Emotional Eating In Animals

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Jack Sprat he loved no fat,
and his wife she lov’d no lean:
And yet betwixt them both,
they lick’t the platters clean.

English Proverb (1670)

The American waistline isn’t the only thing that’s a growing problem.  Companion animals are packing on the pounds as well.   Studies show that up to 60 percent of companion dogs and cats are obese or overweight.  They are actually in worse shape than we are, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 percent of Americans are obese.  You do the math.

What’s most surprising is that calories and laziness are not the only factors causing this epidemic in animals.   If an animal in your home puts on weight, you might assume it is simply the result of an animal with a voracious appetite combined with an indulgent owner.  New evidence is showing us otherwise.

obese cat
Stress eating is quite common in humans but until recently, it was not considered a prime cause of domestic animal obesity.

According to the research review, published recently in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, companion animals can use food as a “coping mechanism” to deal with “emotional distress”.  Many pets are becoming obese because they are prone to “emotional eating”, where they eat in an attempt to dispel feelings of unhappiness and stress.

Comfort or stress eating in humans involves specific kinds of foods. These can range from sweet to salty, crunchy or soft.  However animals will usually eat whatever and whenever.  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:

Research 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. ~ Dr. Franklin McMillan

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 an animal’s stress eating. Some of these triggers are boredom, anxiety and depression. He also addresses skeptical animal guardians who think their pets are only happy when their 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 an animal mind “in turmoil.”

some pets use food as a coping mechanism to cope with emotional distress
Some animals use food as a coping mechanism to cope with emotional distress

The review makes one other thing clear — we need to change the way we think about pet obesity. Simply taking the food dish away or running your dog 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) so it’s important to recognize that one cause of an animal’s obesity is that the animal is eating more than it requires, the excess is stored as fat, hence the animal becomes overweight.  By overfeeding an improper diet that contains too much fat, too many carbohydrates and too many snacks without proper exercise will lead to obesity.  However, McMillan’s article shows that, just like with human obesity, pet obesity is probably way more complex than we realize.

 

Dr McMillan, who now works for Best Friends Animal Society, says the findings are such that they should change the way obesity in cats and dogs is addressed.  Rather than simply reducing the amount of food they can eat and increasing their exercise, guardians and veterinarians need to address the animal’s underlying emotional problems.  By simply putting an “emotional eater”on a diet, they could make the situation worse; taking away the animal’s “coping mechanism” and making the animal even more unhappy – and even hungrier.

The bottom line is that there is a ton of evidence in humans and animals like rodents that stress induced eating, or emotional eating is a very real thing and contributes to obesity, so we should be looking at it in “pet” animals.  If this is a major factor in our pet animals, then the standard approach, by simply yanking away their food, is very misguided and potentially harmful.  The indicators show that obesity is rising in humans and in pets. How much is attributable to emotional factors – that is the great unknown. 

fat ginger tabby
Fat animals are not cute. Obese pets are at serious risk for health problems and being overweight is damaging to their overall well being.

The United States is not the only country to see an increase in waistlines of humans and animal companions.  Two thirds of veterinary professionals in Europe say that pet obesity is the single biggest health issue facing domestic animals throughout Europe, with 96% of those questioned identifying early death as the most serious consequence of the condition.  Britain’s obesity crisis has claimed a new victim – the nation’s horses.  A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour found that a third of recreational riders were too obese for their mounts, leaving the animals at risk of several welfare conditions.

The United States is not the only country to see an increase in waistlines of humans and animal companions.  Two thirds of veterinary professionals in Europe say that pet obesity is the single biggest health issue facing domestic animals throughout Europe, with 96% of those questioned identifying early death as the most serious consequence of the condition.  Britain’s obesity crisis has claimed a new victim – the nation’s horses.  A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour found that a third of recreational riders were too obese for their mounts, leaving the animals at risk of several welfare conditions.

To address this weighty problem, the first Animal Obesity Clinic geared especially for our animal companions has opened its door!  Created by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, The Tufts’ Veterinary Obesity Clinic will tap the strengths of the Cummings School’s nutrition service, a 15-year-old clinical, teaching and research service located at its Grafton, Mass., Foster Hospital for Small Animals — one of the nation’s busiest teaching hospitals.


