The most meaningful pet-relationship of my life has been with my cat Porthos, a Russian Blue-mix named after the most Rubenesque of the Three Musketeers. Porthos’ chub is what first caught my eye when I was looking for a kitten; he was so fat, and so cute, I knew I’d love him forever and probably die for him.
I am hardly the only person with a soft spot for fat pets. Today, the internet has a thesaurus-entry’s worth of affectionate, made-up words to celebrate hefty animals: chonky, floofy, thicc, round bois and absolute units, to start. For the past few years, a comedic feline bodyweight chart has bounced around Reddit and Twitter, illustrating the body mass gradations that take a cat from “A Fine Boi” to “A Heckin’ Chonker” to “OH LAWD HE COMIN” – the latter a decidedly obese creature.
Most of this slang falls into its own genre of meme-speak called DoggoLingo, which can be applied to nearly any animal (dogs and cats are standard, but even the U.S. National Audubon Society website has “an extremely important guide” to understanding when a bird qualifies as a “birb” – namely, when it’s very round).
And, there are countless social media appreciation groups full of people using this language to express their love for fat animals. Reddit’s r/Chonkers is a gathering place for more than 300,000 “chomnk lovers,” and the Facebook group “This Cat is C H O N K Y” has more than 700,000 members, while Instagram’s @chonkyanimals and @chonky_cats each have upwards of 100,000 and @weratechonks clocks in at nearly 80,000 members.
In short, chonks are a huge thing. But does all this body “paws-itivity” have any implications for the actual health of our pets?
Research shows that the majority of North American pets are getting heavier. A 2018 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that in the United States, more than 100 million dogs and cats qualified as overweight or obese, up from 80 million in 2013. The former number represents 60 per cent of cats and more than 56 per cent of dogs.
Last year, a study by researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph analyzed 54 million cat weight measurements collected over decades to discover that the mean weight of a neutered, eight-year-old domestic cat rose half a pound between 1995 and 2015. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes a considerable difference on a cat’s small frame and can contribute to health issues such as feline diabetes, osteoarthritis and heart disease.
“We can’t say for sure what the direct causes for this increase are,” says Dr. Adam Campigotto, lead researcher on the study, “but we suspect that it’s either a result of more cats living indoors and having less activity, or an increase in palatability of cat food or [meal size]. A lot of owners interact with their cats through feeding and giving pets food facilitates a sort of connection between owner and animal.”
The online popularity of fat cats has not escaped Campigotto’s attention. “One issue is a lot of overweight cats can be cute and cuddly,” he says. “Fat cats are something people want to post about online and when you see them online it becomes more normal.”
Campigotto is right: Thanks to the internet, we can look at fat pets all day. Yet, those who run chonk-appreciation social media accounts argue that they are not glorifying pet obesity, rather, they’re trying to create spaces where people can share pictures of the pets they love without being harassed.
“I do feel like our stance has been a bit misunderstood,” says Tori Diaz, founder of Facebook’s This Cat is C H O N K Y, a group that forbids both fat shaming and the sharing of medical advice. “Some people have twisted it into ‘Oh, you don’t want [pets] to lose weight, you want people to purposefully fatten up their animals,’ which is a not it at all,” she says. “The reason we don’t do medical advice here is the vast majority of people are not experts and what works for one animal won’t work for another. Unless it’s from your vet, you really shouldn’t be following advice on the internet.”
Diaz says that more often than not, the pets posted to her page are on slow, healthy, vet-monitored weight-loss journeys (rapid weight loss can be dangerous for pets). “The owners don’t want to feel pressured to constantly, preemptively state when they post – ‘Yes, we’re putting them on a diet and we’re making sure they’re losing weight.’ They just want to put up a lighthearted post and move on,” she says.
Lauren Paris, whose cats Bruno and Carlo have 125,000 followers on their Instagram page, @TheeBrunoBartlett, also bristles at body shamers. “That may sound silly or irrelevant because it’s ‘just a cat’ – but it’s representative of a bigger issue in society: bullying,” she says. Still, Paris recognizes her own responsibility to emphasize her pet’s health on her account. “Otherwise, I think [the chonk] gets glorified and people just want to adopt big cats because they’re cute and keep them that way.” Bruno has lost seven pounds since being adopted at 25 pounds in 2018, alienating some of his fans. “You see comments like, ‘Oh, I miss his basketball belly.’ And I do feel it’s my job to say, ‘Yeah, it was cute, but now he’s going to live forever,’” Paris says.
Fortunately, according to Zazie Todd, a B.C.-based psychologist specializing in animal companions and author of the new book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, pet owners can rest assured that putting their cats or dogs on a diet needn’t affect their relationship with them. Todd suggests replacing edible treats with bonding activities such as taking your pet for a walk, playing with it or cuddling.
Another upside to the popularity of online chonk is that it may encourage more people to adopt overweight animals, who are often overlooked in favour of more energetic shelter puppies and kittens. Fat pets may need a little extra care, but there’s so much of them to love.