Even our pets aren’t safe from fat-phobia mis-diagnoses.

KC writes:

I don’t know if you’re interested in pet stories, but I was pretty mad, and saddened, that fatphobia even means that our PETS can’t get good health care! My cat died earlier this year at the age of 15. About two years before she died, I took her to the vet for a UTI, and I also asked about my cat’s weight. She weighed only 7 pounds as an adult, was quite bony under all her fluff, and also threw up a couple times a week, and I was concerned that maybe her weight was low, and wanted to ask if she might have nutritional deficiencies. The vet’s reply? Verbatim: “She’s just petite. Trust me, the last thing you want is an overweight cat!” I left really annoyed for two reasons: first, I’d rather have a fat cat than a lot of other things. It’s not the last thing I’d want at all. It wouldn’t be doomsday. And I’m certain my cat would be really wonderful whether she was fat or skinny or somewhere in between. Second, I’ve recovered from an eating disorder (unless being “overweight” now means I haven’t recovered, according to some people), but when I went to the doctor several times, 20 pounds underweight (and with low blood pressure, orthostatic hypotension, anemia, and osteopenia – all of which were related to anorexia), my doctor never once suggested I gain weight! She just told me to take calcium and iron supplements. At the time of the vet appointment, I was at a “normal/thin” weight but actively struggling with bulimia. Comments like this just reinforced my fear of gaining weight.

A year later, having lost another pound (my cat was now 6 pounds), a different vet correctly diagnosed her with hypothyroid disease, which was causing all kinds of problems, including the weightloss and kidney failure. She died a few months later at just 5 pounds. But I guess I should be grateful, because, as the vet so kindly informed me, the last thing I want is an overweight cat.

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14 Comments

  1. I used to work in a petstore and I firmly absorbed the message that fat in a pet is a death sentence. Personally, I’m still out on whether or not this is true. While a little extra fat can help an animal survive lean times and disease, our pets aren’t wild anymore and not that active (speaking generally here). They’re not out hunting or wandering their expansive territories anymore, they’re loafing on sofas and getting taken for walks a few times a week. They’ve evolved to be lean, mean, hunting machines. I doubt that animals with a strong genetic disposition towards obesity lived all that long, so their genes werent’ passed on. The extra pounds add up really fast on a smaller animal and can, IMO and experience, do some real damage fast. With people, it’s a little different; we’ve evolved way passed the animal stage (though we are still animals, technically speaking) and have many many reasons other than a rich diet and inactivity to account for the varied sizes and shapes of humanity.

    Y’know? This is really getting long, and kinda interesting. I wonder if anyone’s done any (unbiased) studies on fat and our pets, besides one that automatically conclude, as I have, that fat is just plain bad for pets. I think I’ll turn this into a post at my own blog.

    Reply
    • Ama

       /  September 21, 2009

      A genetic disposition towards obesity isn’t necessarily a deleterious one. The ability to put on weight quickly is useful if you live in an unstable environment, where food is in irregular supply. It may even be that humans still carry such tendencies because we’re really not that far into the age of domestication. Agriculture is comparatively new technology in terms of generation time.

      It is true that our pets are no longer wild but they’re not entirely domesticated in many cases, either. Your average domestic cat or dog can easily go feral and be as active as any truly wild animal. I would like to see some studies that actually name these negative effects on health because if they don’t exist, it is possible that we’re just projecting our ideas of health onto our pets. No one was saying you could be too fat when Reuben was doing his thing. I’ve known some fat cats that never seemed to be slowed down by it at all… I’ve also known a fat dog that did have some serious difficult getting around. So it’s bothersome that a vet, someone who had to hit some serious books to get where they are, would just ignore a concern because skinny is what the culture promotes.

      Reply
  2. My parents firmly refuse to let their cat get fat. Which, IMHO is stupid, because the cat will occasionally EAT NOTHING because he has lost his sens of smell due to sinus infections and then lose a ton of weight. Oh but we don’t want to “over feed” our emaciated cat, he might get fat! it hurts my brain.

    Reply
  3. Eve

     /  September 21, 2009

    I’ve seen posts on various blogs where people talk about how they have two cats, and one is thin and one is fat even though they eat the same amount of food and run around the same amount. It seems to me that it would be as hard to regulate a cat’s weight as it is to regulate a person’s.

