As nation's obesity epidemic spreads to its pets, specialists focus on helping overweight animals
By Cynthia Hubert
With furrowed brows, Scott Campbell and his team of specialists gathered around the patient. Binky the cat, all 21 pounds of her, reclined before them on a steel examination table at the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Center.
"I'm desperate," said Binky's owner, Bonnie Smith of Fremont, Calif. "My kitty is beautiful, but she needs to lose weight."
Binky, a black-and-white "tuxedo" cat with elegant green eyes, had other problems as well, according to the thick medical file maintained by Smith and her husband, Alan Landesman.
Irritable bowel syndrome. Possible pancreatitis. Asthma. The cat, her human caretakers said, is a couch potato who is picky about her commercial food but enjoys a dollop of baby food in the morning and an occasional evening snack of steak or fish.
"Binky is a tough case," said Campbell, a resident in the growing field of veterinary nutrition.
Binky, 9, needed a diet makeover, but it would likely be more complicated than simply prescribing commercial food with fewer calories. Binky needed a special diet to treat her gastrointestinal distress, but most commercially available foods for the condition would be too high in fat. High fat would mean that Binky would have trouble losing weight, and could also worsen her pancreatitis.
If anyone could solve the puzzle, it would be the specialists in the veterinary school's nutrition service, perhaps the largest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the nation.
UC-Davis trains more of these specialists than anywhere else in the country, and consults on cases from across the United States and Canada, said Andrea Fascetti, a veterinarian and associate professor of clinical nutrition. She runs the program.
Besides helping to develop special diets for sick or obese animal patients, scientists in the program study nutritional components of pet food and their effects on various species and health conditions. The service even develops "home-cooked diets" for pets that cannot or will not eat commercial foods.
"We can tweak things, and come up with something that you just can't get in a bag," said Fascetti.
Home cooking is generally regarded as a last resort, Fascetti said, since it requires more time, more trouble and generally more cost.
"But you would be surprised at how many people are willing to do home cooking for their pets," Fascetti said. "They do it because they love their animals."
In some cases, though, pet owners show their love in dubious ways. The nation's obesity epidemic has spread to our cats and dogs, and their health is suffering as a result, according to recent studies. The National Research Council reported last year that about 25 percent of dogs and cats are obese.
Like humans, overweight animals face an increased risk of diabetes, orthopedic problems, heart disease and other ailments. Overweight cats can develop skin conditions when they are unable to groom themselves properly. Overall, fat pets face lives that are uncomfortable and shorter, just as overweight people do.
Treating obese animals that otherwise are healthy can be as simple as feeding them less, giving them a commercial food that is lower in calories and fat, and making sure they get daily exercise. But pet owners should never put their animals on "crash diets," said Fascetti.
Obesity is one of the more common concerns of the animal patients treated by Fascetti and her nutrition-services team. They also consult with specialists in other departments about the dietary needs of dogs and cats that have kidney or liver failure, or have undergone gastrointestinal surgery or other procedures that alter their eating habits.
The nutrition team can recommend intravenous formulas for animals that cannot consume solid foods, or come up with meals to entice sick animals to eat.
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