instead of a donut or margarita, positive reinforcement for your pet can come from somewhere other than the grocery or feed store.
Ultimately weight management in pets, as in humans, should not be about emotion, status, appearance, or self-worth. It should be about one thing only: health.
Your veterinarian can help you understand and monitor the ideal body condition for your animals. Because, yes, an animal who is being starved is definitely being mistreated, but so is the animal that is fed so well that he’s starting to resemble a couch.
Editor's Note: An obese cat had to be rescued from between two fence posts after she got stuck trying to get through. The cat weighed 14.4 pounds.
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