Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Love Is Not Spelled "T-R-E-A-T"


Pet Column for the week of December 15, 1997


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist

As the proud and loving owner of one roly-poly ball of purring fur, I felt obliged to find out
whether and how obesity can affect a pet's health. After all, there is no societal pressure for
my cat to be sinewy slim, and she is quite content with her physique. The process of
slimming her down certainly poses a risk to her ambient happiness level. How does this
compare to the risk to her health of being so round? I asked the advice of Dr. Jennifer J.
Brinson, veterinarian and researcher on obesity in pets at the University of Illinois
Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

"There may be diseases caused by obesity in dogs and cats, but what we see more often
are ordinary medical problems made worse by obesity," explains Dr. Brinson. For example,
pets of any body condition can get diabetes, but the disease is more difficult to manage in
obese pets because the additional body fat interferes with insulin effectiveness. Problems
such as torn ligaments are more common in obese pets both because of their
disproportionate size and because they often don't have the muscle tone to balance and
support the extra weight. Arthritis is not caused by obesity but maybe worsened by the
extra load on the arthritic joints.

Just about every organ in the body maybe affected by obesity, but most at risk are the
musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. "Obesity also compromises the
effectiveness of a proper physical exam. Heart and lung sounds can be masked by body fat.
The consistency and size of abdominal organs are difficult to feel through intervening fat,"
says Dr. Brinson. "This may prevent the veterinarian from finding early indicators of disease
and delay diagnosis until a disease has reached advanced stages."

What causes obesity in pets? "There are diseases, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing's
disease, that are associated with weight gain. There are also hormonal influences, genetic
influences, and individual variation in metabolism and appetite, but unfortunately the most
frequent cause of obesity in pets is owner indulgence of treats and/or oversized portions of
pet food. Owners don't realize that they are killing their pets with kindness," says Dr.
Brinson.

Excess weight is easier to prevent than to lose. The more weight there is to carry around,
the more inactive a pet becomes, and the harder it is to exercise and reduce weight. Visits
to your veterinarian for your pet's cycle of puppy or kitten shots should include weight
monitoring. Then adjustments in diet and exercise can be made early and problems with
obesity avoided.

If prevention is a missed opportunity, then the first step toward weight reduction and
improved health is a visit with your veterinarian. Metabolic problems contributing to weight
gain should be corrected before changing your pet's diet or routine. Your veterinarian will
also know the ideal weight for your pet and can provide a healthful diet and exercise plan.
Well-defined goals and regular weight checks are the recipe for successful weight loss.

Pets are best exercised by playing with them. Take the dog for walks. Play fetch. Give the
cat chase toys. If your cat follows you up and down stairs, then walk up and down stairs,
tour the house, everyday; don't stop until the cat stops. If an owner is unwilling to exercise,
then the pet won't get exercise.

Calories in a pet's diet can be reduced by feeding a lower calorie diet or smaller portions of
your pet's regular diet. Your pet will tell you whether higher volume or concentrated
calories are preferred. However, owners should realize that low-cal diets often have more
fiber and may increase the quantity of feces produced. Dogs may not be able to hold it all
day like they could with their lower fiber diet. Cats are finicky eaters and often refuse diet
food. Owners of cats should be careful not to let their cat starve or lose weight too fast.

Dr. Brinson emphasizes that a pet's health is the owner's responsibility. "Pets don't choose
what or how much to eat. Owners dictate the animal's diet and how much they get. People
food, table scraps, and fast-food take-out should not be options. There are dietary treats
that are good for pets that will also satisfy the owner's need to indulge the pet."

For more information on obesity in pets, contact your local veterinarian.