Friday, August 8, 2008

Perceptions and our pets

I'm on a roll with thinking about body perceptions and how we perceive them. This next post is about how we view body image in our four-legged friends. Yes, I know this may sound odd, but again, I'm wondering if those of us with body image issues have a different ideal for our pets than the rest of the population. Are we able to distinguish between thin, normal, overweight, obese in our pets? Are we more vigilant about our pets' health even though we compromise our own? I'm seriously not trying to dumb anyone down, so I hope these questions aren't offensive. They really do have a point.

Recently, my boss loaned me her back issues of BARk magazine, a magazine of modern dog culture. It's actually a fairly interesting magazine with a wide variety of topics. In this 2006 issue, it discussed canine obesity and how it was mostly a human perception problem. According to this article, 34 percent of dogs are overweight but only 30 to 40 percent of their human caretakers realize it. This 2005 study about the prevalence and risk factors for obesity in dogs and cats (may have been the same one the article used) also said how vet practitioners commonly underreported animals who were overweight or obese.

So how are pets assessed for obesity? Well, since there isn't a BMI calculation, it becomes more individualistic.
At times, it is obvious to see the body condition of an animal and tell whether it is too thin or overweight. However, if there is a lot of fur, this can easily deceive the pet owner. The standard measurement is to check their bodies around the ribs. An ideal pet has a small layer of fat over the rib bones, however, the rib bones are sufficiently felt. Usually , a "waist" is also easily visible. Pets who on the thin side can have rib, spine, or hip bones easily felt since there is no fat. Pets who are overweight or obese, none of these can be felt without some pressure.

Like humans, there are various reasons why pets gain weight. Genetics of certain breeds, reproductive status (spayed and neutered), hormones, and their human/canine lifestyle (think lack of exercise for many companion animals) are all reasons for weight gain. In reality, it's quite amazing how much our four-legged friends resemble many of the same characteristics as humans, including similar diseases like diabetes type 1 and 2, cancer, hypothyroidism, Cushings's, disease, etc. In animals who are overweight or obese, problems such as osteoarthritis, respiratory, cardiovascular, and dermatological can occur. Some studies have also shown a correlation with high body fat mass and longevity in dogs. (AVMA collections of obesity)

As the reports of obesity in pets has risen over the years, new weight loss products have come onto the market. Slentrol which debuted in 2007 was the first to be approved by the FDA. The key mechanisms are reduced appetite and fat absorption. Though this is the only actual medication for dogs and obesity, there are other products labeled as "natural" to help your pet. lose weight. I'm sure, just like humans, there will be other drugs researched as well. Although I have not heard of gastric by-pass surgery for pets, there are people who have actually asked about it! It's kind of a scary thought.


Now, that I've given some background information, let's look at human perception versus dog perception. Something funny that Dr. Marty Becker, a well known veterinarian, said in an article for The Whole Pet was,

"No pet is going to catch sight of himself in the mirror and see that hairy derriere and say 'That's it! No more Scooby snacks for me!' There is no canine bikini season, and they don't try to get into last year's jeans and find they don't fit."

Animals for the most part do not have an image problem like humans do.One question I've seen asked is if animals can be anorexic? Yes, anorexic in the medical sense of losing appetite. The nervosa part, however, is not obtainable.

In most cases in terms of eating, it's about survival. There's the line, "dogs eat to live not live to eat." For the most part, it's true, although sometimes I question it as some dog sand cats do appear to live to eat. For some if they could have as much food as they wanted sitting right in front of them, they would eat it in a heartbeat and not think about it or have "guilt-associated" feelings with it. For many, the time elapsed between eating too much and an actual ill event is too long to make an associative cause since they do not have a "conscience." Whenever I think about this, I am reminded of one of my own dogs who ate five pounds of chicken in a sitting or two pounds of organ meat in less than five minutes or the dog I knew who ate over a pound of candy, then suffered an allergic reaction, only to still eat its dinner twenty minutes later. All of them looked like they had a "guilty" feeling, but in reality, it was only because they didn't feel well, or they reacted to their human. In the case of my own dogs, I was pretty upset with them.

So where am I going with this? As I posed the question earlier about whether those of us with body image issues are more vigilant about our pets' health, do we perceive the same thing as the average, normal dog/cat owners? Are we different? Are we more sympathetic to an animal who may be underweight or overweight? I guess I'm asking these questions, because I think of myself and how I perceive my own dogs and the animals I have cared for over the years.

