America’s pets are fat, too

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Sydni Schieber with her three pets. (Andrew Stelzer/For WHYY)

Sydni Schieber with her three pets. (Andrew Stelzer/For WHYY)

A few weeks ago, Sydni Schieber got home to her small apartment in Berkeley, California. She opened the door excited to see her three loving pets — a dog and two cats.

Instead, she found a mess.

“The frosted flakes box is on the floor. It’s ripped to shreds,” Schieber said. “The bag’s ripped open and everyone in the house looks guilty. All three animals.”

Schieber took a video of the incident. It was the second time in a week. A few days earlier, she found her cat Penelope with her head inside a box of sugar cereal.

Schieber is very conscious about her pets’ nutrition, and now she no longer keeps cereal in the house. While it might seem funny, her animal’s diets are a serious issue — especially for her dog — an 11-year-old dachshund named Pepper.

When Schieber’s mother passed away a couple years ago, Pepper came to live with Schieber.

Pepper was obese on arrival. Tins full of cheese balls had been a part of her everyday diet.

“They had a Friday McDonald’s day, my parents. They would get McDonald’s and my dad would give her a piece of his burger. He’d give her French fries,” Schieber said.

“If he had ice cream, she’d sit there on the other side of him and would lick the ice cream. Like while he’s eating ice cream,” she said.

Pepper was lethargic. She didn’t want to go anywhere.

Schieber wasn’t having it. She put her on a diet, and got her outside — a little more each week. The only treats she gets are fresh fruits and veggies, like the occasional carrot. Pepper’s now muscular, healthy — completely different from the first nine years of her life

“That was a lot of her youth, so she would have been a very playful, active dog, but she couldn’t go on walks for an hour like she can now,” Schieber said.

Her parents cared about Pepper. They didn’t want her to be unhealthy, but Pepper still got fattening snacks.

Veterinarian Laura Fosbender hears this kind of story a lot.

“Food is love, so especially with pets, we look to them for companionship and for sort of uncomplicated relationships.” Fosbender said. “So, if you can slip them a treat every so often and it makes them happy, it makes you happy.”

The result is what many consider an epidemic. In the U.S., more than 100 million pets are overweight or obese, according to a 2017 study. At the University Veterinary Hospital in Berkeley, half of the patients come in needing some counseling on weight control.

Veterinarian Laura Fosbender exams Ellen Schwerin’s cat Lucy at the University Veterinary Hospital in Berkeley, California. (Andrew Stelzer/For WHYY)

It’s harder with multiple pets

On the morning I visit, Fosbender is seeing a family with three cats. One of them, a grey and white kitty named Lucy, is very obese. There’s a nine-point scale to measure body condition. One is way too skinny. Five is ideal. Lucy … is an eight.

Lucy’s owners, Ellen Schwerin and Aman Daro, are struggling to find a solution.

“She’s not losing any weight even though she’s on this restricted diet,” Ellen Schwerin says.

Schwerin and Daro bought a special pet feeder, and put a chip around each cat’s neck. The chip opens or closes the door on the feeder — and is supposed to regulate how much food each animal gets.

But Lucy has somehow learned how to game the system. She’s actually gained weight in the past year.

At her vet visit, the suggestions from the doctor include low calorie foods, or more regular feeding times. The general strategy is to reduce the number of calories consumed by 10 percent every month.

“An ideal weight is 10 to 11 pounds,” Fosbender says. “What I would aim for with her, it’s probably 12 pounds and then see where we’re at.”

“I know, that seems crazy!” exclaimed Schwerin, clearly frustrated about Lucy’s weight. “To lose four pounds?”

“It’s tricky because I can see she’s happy, and it’s sweet and she enjoys the eating. But at the same time we have to be parents and keep her in line,” Daro said. “So unfortunately some tough decisions are going to have to be made in her benefit.”

Those benefits are huge. Obese cats and dogs are at risk of kidney disease, heart failure, and spinal damage, among other health problems — some of the same ailments that affect obese humans.

Turns out pets and people are struggling with weight in America. More than half of Americans are also overweight.

Fosbender says this issue needs to be discussed more openly and with honesty.

“It is a struggle, you know, like I struggle with my weight. There’s other folks in here who struggle with their weight. The pet owner can sometimes have a struggle with the weight,” she said. “It can be a sensitive topic for people to talk about.”

I found the best evidence for how tough this issue is to address in the back room of the vet clinic, where I was introduced to a black and white kitty named Maui. Maui lives at the vet hospital, surrounded by knowledgeable professionals.

Fosbender explains that Maui has a feeding schedule and a weight log, “and yet, here we are … he’s not only a big cat, but he’s also a bit chunky.”

On the nine-point body scale, where one is skinny, and five is healthy. Maui … is a nine.

Maui’s feeding schedule at the University Veterinary Hospital in Berkeley, Calif. (Andrew Stelzer/For WHYY)

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