We are in the midst of an “obesity epidemic,” and I’m not talking about overweight humans. Domestic animals around the world are fatter than ever, and steadily gaining weight.
Exact numbers are hard to pin down – in part because pet owners and veterinarians don’t always recognize when a beloved lab or tabby has crossed the line from well fed to positively plump. But studies put the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats somewhere between 25 and 40 per cent. (The figure for adult Americans approaches a jaw-dropping 70 per cent.)
With our pets’ excess pounds have come a familiar suite of obesity-related ailments: diabetes, cardiovascular problems, musculoskeletal disorders, glucose intolerance, some cancers and, possibly, high blood pressure.
They’re familiar because we see nearly identical problems in obese human patients. And just as in our population, these weight-related diseases among dogs and cats often lead to premature death.
The efforts to combat excess animal girth will also sound familiar. Some dogs are put on diet drugs to curb their appetites. Liposuction has been the treatment of choice for some severely obese canines when the extra flab threatened to snap their spines or splay their hips.
Companion felines have been placed on the “Catkins” diet – a veterinary version of the popular high-protein, ultra-low-carb Atkins diet for humans. Veterinarians increasingly treat “portly ponies.” They instruct owners not to overfeed chubby fish. They suggest giving husky lizards more exercise to work off their surplus weight. They describe tortoises so fat they can no longer pop in and out of their shells. They’ve seen so many overweight birds they have a new nickname for them: perch potatoes.
Exotic animals in non-wild settings are getting rounder too. Concerned about the health effects of extra flab, zoo veterinarians in North America and Europe have placed overweight animals from flamingos to baboons on slimming diets. Many of these regimens borrow strategies from human weight-loss programs. If you’ve ever tallied daily Weight Watchers points, you understand the routine of the gorillas and cockatoos at Brookfield Zoo, where Jennifer Watts has put the animals on a similar system. In Indianapolis, zookeepers have encouraged rotund polar bears to move around their enclosures by tempting them with calorie-free, artificially sweetened gelatin treats in place of the sugary marshmallows and molasses of yore. In Toledo, plump giraffes have been offered biscuits that are specially formulated with lower salt and higher fibre, in place of the junk crackers they had been getting.
What all these corpulent animals share, what sets them apart from their wild cousins and ancestors, is one thing: We feed them. We’re responsible not only for our own expanding waistlines but for those of our animal charges as well.