By Dr. Becker
A study published last year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior on “stress-induced and emotional eating in animals”1 has caused a bit of an uproar at the British Veterinary Association.
The study, authored by veterinarian Dr. Franklin McMillan -- currently of the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, and formerly of the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine in California -- does draw what some might consider rather fanciful conclusions as to why so many companion animals today are overweight or obese.
Per Dr. McMillan’s study abstract:
“… because emotional eating is a coping mechanism, overeating may be a sign that an animal's psychological well-being is impaired.”
According to the U.K. Telegraph, “Rather like Bridget Jones, the fictional singleton who finds comfort from her relationship difficulties by eating, vets believe some pets use food as a ‘coping mechanism’ to cope with ‘emotional distress’.”
The study suggests a number of factors that might trigger “emotional eating” in pets, including boredom, anxiety and depression.
Do Pets Engage in “Emotional Eating”?
Dr. McMillan attempts to prove in his study that animals, like humans, can eat too much not because they are hungry, but as a result of “disinhibition,” meaning the pet is overeating in response to non-hunger related stimuli, for example, stress. He cites studies that show some animals who are overfed do not overeat, and other studies that show an association between stress, negative emotions, and eating.
What Dr. McMillan proposes for owners of overweight pets is that they try to understand the causes of the presumed emotional distress their pet is experiencing. He suggests that simply cutting back on the amount of food a pet is fed could worsen the situation by taking away his “coping mechanism” and making him even more unhappy and hungrier.
“The bottom line is that there is a ton of evidence in humans and animals like rodents that stress induced eating, or emotional eating is a very real thing and contributes to obesity, so we should be looking at it in pet animals,” says McMillan. “If this is a major factor in our pet animals, then the standard approach, by simply yanking away their food, is very misguided and potentially harmful.”
McMillan believes that rather than simply cutting back on meal portions and increasing a pet’s exercise, owners and veterinarians should address underlying emotional problems.
The British Veterinary Association is Uncomfortable with McMillan’s Advice
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has spoken out against Dr. McMillan’s research conclusions, claiming they reinforce the wrongheaded notion that food equals love … that giving your pet more food than she needs is a way of showing her you care.
President-elect of the BVA, Robin Hargreaves, feels that while McMillan’s research may have merit, the concluding advice he offers is worrisome. According to Hargreaves:
"Animals do have emotional needs. You can't get away from that. But the biggest problem relating to pet obesity, is human behavior, rather than animal behavior. This advice gives an excuse to people who do not want to stop feeding their pets. My fear is that owners will latch onto this and say 'my animal needs this amount of food because of his emotional needs.' People clutch at straws because they would rather do anything than stop feeding their pet and this advice is manna to them.
"It can be hard to resist that hungry look from your dog and too easy to substitute real attention and interaction for treats, but it's in the pet's best interests to get it right."
Extra Calories Are a Poor Substitute for the Attention, Affection and Activity Your Pet Yearns For
I certainly agree that today’s companion animals deal with more forms of stress than ever before, and that like many people, given the opportunity pets may eat to ease feelings of boredom, loneliness, or anxiety.
But unlike their human owners, pet dogs and cats do not ultimately control how much food they are fed … or how much exercise they get … or whether they are provided opportunities to play and socialize and be mentally stimulated.
In my view, an overfed pet doesn’t need a psych evaluation as much as he needs portion-controlled meals, a few healthy treats, regular aerobic exercise, and adequate daily interaction with and attention from his human family.
When it comes to keeping a pet healthy in body and mind, extra food and treats are a poor substitute for species-appropriate nutrition, physical activity, mental stimulation, attention and affection. In fact, a study2 published in 2011 concluded that the dog owners with the highest levels of oxytocin – the body’s “morale molecule” or “hug hormone” – had three things in common. They kissed their pet frequently, they viewed their relationship with their dog as pleasurable rather than a chore, and they offered fewer treats to their pet. In other words, they didn’t substitute food for attention and affection for their dog. And their dogs had elevated levels of oxytocin as well!
Holiday-Proofing Your Pet
Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and the holiday season in general brings certain hazards for pets, including overeating, and eating people food that can be potentially toxic. For example:
- Grapes and raisins are often featured in holiday recipes, and both can lead to kidney failure for your dog. It is thought cats are also at risk, however, your cat isn’t likely to try to eat either of these fruits.
- The artificial sweetener xylitol, which is often found in gum, mints and other candies, and baked goods, is also toxic to your dog. It can cause internal hemorrhaging and liver failure.
- The chemical in chocolate (and cocoa) that is toxic to pets is theobromine, a caffeine-like compound. And the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it contains, so be especially careful when using bakers and semi-sweet chocolate. Espresso beans dipped in chocolate can be a double dose of poison since they contain both caffeine and theobromine.
- Uncooked baking dough containing yeast, if ingested by your dog or cat, can “rise,” causing serious discomfort as well as potential rupture of your pet’s stomach or bowel.
- Be sure to keep foods fresh from the oven or stovetop, especially meat drippings, soups, gravies and other fragrant hot liquids, away from the edges of your stove and countertops to prevent a scalding accident.
- Ham, turkey and fish bones can splinter as your pet chews them, causing them to stick in the throat or tear the tissues of your dog’s or cat’s intestines.
- Around the holidays, your kitchen garbage can may seem like a smorgasbord to your dog or cat. Paper and string soaked in meat or other food juices is one hazard. Raw meat infected with bacteria or parasites is another. Make sure all your trash containers are either out of reach of your pet or have secure fitting lids.