Rise in pet obesity shows we are killing animals with kindness

You might think that giving extra treats will make your cat love you more – but this is not the weight to purrfection. With pet obesity on the increase, Debbie Orme visits a veterinary clinic in Ballymena where fat cats and pudgy pups are being taken to shape up and shed some pounds

Ozzy the Giant Schnauzer sheds some weight on an exercise programme in Grove vetinary clinic's hydrotherpy pool with the help of staff Heather Ritchie and Janice Harbison. Picture by Matt Bohill
Debbie Orme

IS your little feline friend beginning to look a bit paunchy but you can’t resist filling his bowl right up? Is Tiddles starting to waddle about the house but you don’t have the heart to deny her those little titbits?

If you’re one of those cat owners who thinks that, just as with humans, the way to your pet’s heart is through its stomach, then you can take heart from a study from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in the United States.

The study, which was carried out by vets at the university in conjunction with animal behaviour experts from Hills Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kansas, observed 58 cats that were carrying an average of 25 per cent more body weight than was recommended, and monitored how their behaviour changed during a eight-week diet plan.

Just as with humans, the cats initially displayed signs of difficulty in coping with the changes and, over the initial four weeks, the researchers observed an increase in begging, meowing and pacing as the cats nagged their owners to give them more food than their diet allowed.

By the time the eight-week mark was reached, however, the cats not only lost weight, but were also seen to show increased signs of affection: a fact which Co Antrim-based veterinary nurse Janice Harbison hopes will encourage cat owners to help their own pets lose weight.

"Just as with humans, obesity in domestic pets is on the increase," says Janice, who runs a weight management clinic at Grove Veterinary Centre in Ballymena.

"One of the main reasons why cats put on too much weight is that owners often misread their pet’s behaviour. If a cat rubs up against its owner during the day, the owner tends to think that they must want more food, so they give it to them as a way of showing the cat affection.

"Many owners also ‘free feed’ their cats by leaving food out for them all day, allowing them to graze at will. Unfortunately, cats aren’t good at self regulating and so they eat a lot more than they actually need. As a result, vets everywhere are seeing an increase in the number of cats – and dogs – who are overweight."

When Darwin Workman and his wife became concerned at how much weight their five-year-old cat, Poppy, was putting on, they immediately took action.

"Poppy was putting weight on as a result of her arthritis, which was making her less active," says Darwin. "My wife and I were concerned because we knew that the more weight she would put on, the less she would want to move about and this would exacerbate the problem.

"Poppy had already stopped going out as much as she was used to and had started to waddle. She’d just move slowly and then throw herself down on to the ground. Despite the fact that she wasn’t moving about as much, however, we were still feeding her the same amount as before, so when she reached 8.5kg (18.4 lbs), we knew we had to do something."

Fortunately for Poppy, their local vet’s surgery is the Grove, where its owners availed of Janice's weight-loss programme.

"When it comes to cats – and dogs – being overweight, the problem is always overfeeding," Janice says. "Owners think they are being kind towards their pets but they're actually killing them with kindness by giving them treats, which are extremely high in calories.

"In Poppy's case her arthritis was making her less mobile but it was her diet that needed attention to both reduce her weight and consequently help her arthritis.

"In any weight-loss programme, owner compliance is always vital. Once a pet is referred to me by one of the vets, I begin with an initial consultation where I show the owner both the ideal body condition score – which is five – and then their pet's score, which, as in Poppy's case, is usually around eight or nine.

"I explain the health risks of obesity, such as the increased chances of diabetes and arthritis, and then provide the owner with a weight-loss plan. Unlike with humans, the weight-loss plan for pets is quite straightforward. I simply recommend one particular food and the owner only has to weigh out the allotted amount twice a day. There are no specific foods to be cooked, so it's really easy to follow.

"Most owners adapt to it really well and they begin to see the results in their pets within two to three weeks."

Happily, Poppy's owners have adhered meticulously to the weight-loss plan drawn up by Janice. Over the last few weeks she's lost almost a kilogram and Darwin and his wife have already begun to see a change in her behaviour.

"She's definitely brighter," says Darwin, "and she has started wanting to go out more. Her coat has become shinier and it looks so much healthier. She's still a little robotic in the way that she walks but that's probably more to do with the arthritis.

"The fact that she's lost weight already means that she's feeling better in herself and that's making her want to go out more, so the increased mobility will help in the weight loss in addition to the diet."

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