 FAT FACTS

  • Triggers to an animal’s Stress Eating can be boredom, anxiety, general stress and depression.
  • Obese cats are more likely to be living in houses with only one or two cats.
  • Dogs in single dog households were more likely to be fat. Female dogs seem to be more susceptible to obesity than male ones.
  • Vets say over half the pets they see are overweight and most guardians are surprised to hear this news.
  • The obesity rate is at least 25% in cats and 45% in dogs.
  • Eight out of 10 dog, cat, and rabbit guardians believe that their animal is just the right weight, although when asked which of a series of pictures most closely resembled their pet, only 33% of dog guardians and 23% of cat guardians chose the “normal weight” picture.
  • Breeds prone to obesity: Labrador retriever, cairn terrier, cavalier king charles, Scottish terrier, cocker spaniel and in cats, the domestic shorthair. (For the record I would like to nominate the orange tabby cat to be added to this list.)

being overweight can lead to complications such as diabetes, orthopedic problems and respiratory complications, as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.
Animal obesity leads to complications such as diabetes, orthopedic problems and respiratory complications, as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.

Animals Are Not Meant to Be Chubby!

In the video below, Rollin’ Safari shows a series of four animated shorts created as an animation project by students from Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, a film school in Germany.  Each short puts a humorous spin on animals seen in the wild by making them extremely bloated and round.  As humorous and clever as the clips are, they are not far from the truth of what is happening with the animals that we share a home with.

You can learn more about this project at CGSociety.

obese fat pets emotional eating

 Tools You Can Use

To tackle the companion animal obesity issue The Pet Food Manufacturers Association PFMA launched an obesity prevention campaign.  The aim is to raise awareness of companion animal obesity by asking animal guardians to take action on 4 simple things:

1.  Read the feeding guidelines on the pet food packet 

2. Monitor your animal’s weight on a regular basis and adjust the amounts fed accordingly

3. Use a Pet Size-O-Meter for cats, dogs and rabbits.  (This is a user friendly version of the Body Condition Score Chart used by pet professionals).

Being a Conscious Companion means we monitor the health of our companion animals
Being a Conscious Companion means we monitor the health of our companion animals

Download the Size-O-Meters for all species in your home:

4. Track Their Health – Keep track of your companion animals health using these:

fat_bunny
Companion rabbits suffer from obesity too

It can be difficult to judge a rabbit’s body condition visually because their thick fur can hide prominent bones or disguise fat.  You will need to feel your rabbit so you can tell what is underneath the fluff.  A rabbit in healthy weight should have a smooth curve from neck to tail, and from hip to hip. You should be able to feel the spine and ribs but they should feel rounded not sharp – like they have a thin layer of padding.  It is normal, for females, to have a roll of fur under the chin. This is called a dewlap. It can look like fat but should just feel like a fold of skin when gently felt.  Learn more about how to determine and maintain healthy rabbit weight here and here.

 

Why You Should Be Proactive and Involved

We love our animals and we give them the best care possible, but unfortunately many of them are overweight. As their guardians we want to keep them happy, healthy and safe, so it’s easy to be embarrassed when one of your animals puts on the pounds like they are storing up for the next Ice Age. If one of your companion animals is putting on the pounds, remember that you are not alone. I am the first to admit that we have an obese cat. We have tried everything from prescription foods, holistic medicine, monitoring his food intake, increasing his physical activity and everything else you can imagine, but genetics and his love of food are winning the battle of the bulge. After discovering this study about emotional eating in animals I now firmly believe that this cat is a prime example of an animal who eats to comfort himself. Humans do it, so why wouldn’t animals? The question is how do we help them? What can we do to help their emotional needs, other than placing more food in front of them?
What about your animal family? Do you have a porky pooch, a hefty horse, a ravenous rabbit, a fat feline, or a big bird?
Do you think their extra pounds are due to a sedentary lifestyle and the foods they consume, or could they be an emotional eater?

 


SOURCES:

http://www.pfma.org.uk

http://www.pfma.org.uk/pet-obesity-campaign/

http://www.therabbithouse.com

http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk

http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/animals-are-becoming-obese-like-us-says-study.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9950467/Easy-rider.-Why-horses-are-feeling-the-strain-of-Britains-obesity-crisis.html

2 thoughts on “Emotional Eating In Animals

  1. Pingback: Chubby, Tubby, Plump and Pudgy | Conscious Companion

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