I doubt anybody would describe me as physically imposing, but at the risk of tooting my own horn, I do feel confident in my ability to lift a house cat onto an exam table. So when my back strains and I slip loose an involuntary “ungh” as I haul the grudging feline patient off the floor, it’s a good sign that he might be too heavy.
“He’s always been such a big cat,” I’m informed before I even get his paws off the ground, “and he’s not even overweight—he’s just really big.”
This is a valiant attempt at intercepting the conversation before I say that, sadly, it isn’t remotely true. This cat is definitely overweight.
Nobody likes to talk about this. Veterinarians feel like unwelcome nags, and owners feel like they’re being chided at every annual visit. There’s no way to pipe in with, “So, he’s gained another pound and a half” without sounding like a bit of a jerk. In the moment, it just seems so much easier for everybody to look the other way and pretend the cat is totally fine.
The reality, however, is that this has to be discussed. Obesity has become so common in our pets that many people have forgotten what normal animals look like to begin with. They worry that their healthy pets are too skinny.
It’s not a matter of appearances. This is a legitimate health crisis affecting more than one-third of dogs and cats in this country. When you look at the list of problems associated with obesity, it becomes clear that there is no larger threat to the quality of life of our pets than this one.
Obese cats are at substantially increased risk of insulin resistance and diabetes, a frustrating and often expensive problem to manage once it begins. They are also at risk of serious liver disease if any other stress or medical condition causes them to stop eating for a short time. I’ve seen obese cats slip into liver failure for no reason other than their owners left town for the weekend.
Obese animals have difficulty breathing due to all the heft preventing the rib cage from expanding properly. This is of particular concern in tiny dogs with inherently flimsy windpipes, or dogs like pugs that already have trouble breathing on a good day.
But the most insidious effect of obesity in pets is the way it simply stops them from getting around and enjoying life. Even the healthiest dogs are going to develop arthritis as they age, and a lifetime of being overweight accelerates the process. It’s heartbreaking to see these bright, alert dogs foundering on the ground because they just can’t summon the strength to stand, and all the pain medication in the world can’t erase that kind of damage.
I know that people would rather I just not bring it up at all. I see the furtive eyes wondering if I’m going to say it again this year, and I see the look of relief when the conversation ends and we get back to pleasantries. But I promise, this conversation is better than the one about giving insulin shots twice a day or buying a sling to help your dog go to the bathroom. I have to tell you—and your pet needs me to.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.