Several years ago, I overheard my wife checking in a new client at the front desk. She took a detailed patient history that included vaccine history, heartworm prevention status, recurring medical problems, and diet. It soon became obvious that to this gentleman, a muscle-bound hulk of an individual, “diet” was a four-letter word.
“My dog’s diet is fine,” he growled as he loomed over the desk, “And as long as you’re writing down the story of her life, let me make something clear. My dog is fat. I know she’s fat. She’s fat because she’s loved, and I don’t wanna hear any crap from you people about it. Half the children in this country are fat. Their parents love them, and I doubt their pediatricians lecture them about how they feed their kids. So write this in your chart - don’t fat shame my pet! And make sure you tell that doctor of yours, ‘cuz I don’t wanna hear it from him either!”
Our clinic is small. Rants such as this are often heard by the entire staff - and this one was no exception. A collective gasp went up from my staff, and all eyes turned to me. To intervene, or not to intervene? I checked the security cameras to see if my wife needed help. What I saw instead was an impish grin, that after ten years of marriage, I recognized as the look that meant “this is going to be fun!”
I leaned back in my chair, wishing I had some popcorn - air popped and unsalted, of course.
“First of all,” Lynn began, “I’m pretty sure pediatricians talk to parents of overweight kids about the dangers of childhood obesity. Second of all, fat shaming is a form of bias and discrimination against people. It’s an unfair social attitude towards people who may be overweight for all sorts of complex reasons. But Pepper isn’t a person. And I’m willing to bet her life is not that complicated. She doesn’t know some foods are bad for her, and she can’t speak for herself. That’s where we come in. What you call fat shaming, we call doing our jobs. So while I promise we won’t be jerks, and we won’t belabor the point, we will do our jobs. And you need to let that happen. Capisce?”
Amazingly, we kept the client. He stuck with us through an orthopedic surgery, and a particularly harrowing case of pancreatitis (pork rinds - yum!). When Pepper’s size brought on crippling arthritis, we had to have yet another uncomfortable talk. This one involved fully disclosing the long term side effects of the drugs needed to relieve her pain. He understood. He wanted her to be happy.
Pepper belonged to a breed of dog well-known for energy and longevity. She experienced neither. The time to help her cross the Rainbow Bridge came way too soon. When she took her last breath, her owner broke down, shaking with sobs that wracked his entire body. My whole team was either in tears, or fighting them. When Pepper’s dad walked out the door, he left behind an eerie silence. For some reason, I felt obligated to break it.
“He loved that little dog,” I said.
Then one of my nurses hit me with a question to which I have yet to find an answer:
“Yeah, but...what kind of love does nothing?”
Whenever I meet with colleagues, I hear all-too-familiar grumblings. Ugh...the fat talk. Clients hate the fat talk. Truth be told we hate the fat talk! But given that 90-95% of clients with overweight pets perceive their pet’s body type as normal, it’s a talk we need to have. That extra weight can lead to diabetes, liver problems, hypertension, cardiac issues, joint pain, orthopedic injuries, increased anesthetic risk, arthritis - bottom line, it shortens their lives. It decreases their overall quality of life, and those last few precious years with them are often marked by suffering. I’ve heard all sorts of objections: a fat pet is a happy pet...I can’t say no to that face...food shows him how much I love him... but he’s just so cute this way.
No. Just no.
A client once told me I should stop implying she was somehow killing her pet, that her choices were none of my business. If you’re on her side, I’m here to tell you and believe me, I don’t want to, that you are killing your pet. And someday, you too will ask a veterinarian to help you make a difficult and heartbreaking decision.
None of our business? Um, yeah, actually it is.
I’ve written a lot on this topic in the past year. By now you should be able to tell if your pet is overweight. We’ve talked about the difference between hunger and food drive, and the marketing machine that promotes overfeeding, and spends billions of dollars promoting calorie-laden treats.
Ask the veterinarian who best knows your pet what kind of food he should be eating, and in what amounts. Give small, healthy treats sparingly, and as a reward for actually doing something. Substitute food with praise and activity. Play games that require your pet to move and burn calories.
If you’ve checked all those boxes and your pet is still overweight, it’s time for a veterinary visit. Just like their human counterparts, dogs and cats sometimes develop medical problems that can wreak havoc on their metabolisms. Hypothyroidism, diabetes, and Cushing’s disease are just a few of the reasons your pet may be slowing down and plumping up. When caught early, these conditions can be managed with minimal hassle and expense.
So if you find yourself on the receiving end of a veterinary “fat talk”, please don’t get angry. It’s awkward for us too, and most of us would love to just let it slide. We know you love your pet. That’s why we want to make sure he stays with you for as long as possible. We’re here to help, so if you need help, by all means ask for it! We don’t care how your fur-kid looks. We care about his health. And if ever we do resort to fat shaming, guess what?
Fluffy. Will. Not. Care. Chances are, he’ll be checking us out, wondering how he can hit us up for a treat.
And who knows? If everyone behaves, we might just give him a little, teeny tiny one!
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.
Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email.
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