So some research came out years back that identified that larger-bodied people tend to have larger-bodied pets, too. This study has been often quoted as strong evidence that having more body fat is primarily environmental, as of course, our pets are not genetically related to us.
Ok, sure. My cat is not technically my child, and many people love their pets like their children, including loving them with food. And we are the providers for our pets, putting much of the responsibility upon us for what and how much of it that they eat.
On the other hand, as with humans, pets are shaped by formative experiences, and these are not entirely in our control. If a kitten is denied plentiful food, it is likely to have a larger, more insatiable appetite. If a puppy’s mother was underfed, the puppy is born into a state of scarcity, and this can be seen as food anxiety even when it’s a full grown dog.
I bring this up, in part, to explain why I have a cat that has weighed as much as 22 pounds. Opie is a big boy with a hanging belly and deep-seeded belief that he is starving. I am not in the habit of feeding him human food. I also do not regularly give him cat treats, not even the kinds that supposedly brush his teeth or provide hairball relief or sundry other feline nutraceuticals. So how do I make sense of his obesity?
When I adopted Opie, he was already an adult. I’m not sure of his exact age, but I’d guess he was about two years old. He weighed 15 pounds, which was a little chunky, but mostly made him feel like a cuddly kitty. I wasn’t worried about it, and I giggled at the instructions from the Humane Society suggesting that I put him on a restricted calorie diet, since he was already “overweight.”
And thus began years of fat-shaming for Opie, and thereby for me, by veterinarians “only concerned about his health.” You see, I think this is the downside of the previously-discussed research. It placed the notion firmly in the public’s mind that fat pets equals flawed owners. (This is the first law of fat bias: fat equals flawed.) While I have been close to “normal” weight for most of the time I’ve owned Opie, I’m not a small person, and I could feel the implied judgement as I was asked what I feed him, how much do I feed him, and how often do I play with him so he gets some exercise? And all these questions place the responsibility firmly on me.
And what do I feed him? He gets carefully measured and portioned servings of kibble. It comes from an automated pet feeding machine, because otherwise he begs for food at three in the morning. Food for the other cats is locked away behind feeders with chip-readers, so only those cats can eat from them. If I left the food out, Opie would eat it all immediately. Apparently, Opie does not live with the reassurance that if he leaves it for later, it will be there.
I also give him one sixth of a can of canned cat food in the evening. He ends up eating about half that much again, because he wolfs down his own portion and then bullies my other cats to leave before they’ve finished their own. Sometimes, I put them in separate rooms, in which case Opie runs around frantically, searching for the extra food he knows is there somewhere.
So, Opie eats too much, but it isn’t because I’m soft-hearted, or simply repeating the same “gluttonous” patterns that I have in my own life. He’s desperately certain that he is hungry. All. The. Time. And while I agree that having a 22 pound cat isn’t good for him, I’m not willing to restrict him to the point of such anxiety that he’s endlessly panicked and “explaining” to me how hungry he is. It is ok with me if he stays a little chunky, if that means he’s mostly content. Slow reductions over the years means he’s dropped down to about 17 pounds. He begs for canned food in the evenings, and it’s annoying, but otherwise, he mostly acts like a happy kitty.
So, he’s a work in progress. And I wish the veterinarians could see it that way, too. But I think they’re too blinded by their own fat biases. This is how I imagine their thinking: right now, Opie is fat. Fat is bad. I am a bad cat owner because I’ve let him be fat.
Which reminds me of another study that came out not so long ago in which something like 30% of new PE teachers said that the worst thing that could happen to a kid is that they be fat. The worst thing. And there was another study that said that a lot of former fat people agreed with that sentiment—most of them said that they would rather lose a limb than go back to being fat. It is no wonder that folks are deeply concerned that I’m letting my cat be so fat, when fatness is so deeply undesirable.
But it does surprise me that fat bias extends to my cat in this manner. After all, he’s just a cat. He doesn’t know he’s fat. He’s not aware if he’s being treated differently because of his size. He doesn’t have to go through the shame of bathing suit shopping or being repeatedly rejected on an online dating site.
Which really puts a hole in the argument that people with fat bias are just concerned about “educating” fat people, that it is a measure of their concern that gives them permission to shame, judge and ridicule. I know Opie would be healthier if he were smaller, but he does not. My cat is actually, genuinely, ignorant and will remain so. Because Opie doesn’t care that he is fat, and it doesn’t phase him. He has no ability to perceive cause and effect. And in the short term, there are very few meaningful consequences to him being fat. He’s still young enough to get around fairly easily. He likes lazing about and watching the world go by. As long as his needs are being met, it truly does not impact his life. And I do not value personifying his needs in the form of overly-restrictive dietary control.
All this energy towards reduction in cat fatness seems deeply out of proportion to the severity of the problem. In my experience, if I avoid feeding a pet human food and other treats, most of them will regulate their appetites acceptably. Occasionally, I encounter an animal who doesn’t seem able to do this. Usually, after a little time in food abundance, s/he finds a contented level of consumption, and they slow down. Maybe they’re fatter than “ideal,” but they don’t endlessly pack on the pounds. Opie is my first pet who hasn’t done this, and I feel completely ok with the solutions and balance we found to help him manage. Will it shorten his life if I don’t get him to be svelte? Maybe. But it isn’t worth it to me to worry about it. I want him to be a happy kitty. If I manage to help reduce his size to something considered more medically appropriate, great, but if not, he’s got a good life in the meantime. I’m not going to let fat bias define how I care for him, or define what kind of pet owner I am. He and I are good just the way we are.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.