How Our Perception of Our Pets’ Body Image is Making Them Fatter

Patty Khuly
Are we making our pets fatter?Is your idea of a healthy weight
for your pet really healthy?

Your pets may not stand in the mirror bemoaning the state of their burgeoning backsides or mind much when people at the dog park look askance at their hefty haunches. And while they won’t even bat an eye when their vet says they’re fat, that doesn’t mean they don’t have body image issues.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than fifty percent of dogs and cats are considered overweight or obese. So says their veterinarians. Yet if my patient population is any guide, a whole lot more than half could stand to lose a few pounds.

Indeed, it’s a smaller-than you-might-expect minority of pets that can be considered “trim” according to my own personal standards. Which raises the issue: Who sets the standards for healthy weight in dogs and cats?

I raise this issue because it’s becoming clear to some veterinary professionals (myself included) that the issue isn’t simply one of increasing weight; along the way, our perception of who’s “fat” has also drifted into the danger zone. So it is that we’ve reached a new normal for what we consider healthy – one that’s perhaps 10% or more beyond what veterinary medicine deemed so just twenty years back.

For example, have you noticed how much wider the average Labrador Retriever looks these days? No? Take a look at this international champion from 2007 for a sign of our times. The layer of blubber on this “solid” dog is at least two inches deep, a fact I can attest to after having spayed more than my share of “not fat” show standard bitches at the end of their breeding careers.

Though you may quibble with me (Labrador breeders are especially sensitive to my opinion of their standards), as a veterinarian I can tell you this is NOT a sustainably healthy weight. And I’m by no means alone in this assessment. A significant and growing population of veterinarians is becoming increasingly alarmed at what pet owners consider “just about right.”

That’s because weight our pets may carry around well enough at age one, two, or even five does not make for comfort at age seven and beyond. Not when we know for sure that the more weight a pet carries over his lifetime the greater the wear and tear on his joints. Which means a seven year-old dog or cat who’s been overweight for six years of his life has appreciably more painful osteoarthritis than one who’s tipped the scales for only two.

But let’s not pick on Labs alone. A “wide load” designation is perhaps in order for more than just our so-called “healthy weight” retriever breeds. Though some breeds of dogs and cats may buck the trend towards what I call “weight inflation,” the normalization of excess poundage is an equal opportunity offender with across-the-board implications for pet health.

The problem with this shift in thinking, of course, is not just academic. Because most pet owners already have a hard enough time acknowledging their pets need to lose weight, any degree of weight inflation is sure to mean more pain and more suffering on the part of pets who have no choice in the matter.

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