Years ago my wife introduced me to the British comedy group “Monty Python.” Their film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” has become a cult classic and their satirical humor has influenced an entire generation. Their cast members, including John Cleese and Michael Palin, have had long and storied careers, starring in a number of documentary and entertainment productions.
One of their lesser-known and more improper films was “The Meaning of Life,” which irreverently explored subjects as varied as the British aristocracy and the church. (My wife just looked over my shoulder as I’m writing this, and she can’t believe I am admitting in YCM that I have seen that film!) In “The Meaning of Life” one scene that still sticks out in my mind involves an extremely large person gluttonously enjoying unbelievable amounts of food in a restaurant. Finally, after multiple courses of huge portions, the waiter offers him a tiny after-dinner mint. At first, he refuses, stating that he was completely stuffed and couldn’t eat another bite. Finally, tempted by the waiter to have “Just one wafer-thin mint,” he relents. Moments after the waiter places the mint into his mouth the obese diner literally explodes! I will spare readers the details, but if you know anything about Monty Python you can probable visualize the horrible scene.
My patients don’t explode, but truly, overweight and obese pets cause themselves and their family’s tremendous pain. Problems ranging from heart and lung disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, bladder infections, arthritis, and many other issues are directly related to pet obesity, and sharing information which can help your pet avoid those problems is the purpose of this month’s Animal Health column.
I’ll start by relating a scene much less dramatic but even more horrible than the Monty Python restaurant explosion. Just this morning I put to sleep a beloved family pet whose difficulties were directly related to her obesity. It hurts to think about how many patients I have had over the years whose health has suffered because of their weight. My sadness is intensified as I wonder that in trying hard not to offend their families I may have unintentionally failed to help them and their families. Weight control is a sensitive issue for many pet owners, and it’s not easy to find the balance between encouraging and fussing when it comes to helping them keep their pets’ weight in a healthy range. Hopefully an update on weight management in this column will be a helpful way to gently remind everyone that this is really important.
No one will be surprised by the facts on how obesity harms our pets:
Being too heavy physically weighs pets down. When they carry extra weight, there is extra stress on bones and joints and arthritis develops earlier and more severely. Every day I see pets whose arthritis causes them pain or disability. Excess body fat physically interferes with breathing, resulting in many cases of COPD and chronic cough. When they’re obese, pets’ hearts have to work harder and the heart valves wear out, causing congestive heart disease. Fat pets (sorry to be blunt, but there it is) have more skin infections because the body’s production of protective skin oils is altered and because the fat literally traps moisture, dirt and bacteria in the skin folds.
Obesity also dramatically changes the body chemistry, influencing pancreatic enzyme release, insulin production and utilization, and gastrointestinal function…think diabetes, gall bladder disease, and chronic diarrhea. Just as in people, cancers and organ system inflammatory diseases become more common in overweight pets.
Although He certainly knew that we would make our pets’ lives so wonderfully easy that they would pack on the pounds, I’m sure the Lord didn’t intend for His wonderful creations to be covered in layers of excess fat!
So, what can we do about it? Let’s look at several ways to help control their weight:
First, our attitude toward pet food and feeding should be on target. Too often I see grossly overweight pets whose owners provide lots of human foods or treats “because they won’t eat their pet food.” It’s easy to smile at that comment, but it reflects a perspective on our relationship with our pets that, though well-intended, completely ignores reality. Would we let our human children eat cookies and desert if they don’t eat their fruits and vegetables? Why, then do we risk harming our pets by letting them eat foods that are not good for them? I know it’s because we love them and want them to be happy, but we also want them to enjoy a long and healthy life, so let’s use our heads and feed them properly.
You already know what’s best: modern pet foods are precisely developed to provide an amazing level of nutrition, and are more closely regulated than human foods. I know that there are exceptions, pets can have allergies and sensitivities, but those exceptions are rare. I’ve preached in previous columns about choosing a solid, established brand of pet food and sticking with it and it’s hard to say it any better. My standing bet is, “Give me a week and give me your dog, and I’ll have him eating his dog food!” No, I’m not as mean or as strict as that joke, but I’m close! Seriously, there is nothing mean about providing your pet with the best possible level and amount of nutrition…that is one of the best ways to keep them healthy.
Another way to control their weight is to recognize when we’ve been a bit indulgent and our pet’s weight has crept up into an unhealthy range, and make a change. That change can often be as simple as an adjustment in the amount of food we give them. I’ve mentioned my “Magic Diet” before, but because it really does work let’s look at it again. For many pets an effective diet is to simply modestly decrease the food portions…here’s how:
These simple steps will reduce the total number of calories, but won’t cause the body’s metabolism to slow down. When we are on a starvation diet our bodies try to save as many calories as possible, and we (or our pets) don’t lose weight as well. For many/most of our pets, this calorie reduction is all we need to do, and the pet doesn’t even know she’s on a diet.
Sometimes, though, my magic diet seems to lose its magic. For some people or pets, calorie reduction just doesn’t work. A few have hormone issues: low thyroid or high cortisone levels, for instance, and when we find out, we can treat that problem. Others have another family member who sneaks food or treats…my own problem is fried okra and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (Not at the same time!)
Research in obesity now has proven that some of us, and some of our pets, have a genetically-wired metabolism that burns calories more slowly, making weight easier to gain and harder to lose. That same research has lead to several novel medical and nutritional approaches to weight loss. Specifically, there is a new diet approach for pets that focuses, not only on specific calorie reduction, but on providing nutritional ingredients that literally change the body’s metabolism. The new diet is unique enough and effective enough that it needs to be considered if other approaches have not worked.
Hill’s, the “Science Diet” company, has developed “Metabolic Diet Advanced” to meet the challenge of actually changing the way the pet’s body burns calories. After a thorough health evaluation (no diet, for us or for our pets, should be started without first consulting your doc or your vet)
precise measurements of your pet’s bone structure and frame provide a BMI (body mass index) assessment from which the portions of the special diet and expected rate of weight loss can be calculated. Think of Weight Watchers or Nutrisystem, in which not just calories but specific ingredients and foods are chosen to provide the right balance to achieve weight loss, and you get the idea.
Any frequent reader of these columns knows that I don’t try to “sell” any specific product or drug, and I don’t mean to imply that this diet is any more magical than the feeding plan I usually recommend. My point is that there are new options that you can now consider if “light” pet food or portion control is not working.
The most important take home message from this month’s column is that pet obesity can be a serious and deadly condition. Do I think that every pet has to be at its ideal weight? No, I’m not there myself. But some pets have truly crossed the line from being “pleasingly plump” or “chunky” to being dangerously obese. When I examine your pet and recommend weight reduction, I’m not worried about her exploding, I’m trying to help her live a long, healthy life, so let’s work together to help your pet lose weight.
As always, feel free to ask me, or your family vet, if you have any questions about caring for your pet.