Today, I want to talk about a subject that makes a lot of people, even medical professionals, uncomfortable. It’s something that our society has made such a forbidden, never-to-be-spoke of topic that it can be difficult to get the information that is vital to keeping our furry loved ones healthy and functional. I want to talk about the thing that nobody wants to talk about, which is fat animals and maintaining “healthy weight” for pets.
One measure of how awkward we feel about discussing something is the amount of euphemisms we come up with to describe it. Big, chunky, rotund, hefty, squishy, fluffy, big-boned, adipose-blessed (okay, that last one is just the biology nerd in me coming out). What we should really be saying in place of all of these is “unhealthy”. Because that’s what an overweight animal really is.
There are some people who excuse an animal’s obesity by claiming it’s a breed characteristic. Instead of saying all border collies are energetic or all pit bulls are cuddly, some people claim that all labs (pugs/bulldogs/dachshunds, etc.) are meant to be fat. It’s just how they are. When I adopted my cat (whom we will call, Flufftroll McHellbeast), what should have been a 16 pound feline was topping the scales at 22.2 pounds. You would not believe how many people —many of whom I didn’t even know— try to convince me that all orange tabbies are “big”, so he was normal. No, he was an animal that had been free fed a poor quality diet until he was so obese he had trouble walking more than a few feet at a time. Luckily, I got him before he developed diabetes (and I will tell you, I was shocked when I got those blood work results that he didn’t), but even though I got him down to an almost healthy weight, he had irreversible damage to his vertebrae that made him unable to jump more than a few feet vertically, and not at all horizontally. His “normal” level of obesity had stripped him of a cat’s most basic defense mechanism, which is their agility, and he was never be able to function the way he was designed to.
An animal’s weight is an issue of more than simple aesthetics. Just like with humans, those extra pounds can cause deeper physiologic changes that have a serious impact on the pet’s well-being. One of those changes is caused by the simple, basic mechanics of being too heavy. The body was designed to carry a certain amount of weight and for the joints to fit together and move at specific angles in order to work correctly. The ends of the bones that form these joints are covered in a layer of cartilage, which cushions them and, along with joint fluid, allows them to move smoothly through their entire range of motion. When an animal is carrying too much weight, it can cause that cartilage to wear down over time, leaving bone-on-bone contact, which leads to inflammation in the joint and pain. Compounding this, many overweight animals have poor muscle tone, meaning there is less stability in the irritated joints. Without tone, more of the stresses of regular movement are being absorbed by the cartilage, tendons, and ligaments, which cause them to wear down faster and allows irreversible damage to occur in the tissues.
If your pet is at a point where he’s carrying a few (or several) extra pounds, it’s time to make some changes. Sometimes, it can be as simple as cutting back on the amount of food that an animal is receiving. For others, a different type of food (particularly one that is lower in carbohydrates) may be called for. And an increase in the amount of exercise a pet is getting is always a good thing, though you may need to discuss specifics with your doctor, if the animal has a separate health issue going on. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while. Just like with people, each animal is an individual and may need to have their protocol tweaked a bit to make it work for them.
Keeping your pet active and at a healthy weight are not only important for making them look good, it is a vital part of their health care. Monitoring a healthy weight is just as important as their initial vaccines and regular check-ups. It will go a long way towards keeping your pet with you for a long and healthy life.