Not too many years ago, I had a beautiful, young female associate veterinarian who was driving people crazy by telling them that their pets were overweight. I tried to allay their concerns by saying that in many cases labeling a patient as fit or fat depends upon the evaluator’s perspective. “You’re more likely to hear that your pet is overweight when you see a thin doctor,” I would tell them. We chubbier veterinarians tend to be more tolerant. What’s an extra pound or two? I tend to apply the same standards to my patients as I do myself: fitness first! On my fortieth birthday, my daughter asked, “Dad, how does it feel to be forty? You’re so old!” I replied, “Hillary, as long as I’m a fat guy who can ride his bike to the top of the hill, I’m OK.”
But then there are those patients that waddle into the exam room, and there can be no doubt as to the excessiveness of their girth. Sometimes, when you look at the size of these dogs and cats, you can’t even imagine how this could ever have come to pass. What ingredients have these owners cooked up to get their pet into this corpulent predicament? Over the years I have gotten much better at getting the owners to release the real information. Rather than speaking to them in a judgmental or accusatory tone, I now tend to speak to them in terms of my amazement as to what they have been able to accomplish. How have they been able to maintain this dog or cat in this kind of shape? “What is your secret?” I ask them.
And some secrets can be very surprising! Zachary was a sixty- five pound beagle that should have weighed about thirty-five pounds. His sister, Zelda, was of normal size and weight. Blood tests did not reveal any predisposing conditions that would have contributed to the excessive weight. The owner insisted that both dogs ate the same foods and in the same amounts. What was going on? The mystery started to unravel when I got a call from the owner’s daughter who asked, “Did my dad tell you about the Oreos?” It seems that after coming home from a hard day’s work of plumbing, Zachary’s dad enjoyed stretching out in his recliner chair with his faithful friend at his side, and feeding him unlimited amounts of Oreo cookies. Better yet, these were special Oreos, because they were slathered with butter! Zelda didn’t care for these treats and was able to maintain her girlish figure. I could never get this feeding activity to stop, as the owner seemed to take a perverse pride in having the fattest dog on the block. Curiously, in the same household, at the same time, Zachary’s “mom” was slowly dying from complications of diabetes and heart failure brought on by her own morbid obesity. Ironically, Zachary lived a full fifteen years while his sister died at age twelve. Go figure.
Herb and his daughter Nancy had a veritable stable of the fattest dogs. Puppies that started their lives as normal individuals found themselves at double their recommended weights as adolescence progressed into adulthood. Diets never seemed to work and medical tests failed to detect any mitigating factors. As I saw the third generation of these behemoth pets, I was reconciled to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to find out what was really going on in the house. Herb was as rotund as his dogs, and a diabetic to boot, but Nancy seemed rather normal. Then one busy Friday morning I got the oddest phone call. It was Herb on the line. “Dr. Baum,” he asked, “do you like Tamales?” When somebody asks you something like that, you just can’t say that you’re an enchilada guy, so I tentatively agreed to taste an assortment of the best that the Indiana Tamale Company had to offer. “They’re my favorites,” he said before hanging up. And he was right. Two hours later my whole office was feasting on the most delicious warm and creamy tamales that I ever tasted. The next day I called to thank him for the tasty treat and casually inquired as to whether he ever let the dogs in on the tamale action. “Oh, Dr. Baum, they just love them. They eat them with me all the time.” Finally, case closed!
And then there was the forty-five pound English Bulldog, Petunia, who lived in her eighty-five pound body. “How do you do it?” I asked Petunia’s proud mama. It’s “chicken, chicken, chicken,” she cackled shrilly. Laughingly, I said, “This dog consumes so much fowl that your neighborhood variety birds should consider your property a hazard zone and avoid it at all costs if they don’t want to be eaten.” She started giggling and said, “It’s funny that you would say that, because one day our parrot got out and landed on the kitchen floor. Petunia actually grabbed Polly in her mouth, but did not hurt her. She literally ‘held’ her for ransom and wouldn’t release her until the ransom was paid in grilled chicken breasts.” It’s amazing how easily some secrets are revealed when you know how to ask the question!
All of the people cited here loved their pets dearly, but as these cases illustrate there can be a fine line between our affection and our obsession about overweight in cats and dogs, and ourselves. How easily we can make our pets into our partners in crime in, or extensions of, our own eating disorders.
Dr. Baum has been the owner and Chief of Staff at Center-Sinai Animal Hospital, Los Angeles, California since 1979. The hospital has been serving the Los Angeles community for over thirty years.