If your formerly jaunty, energetic pet has melted into a fat puddle of loose skin and belly sag, becoming so lumpy and gross that you can’t even bring yourself to touch it anymore, you might want to get over your fat phobia because you’re clearly depriving your pet of physical affection. Then, once you’ve sunk your hand into your pet’s armpit folds, you might want to consider that your pet has only gained so much weight because it’s been stress-eating to cope with all of your neurotic bullshit.
A review of existing research about pet obesity, a growing phenomenon in the veterinary world, suggests that pets aren’t just eating too much because owners overfeed them or neglect to exercise them or feed them an exclusive diet of bacon and ice cream slurry. Pets may actually be stress-eating, a behavior not at all uncommon among people but, until recently, not really considered as a prime cause of domestic animal obesity. According to the research review, published recently in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, pets can use food as a “coping mechanism” to deal with “emotional distress,” phrases that prompted the Telegraph to make an ungainly Bridget Jones comparison.
Comfort eating in humans involves certain kinds of foods, usually high-calorie, maybe especially sweet/salty. Since pets will eat whatever the fuck ever (and since they’re not necessarily exerting mind control over their humans and reducing those humans to living kitchen utensils useful only for opening pantry doors), their stress eating doesn’t involve any particular food. They just eat a lot of their normal food, explains Dr. Franklin McMillan, a vet and former clinical professor of medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine.
From the Telegraph:
[McMillan] shows that animals, like humans, can eat too much, not necessarily out of hunger, but also a result of “disinhibition” - whereby overeating is in response to stimuli other than internal hunger cues, such as stress. He also cites earlier studies to show that some animals offered an abundance of food do not overeat, as well as others showing a link between stress and negative emotions and eating.
McMillan identifies several triggers to a pet’s stress eating, among them boredom, anxiety and depression. He also answers skeptical pet owners who think their pets are only happy when their fuzzy little faces are buried in a food dish by explaining that research on pet obesity suggests overeating can be a sign of a pet’s pleasurable emotional state, or a canine/feline mind “in turmoil.”
The review makes one other thing clear — we probably need to change the way we think about pet obesity. Simply taking the food dish away or running your pet around the block aren’t necessarily going to address the underlying causes of stress eating. Not all instances of pet obesity are tangled up in a pet’s emotional distress (some pets are just gluttons, and some owners are just irresponsible), but McMillan’s article shows that, just like with human obesity, pet obesity is probably way more complex than fat-shaming finger waggers would like us to think.
Image via AP, Ben Swan