On hand-fed pets and the human role in pet obesity

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: November 30, 2008
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Yesterday’s patient was a well-fed Shih-tzu. About four years old, this little specimen of her breed was the picture of health—except for the prominent pudge about her waistline. When questioned about her diet, by way of treading delicately in the direction of her “excess baggage,” her owner fessed up to little Chi-chi’s problem with food:

“Doctor, she just does not like to eat. I have to hand feed her at every meal.”

OK, so this conversation was NOT going in the direction I’d expected. Instead of the, “I know she’s a bit on the plump side,” confession I was trying to extract (this is how I gain entry to the subject in most cases), this owner was concerned that her fat pet was too thin.

So you know, hand-fed pets are not uncommon in my practice. Owners of pets who may be fat, thin or perfectly proportioned will often surprise me with their interesting explanations as to why Fluffy needs extra hand-holding at mealtime.

It’s not a modern phenomenon, this hand-feeding thing. After all, Marie Antoinette famously fed her pooches with her fingertips. It does, however, seem to be more common among all classes these days, now that pets pervade all socioeconomic groups in most so-called, “developed” nations.

It seems a humanization thing, or a close-connection thing—perhaps even a “love” thing in an Italian mother sort of a way (food IS love in many cultures, you know). My Cuban-American roots help inform me of this latter perspective, to which I too fall prey (why else would I so enjoy cooking for my dogs?).

But there’s more here than meets the eye, especially when it comes to our commonly warped view of what normal eating behavior might be among our canine and feline family members.

In this latest case of hand-fed nonsense (and I’ll always consider it such in an otherwise healthy pet), the owner’s take on her pet’s body image didn’t quite meet the rail-thin Vogue standard she clearly kept for herself (high heels, skinny jeans and Miami-tight cashmere sweater). What’s up with that?

It seems that pudgy pets are considered the new normal for many pet owners. Indeed, most of my hand fed patients are rarely thin creatures that must be tempted to eat (though this more understandable version is also out there).

No, these pets are usually the animals that self-regulate their food intake in a normal way. They’re not the chocolate Labs with abnormal food consumption drives. They’re not the perpetually-ravenous rescue dogs with artificially induced, must-eat-now-lest-I-never-see-another-meal behaviors.

Nope. These are mostly normal animals with confused, coddling owners behind their strange, adversarial relationship to food.

They’re easy to spot—once the owner fesses up to the behavior. But it’s much harder to fix than you would think.

“Just let her eat what she wants for one week. Let’s see what happens,” was my take this time.

“But, Doctor, she won’t eat anything! Maybe she’ll eat a half a cup and that’s all! She’ll get sick.”

Hmmm…I didn’t go to vet school to practice psychology. Too bad I didn’t take a minor in this subject, I often muse. Perhaps then I’d be better equipped to help my patients when it’s clear their biology has nothing to do with what really ails them.