Pet Peeves: What to do if your pet is a comfort eater

Lynsey Kitching


Just like people animals too have fast metabolisms, big appetites, little appetites, but is it possible our pet is using food at a crutch to their emotions? As a pet owner, how do we know when to leave the bowl empty?

Lately in the news, veterinarians have been at war over a concept called emotional eating. With an abundance of obese pets in Canada, veterinarians are at odds in how to manage pet eating habits. Do you just say no, or do you try and find the root of the problem?

The Province reports a leading veterinarian in Britain has spoken out about claims in The Sunday Telegraph that many pets were becoming obese by comfort eating to cope with emotional distress.

The study reported suggested that owners should try to understand the causes of this turmoil rather than simply reducing the amount of food they give pets. Such a course of action, it said, could even make the animals unhappier — and even hungrier.

“Robin Hargreaves, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association argues that it reinforces the ‘mistaken view’ that ‘giving extra food to your pets is a way of showing that you love them,” wrote The Province.

Hargreaves says, “Animals do have emotional needs. You can’t get away from that. But the biggest problem relating to pet obesity is human behaviour, rather than animal behaviour. This advice gives an excuse to people who do not want to stop feeding their pets. My fear is that owners will latch on to this and say ‘my animal needs this amount of food because of his emotional needs.”

Recent studies show that over 50 percent of dogs and cats are 15 to 30 pounds greater in weight than their ideal body weight in Canada. “I believe because of our lifestyle as humans, we’re not maybe eating the best or not exercising the best, our pets suffer because of the lifestyle changes us humans have,” says Michele Dixon, health and nutrition specialist for Petcurean. “I think the main cause is that people relate feeding their animals to loving their animals, the old ‘killing with kindness’ it’s actually true,” says Dixon.

She thinks the idea that animals are eating out of depression or anxiety is actually the opposite of how dogs and cats cope with their emotions. “The reverse is true, when they are stressed they don’t eat, especially for a lot of pets, they eat when their humans are around. If depression is coming up, most of the time pets just won’t eat,” she says.

Dixon explains most animals have a mechanism in their head that tells them how much they need to eat. “For a pet that doesn’t have that mechanism,” she says, “because you are the one who is responsible for the wellbeing of the pet, it is important to know that calories fed keep the pet at the idea body weight.”

So why do we feed so much? Though there isn’t one answer for every person, Dixon points out that some pet owners are humanizing their furry friend. She says, “The difficulty people have, is it makes them feel good to feed their animal. With animals that are bottomless pits, there is no end in sight and you’ll never get it right.”

A way to find out if your pet is overweight is to consult a body scoring condition chart on the internet or visit your veterinarian.

As a nutritionist, Dixon advises more exercise and to cut down on the amount of food you are feeding your pet. “If they are [overweight], you would reduce the amount of food they are eating by 20 percent and then check again in a couple of weeks to a month. The most important thing to remember is they eat according to activity level as well as growth stage, if activity is less, the food will be less.”

Remember to factor in treats as food. “Forget the cookies, especially with dogs; they love raw carrots, squash and green beans; helps to give them something to eat with not a lot of calories.”

She also advises for cats to give them a treat ball, which rolls around as the animal pushes it and the food drops out. “Overweight cats are not uncommon. It decreases lifespan, is difficult on their joints, and with cats in particular, increases their chance of diabetes. It should be addressed; it is a ticking time bomb. The best thing to promote weight loss in cats is grain-free low-carb canned food, if they won’t eat it, low-carb high-protein dry food,” advises Dixon.