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Obese Grizzly Bears Lose Hundreds of Pounds on Natural Diet

Grizzly Bear

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the best-selling book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, the author, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, tells the fascinating story of how zoo nutritionists helped two captive Alaskan grizzlies drop hundreds of excess pounds.
  • Zoo veterinarians switched the bears’ diets from processed food and supermarket produce to food closer to what they would eat in the wild. They also built challenges into feeding times that required the bears to exert effort to find and consume their meals.
  • The principles used in this successful grizzly bear weight loss study can be easily applied to helping an overweight dog or cat slim down.

By Dr. Becker

Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist and professor at UCLA, has written a best-selling book, Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health with co-author Kathryn Bowers.

According to Daphne Miller writing for the New York Times, the book "offers a cross-species perspective on a range of human health problems," and addresses a variety of human conditions that also plague the animal world, including breast cancer, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction and heart attacks.

How to Put an Alaskan Grizzly Bear on a Diet

One really interesting chapter in Zoobiquity tells the story of two Alaskan grizzlies living at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The bears, named Jim and Axhi, had grown obese in captivity on a diet of processed dog food, ground beef, loaves of bread, oranges, bananas, mangos and iceberg lettuce.

(Please note: I am not in favor of keeping wild animals in captivity, except for purposes of conservation or in cases where an animal cannot survive on its own in the wild. I am not advocating keeping bears in zoo habitats. I do, however, advocate feeding species-appropriate nutrition to all captive and domesticated animals, which is the subject of this article.)

Veterinarians recognized that the bears' zoo environment, including their diet, was at odds with their biology and innate behaviors, so they developed more natural ways for Jim and Axhi to eat.

The bears were offered seasonal plants and animal protein that were closer to what they would find in the wild, including kale, peppers, celery and heirloom apples, all of which provided additional fiber and seeds. Whole prey, including rabbits and fish, replaced the ground beef. Not only was the prey species-appropriate, the grizzlies had to exert some effort to pull it apart and devour it.

The bears' caretakers also stopped feeding on a set schedule. Instead, they hid meals and added tender, plump waxworms to forage piles so Jim and Axhi had to work to find their food and special treats.

I'm happy to report that "nature's weight management plan" (as Natterson-Horowitz calls it) for the grizzlies was a smashing success. Jim and Axhi lost hundreds of pounds over a year's time.

'Nature's Weight Management Plan' and Your Pet

One of the things author Natterson-Horowitz realized in writing about the grizzlies was that animals – including humans -- have a natural tendency to stockpile food. By limiting an animal's abundance of food, we curb the tendency to eat too much and too often. This is why I always recommend feeding pets portion-controlled meals vs. an all-day all-they-can-eat-buffet (also called free feeding), as well as feeding balanced, species-appropriate meals.

Zoo nutritionists also tried to make the bears' enclosures bigger and added distractions so eating wasn't their only hobby. This is also an excellent tip for pet owners with a dog or cat who seems constantly hungry. Environmental enrichment, including plenty of exercise and social interaction, is a great cure for boredom and stress-related behavior problems.

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