In the almost eight years now that I've worked in a kennel environment, there have been a variety of sizes, breeds, and ages that I've seen. Many have been normal weight, well taken care of, some underweight, and others overweight. In the cases where dogs were underweight and overweight, I do ask their owners whether they realize this (it's of course in a polite way) and how much food they are giving their dogs. Some owners do realize this, say they've tried getting them to lose weight/gain weight to no avail, others have tried different foods, and still others are truly oblivious to the problem or dare I say it, they will tell me their vet said the dog looked fine. I've seen it where you can practically count the number of vertebrae on the spine, or where there is no "waist" in a dog, and that is okay? I've often asked myself how a professional could not see that? But then again, I question my perception at times since my view tends to be skewed.

I remember another case of a dog who hadn't been boarded in three or so months. When she came, I was absolutely shocked at her appearance. This was a dog who normally was about five or so pounds overweight and supposed to be a show dog even though she was already six years old. The dog had probably lost a good twenty to twenty five pounds. She was so thin it aged her in that amount of time. Her face was sunken, her ribs and spine could be counted, and she was so cold, needing a sweater in the fall, typically the season most dogs enjoy. I did inquire about what happened, and the owners only said that she was being trained some place in FL, and that they were being more strict with her food, not giving table scraps and such. I told them my concern and thought she needed labs run. I honestly don't know whether they had the labs run or not. I do think that they maybe realized there really was a problem. Now, she is at the appropriate weight where she should be at which is a good thing.

Another case on the opposite spectrum is my dad's wife's dog. C. is a shih tzu-poo. He weighs in at something like 35 or so pounds. He is by standards way overweight. After realizing that the early influence of his weight was their own fault--many many treats were given, they cut back and gave healthier options. They also realized his weight was a problem when he could no longer enjoy long walks with them and his stamina was much lowered. They tried reducing his meals, they took him to an endocrinologist to have labs run as well as their vet. His thyroid was borderline, the Cushing's Test turned out negative, he had some liver problems, and he had arthritis in his knees. One specialist said he just had a "fat economic" gene, so he couldn't lose weight. They also tried swimming, but everything was to no avail and now they've just given up. Sure, he's a happy dog, but it is obvious he can't keep up with his two housemates.

Another case is with one my mom's dog who is a king charles cavalier spaniel. L. turn three this December I believe. Last year she had some knee issues. It turned out to be a luxating patella (kneecap moves in and out of place) which was more than likely genetic. The vet wanted to do surgery, but L. weighed in at somewhere between 22-25 pounds. She wasn't grossly overweight, but enough that the vet did not want to do surgery until she got her weight lower. He decided to put her on slentrol. The first few months, she didn't lose weight but probably gained instead. My mother said it was more due to the fact that she received so many treats. The treats were a way for her to stop barking at her dad when he wanted to play a computer game instead (similar to the kid who wants something, and in the end the parent gives in and gets them the item). L. also likes food a lot and will shove her way past the other 3 cavaliers to try to eat their share as well as intimidate one while she eats her food. An additional few months later, L. did lose some weight. My mom, however, said she was really wasn't sure whether it was the medication or just the fact that they had reduced her treat intake. She did notice that L. felt better, and they are now adding some exercise.

None of these people have eating disorders, though a few do have body image concerns, and one I'd say has BED. Still though, many didn't perceive their pets to have a problem whereas I noticed these things right away. Is it the fact I work with dogs everyday or that I'm more attuned to what a dog should look like? Or are my perceptions clouded by my own experiences?

I do remember one client who actually mentioned she had recovered from an eating disorder and had taken in a stray dog. She was concerned about her eating, saying she once knew what it felt like to starve and didn't want the poor dog to feel that. The dog was in no way overweight, but could it have been if her fear of not letting the dog starve got in the way of what was healthy for the dog?

I hope this post doesn't offend. It's just something I've thought about through my observations of dogs and their people. I think for the most part humans love their pets. There are countless things our four-legged companions do for us., but we, as their caretakers, do need to ensure their safety, health, and well being on all levels physically and emotionally.


On a completely different note, this story recently surfaced with a man being charged on cruelty for allowing his dog to become obese.
Another case last week showed a cat, now dubbed "Prince Chunk" who was found homeless in NJ. (owner's house was being foreclosed) The cat is obese weighing just short of 2 pound on the Guiness Book of World records. The cat has been vet checked and is okay and will be adopted out. The sad thing is that so many people want to adopt the cat since seeing it on television, forgetting about all the other homeless pets out there that need a home.


Steph said...

I can't wait for more of her books to be made into movies as well. I didn't see The Tenth Circle, but I hope to catch a rerun of it sometime.
(And the points you make throughout this post are really interesting. I have an overweight cat of my own, but I never stopped to think that maybe there's some deeper reason for it.)

Tiptoe said...

Steph, thanks so much for commenting. I wasn't sure how well tihs post would go over or if it even made sense, so I'm glad it gave you food for thought. ;-)