How Fat Is Your Pussy? 

Obesity causes our furry friends a world of problems. Guess whose fault it is.

A few months ago, Meow lived a very high-profile existence: He was featured on the local TV news, got close enough to actor Hugh Grant to sniff him, and even made an appearance on the Today show. Facebook photos of Meow received hundreds of comments. It's safe to say he was the most popular animal that had come through the doors of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society. His claim to fame? Being a morbidly obese kitty — 39 pounds, to be exact. That's 75 percent more weight than the average house cat.

Sadly, Meow's asset also became his downfall; last month, he took his last breath. But his existence, and the public's strong reaction to him, highlighted the growing problem of obesity among pets — one that mirrors humankind's own struggle with bulging belt sizes. According to the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 54 percent of dogs and cats are overweight in the United States.

"I would say it's a significant problem — and growing," said Dr. Gary Richter, a general practitioner at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland. Between 30 and 40 percent of the dogs and cats he sees in his practice are overweight, he estimated, meaning 20 percent more than what's considered a normal weight.

The blame, he said, lies squarely with the owners. The main factors are lack of exercise and poor diet (unless there's a thyroid problem) — just as it is with humans. Sure, some breeds and individuals are more inclined to know their own eating limits better than others, and some are naturally larger than others, but at base, the problem of overweight pets can be traced to what their human owners are or aren't doing: not giving them enough exercise, for example, or giving them too many treats or cheap pet food that's supplemented with carb fillers.

"Probably the biggest culprit is not-good pet food," said Dr. Richter. "... What it boils down to is carbohydrates. Cats and dogs aren't evolutionary designed to eat carbohydrates."

Being overweight has mostly similar but some unique health effects on cats and dogs. The main difference is that cats can develop diabetes, whereas dogs don't. But in either case, extra pounds can contribute to heart disease and inflammation, including damage to the organs and joints, and can shorten an animal's lifespan. "There's been some very good nutritional studies done that have shown that dogs that are allowed to become overweight will live, on average, two years less," said Dr. Richter. (That's fourteen dog years.)

Dr. Courtney Ikuta, a general and orthopedic surgeon at VCA Bay Area Veterinary Specialists and Emergency in San Leandro, said animals with weight problems are "much more likely" to get joint disease, such as hip dysplasia or arthritis. "It dramatically affects their quality of life," she said. "What has been shown in people as well as animals is that weight loss can dramatically affect the number of medications necessary to keep you comfortable in regards to joint pain."

Even if they do undergo orthopedic surgery, overweight or obese animals face a tougher recovery process. In fact, said Dr. Ikuta, obese animals often aren't candidates for surgery for this very reason. Plus, she added, "If an owner can't bring a pet's weight down to a normal or acceptable body weight, there's a good chance they can't manage or follow our post-operative instructions anyway."

Yikes.

So what is an ideal body weight for an animal? Like the Body Mass Index, the Body Condition Score rates an animal's weight on a scale of one to nine, with nine being obese and one being emaciated. The ideal body condition, says Dr. Ikuta, is a four. "For a dog, if you run your hands over its ribs, you can feel the indentations between each rib. From the side, you can see the waist as it tucks up."

(Go ahead and try the test on your dog. We'll wait.)

The problem with that definition, especially the part about being able to feel the indentations between each rib, is that society has come to view that as underweight. Just as we've come to accept vanity sizes as the new normal, we now see normal-weight dogs and cats as too skinny. And, apparently, we're not afraid to shame others into thinking the same.

"I have people who come in with a Labrador at perfect body weight, and people chastise them saying they're starving their dog to death," said Dr. Richter. "... It's what you're used to seeing and what's the expected norm. There's this external pressure as well. Plus, they're cute and fuzzy."

Overcoming society's perception that overweight animals are cute isn't so easy. Owners, thinking they're just being loving, lavish their furry friends with treats. "What people don't realize is an extra fifty calories a day is huge — that's a really big number," said Dr. Richter. "That's like a person having an extra three hundred, four hundred calories a day. For most people, there's gonna be repercussions to that." But, Dr. Richter acknowledged, "There's that whole food-is-love thing. It's how they express their affection."

For Oakland resident Christin, her overweight kitty has become a source of frustration — and embarrassment, which is why she only wanted to be identified by her first name. It's also why she has avoided finding out just how overweight her five-year-old cat, Angel, actually is — she only noticed the problem when she posted a photo of him on Facebook, and saw that his gut was dragging on the floor.

The problem, she says, arose from his constant crying. Originally, she fed Angel only one cup of food for the entire day, as per the instructions on her cat food's label. And she only fed him the fancy stuff — the kind without carb fillers.

"But he meows incessantly," she said. "It's nonstop, like he's starving. ... If you walk past his bowl, then he freaks out and starts meowing because he thinks you're gonna feed him. I started feeling guilty. Am I starving him?"

To stave off Angel's apparently constant hunger, she purchased a high-tech feeding bowl that released food on a timed basis while she was away at work. But Angel was too smart for it, and began pulling food out with his paw. Christin saw his behavior as a sign that he, indeed, was really hungry, and that she wasn't feeding him enough. So she gave in, and put out a big bowl of food, allowing him to eat all day. "And then he got huge," she said. Although that unlimited-eating experiment only lasted for a little more than a week, the effect has been long-lasting. And so has her frustration.

"It's a constant trial and error," she said. "I'm at the point now where I'm back to doing a cup a day and he's slimmed down a little. I've tried to modify it." Christin admits that part of the problem also has to do with Angel's lack of exercise. She lives in a high-rise studio apartment, so Angel can't go outside. And his activity level has decreased since he's gained weight: No longer can he jump up on the kitchen counter with ease. "He just lies down," she said. "That's his favorite pastime."

But one of the hardest parts about Angel's weight, Christin said, is how it reflects upon her as an owner. "I've had people make comments like, 'Wow, he's huge,'" she said. "And it's embarrassing. I feel socially embarrassed. I feel like people judge me.

"I just have to deal with it," she continued. "I have to deal with him crying. It's hard when you love your cat, you want him to feel happy inside. I feel like I'm dealing with a child who wants candy all the time and you have to say no and you feel bad about it. It's embarrassing. I should never have kids." In other words, while some view an overweight pet as healthy and cuddly, others may deem it a victim of cruelty or neglect — perhaps depending on how overweight it is.

But besides good health, there's another, practical incentive for keeping your pet lean, and that's cost. Taking care of a diabetic cat can cost thousands of dollars per year, said Dr. Richter. Surgery to fix a ruptured ligament in the knee of a dog — an apparently common injury for those that are overweight — can cost $4,000.

Alas, getting owners to change their feeding habits is a major hurdle. Which is why Dr. Richter suggests starting correct eating habits early. Just as a proper human diet is a matter of willpower — not to mention having access to healthy foods — for animals it's also a matter of the owner's willpower. "The dog won't perish if it skips a couple meals," Dr. Richter assured.

But, as was the case for Meow, too many meals proved deadly.

Montclair Veterinary Hospital|VCA Bay Area Veterinary Specialists and Emergency

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