Healthy Living with Harvey

POSTED 18 SEP 2003

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Fat: The constant struggle.

This is me, Harvey, looking at the cat door. I don't use this door much, but with a good shove I can still get through.

All Harvey photos courtesy © S.V. Medaris

One-quarter of our cats and dogs are obese. Who controls their food, anyway?
pear-shaped cat sits in front of small cat door, contemplating going through it © S.V. MedarisHi.
My humans call me Harvey, although I prefer to think of myself as an Egyptian god.

I wanted to thank The Why Files for lending me this page so I could tell you how to feed cats and dogs. Eating is a good thing -- even dogs know that. Being fed means someone worships you. It means you won't be hungry, at least for a few minutes.

Now we hear those killjoys at the National Research Council whining about obesity in cats and dogs. Well, maybe canines get fat. The only fat cats I know are busy sieving money out of thin air on Wall Street.

But these academic crum-bums, I mean humans, are kvetching that one-quarter of cats and dogs in Westernized societies are obese, which means they face some of the same health problems that affect obese people: diabetes, fatty livers, and so on.

You would think these pointy-heads would look at the bright side: If 25 percent of dogs and cats are obese, so are 30.5 percent of humans. At least, that's what my human servant, Sue, read at the American Obesity Association website while I was enjoying a serious nap.
photo of thin Great Dane. Quote reads: Time to think about the food bowl--Harvey. © s.v. Medaris
The bigwig human researchers looked at thousands of research studies, then wrote up a 450-page report. I'm too busy with my late mid-afternoon nap to read it, but these scientists say you can recognize an obese cat from the heavy fat deposits on its face, limbs and chest. If you look at a fat dog from above, the waist will be invisible, and you won't be able to feel its ribs.

Some solution!
But just a second. These stinkers in their precious university laboratories don't eat garbage for a living, like some dogs I know. They don't hunt mice, birds and house flies. And yet these smarty-pants have the chutzpah to tell us cats and dogs to slack off on the chow!

I say, if you wanna be a sleek, sophisticated kitty like me, you just need to follow a couple of simple rules.

Harvey's Health Advice
Article I:
Eat as often as possible.
Eat like there's no tomorrow.
Guilt trip your humans to keep the bowl chock full.

Article II:
Exercise as little as possible.
Exercise messes up your coat and can make your heart beat fast.
(If you're a cat, it's okay to yawn vigorously while transitioning from, say, the early mid-morning nap to the late mid-morning nap.)

cat in lap getting belly rub But the overpaid, over-educated honchos who spat out that research report don't quite see it that way. And they had such a stack of impressive degrees that I figured you'd want to know that cats make 12 to 20 trips to the food bowl (I'd call that a bare minimum). But no matter how strenuously your dog may stress the health benefits of eating every hour, adult dogs only need to eat once or twice a day. Hah!

If you're worried that your pet is, ahem, looking a bit "large-boned," put out less food and make sure your pet isn't snacking at the neighbor's. "People are responsible for what an animal eats," says John Gustafson, a veterinarian with the Westgate Pet Clinic in Madison, Wis. "If you reduce what it eats, that's the main line to the cat or dog's stomach."

While diets help most pets, if their owners stick to them, Gustafson says some animals need supplements of thyroid hormones to keep slim.

dead mouse illustrationBut what we eat also matters, not just how much. Cats descended from carnivores, and as the obesity-obsessed veterinary researchers remind us, "The particular chemistry and structure of the cat's gastrointestinal system is well-suited to digesting and absorbing nutrients from animal-based proteins and fats. Vegetarian diets can cause harmful deficiencies of certain essential amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins." (Maybe that's why we're such annoyingly picky eaters. I'd go out and hunt some birds and mice, but that would violate article II of Harvey's Health Advice.)

At any rate, Gustafson says cats benefit from eating stinky canned food. "We're learning that dry foods are not quite as good as we thought for cats. Being at the top of the food chain, they really thrive on higher protein diets." Dry foods, he says, contain various carbohydrates, and since we cats didn't evolve to metabolize carbs, they get stored as fat.

sleeping cat:  I'm pupcat, and this is my mid-mid-morning nap. I'm one of the 75 percent of cats that doesn't need a "relaxed fit" collar. © David Tenenbaum

It kinda reminds me of the Atkins diet that so many of you humans natter about. "If you put a cat on canned food, with pure protein and lower carbohydrates, that seems to help regulate its weight," says Gustafson.

Ask anyone who has watched a mutt disembowel a juicy garbage can: Dogs descended from omnivores. So while dogs may prefer meat, they can survive on a vegetarian diet if it has enough protein and other nutrients. An active, 35-pound hound needs about 1,000 calories a day, but you can cut that by roughly 20 percent for an inactive dog.

Anyway, as Gustafson told me, young and middle-aged dogs are easier to trim down, because they are always happy to get some exercise. We cats, however, are less talented in the obedience department.

grey and white cat touches front paws to hind feet
Who sez cat's don't exercise? I touch my toes almost every (yawn) day!

Food issues? We got a right to them, too
At least the bigwigs admitted that dogs, like cats, sometimes have individual food preferences.

"Exposure to certain flavors and textures of food early in life can shape strong preferences later on, as can meal temperature, odor, texture and taste."

I agree. Scientists used to scoff at the idea that we animals have emotions, but I think you've gotta consider the inner pet. For example, we former strays who have come in out of the cold always worry if this meal is our last meal. Can you blame us for freaking out when we see the bottom of the food bowl? Can you blame us for having "food issues"?

-- Harvey, as told to David TenenbaumGiant Harvey with Dave under his paw

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