    Also, it’s odd how hypothyroid disease appears to make cats lose weight, but people gain weight. My cat had hypothyroid as well and he got really skinny and refused to eat. It was really scary. For a while the only thing he would eat was meat baby food.

    I think you had a really ignorant vet. Of course unexplained weight loss in an animal is a warning sign, just as with people. And with small animals, a relatively small reduction in weight can signal a severe problem. In my experience, vets seem to be more cognizant of that than human doctors are, but clearly the person you saw had absorbed the diet culture.

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  4. I’m one of those people with two cats where one is thin and the other is extremely well padded. Both have access to the same amount and type of food, neither one seems to eat much (although the thin one is more inclined to beg for treats than the fat one). It’s a mystery.

    As for the evolving to be lean, mean, hunting machines. . . I’d argue that the beasts that had genes that stored energy (i.e., fat) were more likely to pass those genes along than the beasts that did not. Why? Because hunting is a very uncertain way to survive — some days you gorge, many days you go hungry. The fat cat would have the reserves to survive the times when game was scarce; the skinny cat would not.

    Reply
  5. Andy Jo

     /  September 21, 2009

    My cat Pepe died in 2006 at the age of 19. He was fat his entire life. Once we put him on a diet, and he was less active in order to keep his weight constant. The most he ever lost was a few ounces. He was just destined to be a fat cat, and past that one diet episode, we just fed him (and all of the others) a reasonable amount. The pride has (and had) skinny cats, fat cats, and in-between cats.

    As I said, he was 19 when he died at home, well-loved and cared for. 19 is a good age for ANY pet. Absent any problem which causes un-natural weight-gain, a fat cat might just be fat because those are its genes. That vet was insensitive and ignorant.

    –Andy Jo–

    Reply
  6. A friend of mine restricts her cat’s food for fear that the cat will overeat and get fat. She will not allow the cat to feed freely; never has. She’s had her since the cat was a kitten.I can hear the cat meowing and meowing in the background when we’re on the phone, and my friend says, “She’s crying for food, but it’s not time yet.” Can’t feed the cat until 8:00, or else! May I just add that the cat has never been “overweight,” whatever that is for a cat–it’s a total projection of my friend’s food issues. That’s very poor animal stewardship and inhumane, in my opinion.

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  7. Having a vet dismiss an emaciated cat as “better than having a fatso” is disgusting! I encouraged my husband to drop a doctor who, on first meeting, looked at his weight, and a BMI chart, and said “you need to drop 50lb”, without knowing anything else about his health.

    We also have one lean and one rotund cat. Spayed females tend to have more body fat than neutered males. We had problems when the boy needed special food so his kidneys wouldn’t shut down, and it was very calorie dense, so his sister gained weight, ran around less, and couldn’t clean herself properly. We thought it was just her not being a kitten any more, but now they’re both on some indoor pet formula she’s lost that excess and is energetic again. She’s a fat kitty, a healthy energetic fat kitty who likes to trampoline off my bladder in the middle of the night.

    Reply
  8. catgal

     /  September 21, 2009

    I have to agree with Rosemary above. That vet did you and your cat wrong. I am so sorry to hear that you lost your cat. Once I wondered if I should put the family cat on a diet as she was getting very “padded” in her old age. My father said something like, oh c’mon, she’s a cat, let her enjoy her food. I can understand that there are real medical reasons why you may want to cat to loose a bit, but you have to remember that for a cat a pound is like 20% of their body weight and they can get dagerously thin very quickly.

    Reply
  9. OOPS!!! My cat was diagnosed with HypERthyroid disease, not hypO! Which does frequently cause weightloss. What gets me is that doctors (and apparently some vets, too!) rarely see weightloss as a problem. And at least in my experience, they’d rather me be underweight than overweight, even though my health is terrible at a low weight and just fine at a higher weight.

    honestly I know very little about weight variations in animals and how that is or isn’t related to their health. But I do think it’s inexcusable to say it’s better to be emaciated than fat, whether we’re talking about humans or pets. In general, my emaciated friends have been much less healthy than my fat friends, and I hear their are studies that demonstrate there is higher mortality in the underweight category than any other.

