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It’s Complicated: People, Pets and Food

It’s no secret that obesity among pets has reached epidemic levels, just as it has in people. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s 2016 survey found an estimated 59 percent of U.S. cats are considered overweight or obese by their veterinarians. Many veterinarians attribute the rise in fat cat numbers to too much food, too many treats and too little activity; however, others believe the owner–pet relationship is at the heart of the issue.

The complicated relationship between cats, people, food and weight

According to Deborah Linder, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals, veterinarians now understand that pet obesity is as much about the human-animal bond as it is about the pet’s food bowl. The relationship between pet and owner influences many factors, ranging from why the pet was adopted to the use of food to indulge or reward our feline friends. The bond between pet and owner can also play an important role in feline weight management efforts.

Surveys of pet parents show the bond between owners and pets has evolved, with some pet parents developing a deep emotional and psychological bond with their cats. Instead of being “just a house cat” or one of several farm cats, many fabulous-and-feisty felines are now considered family members — whether serving as a way to “practice” for having children or as a substitute for a spouse or grown children who have moved on. Those pet parents who consider their cats as another member of the family allow them to sleep on the bed, buy holiday or birthday presents for them, or seek out only natural or organic pet food.

This tendency to humanize pets has contributed to the use of food as an acceptable way for cat owners to communicate and interact with their cats. Just as many human families celebrate special occasions and holidays with food-filled events, this tradition is often extended to include pets. Extra food, special treats and home-cooked meals are all used as demonstrations of love and affection. And just as these practices can cause us to pack on unwanted pounds, they also contribute to pet weight gain.

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Veterinary researchers have also found that cat owners may be unaware of their cat’s weight problem, with many pet parents failing to recognize that the difference between normal weight and overweight cats. Several studies have shown that owners may believe their pets to be of normal weight when they are in fact overweight or obese. Unfortunately, steps to stop weight gain or help a cat lose weight can’t be taken if the condition goes unrecognized.

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Finally, one study of cat owners found that owner attitudes toward activity differed. Owners of overweight cats played less with their cats than did the owners of normal-weight cats. In addition, owners of normal-weight cats more frequently used extra play time as a reward or treat than did owners of overweight cats.

Changing the food-is-love dynamic

We love to pamper our feline family members, and there’s nothing wrong with showing our affection for them. The bond that we have with our pets is an important part of pet ownership and may be the reason why we adopted a pet in the first place. While food and treats may be an important part of the human-animal bond, there are ways other than food that we can use to strengthen and support that bond. Activities that support the human-animal bond without adding calories can keep us from literally loving our cats to death.

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