    Reply
  10. *there not their!

    Reply
  11. anon

     /  September 28, 2009

    IANAV. More importantly, if I were, I wouldn’t be YOUR vet. But as a true supporter of fat acceptance in HUMANS and someone with a background in veterinary education, I have to chime in with some relevant medical context.

    There are many, many times that people project their own body issues onto animals. KC’s vet also seems to have (which I say not because I think KC is misrepresenting events at ALL, but for CYA reasons) had the wrong end of the stick here. For one thing, elderly hyperthyroid cats are not unusual–I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the primary things vets look for in an older cat with mysterious WL. (Cancer and renal failure are the others.)

    However. Animals are not people. Off of the top of my head I can think of one neon-flashing-sign reason to monitor your cat’s weight and keep it lean if it’s possible: hepatic lipidosis. When animals get sick or are stressed, just like you and me, they often lose their appetites. If a cat suddenly stops or drastically curtails its food intake, and ESPECIALLY if it is overweight or obese, the ensuing mobilization of its fat stores is associated with what is called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). HL can be idiopathic, but *most* cases include a history of obesity with recent onset of anorexia.

    It is serious, expensive and time-consuming to treat (weeks to months to an entire year), and very, very painful, with a 30% mortality rate *when treated.* It is a terrible way to die. Once a cat stops eating, you cannot reason with it and beg it to choke down a few morsels for its health, and force-feeding by hand can stress an already ill cat out more, and exacerbate the disease–or diseases, if the trigger for anorexia was another disease process or disorder.

    Because of HL, my heart skips a beat when I see my kitty turn up her nose at more than one meal in a row.

    On the flip side, this is why you should introduce weight or general dietary changes slowly for pets: a crash diet for kitty–or a kitty that doesn’t like its new food–risks exactly the same problem. Hence: putting human body issues (whether espousing more ‘fat acceptance’ without having an understanding of feline physiology or medicine, or insistence on having an ‘aesthetically skinny’ cat, even if that means starving the animal) onto our beloved companions is terrible all around.

    You can read more about hepatic lipidosis here:

    http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1+2135&aid=217

    Reply
  12. Jack

     /  October 14, 2009

    Thanks to anon for the info on hepatic lipidosis. I was a vet tech for the past five years and weight gain/loss in pets is always a major concern. One of the biggest reasons vets tend to take it so seriously is that the animal usually isn’t in control of its food intake. It’s the owner’s responsibility to provide a healthy, balanced diet (which requires a lot more than most people are willing to do, judging by average pet food sales numbers) and make sure the pet eats it.

    A cat’s metabolism, in particular, is extremely fragile. 24 hours of starvation can trigger hepatic lipidosis. When I worked in an animal shelter, this was one of our deadliest enemies when in-taking older, heavier cats. The stress of losing their owner and home would keep them from eating (cats are much, much more likely than dogs to starve themselves) and the results could be devastating. Force-feeding usually isn’t an option because of the additional stress, so a feeding tube is often surgically placed in the wall of the abdomen. Expensive, slow, and with a poor prognosis, depending on the age of the patient and how quickly it was diagnosed. It should also be noted that diabetes in cats is much more strongly linked to obesity than it is in humans.

    —-

    All that aside, your vet made a grievous error in failing to test a 13/14 year old cat’s blood for hyperthyroidism, regardless of body condition. It’s just something you do. It’s incredibly common in elderly cats and treatment before physical signs appear greatly increases life span and quality of life. To be presented with an underweight (you never want to feel bones like that), elderly cat and not recommend the test ($80-140, not that expensive) is worthy of a complaint to the local veterinary board.

    Reply
  13. I have three elderly cats, one of whom is hyperthyroid.

    She was diagnosed at a normal checkup, when the vet looked at her and went ‘Chloe’s lost weight. I’d like to check her for hyperthyroidism.’ It’s one of the commonest of elderly cat complaints, and the easiest to treat, and I am heartbroken at the thought that your cat could die from it just because someone didn’t look past ‘good, she’s not fat’.

    I think I may buy my vet flowers or something. Because when she looked at a previously-fat cat who had become svelte she didn’t think ‘oh good’ she thought ‘this isn’t right’, and it seems that’s a harder train of thought than it should be.

    Reply

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