When Our Pets Get Too Much Holiday Spirit

[Ellie Kritzman wants some treats]The holiday season is upon us, despite my growing ire every time I see a Christmas display before Thanksgiving. (October 11 outside the Macy’s at Woodfield Mall was my first sighting.)

I think most of us are all too familiar with acquiring some “winter insulation” from holiday feasting. This happens to our pets, too. When I review a patient’s weights over the years, I routinely notice a pattern of hills and valleys of changes correlating to the seasons. Unfortunately, often the winter insulation doesn’t completely go away.

According to a 2016 study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 59% of cats and 54% of dogs in the United States are classified as overweight or obese. This is a year-round epidemic, but pets often pack on the pounds in the wintertime.

Winter Weight Gain

There are a lot of reasons for winter weight gain. One is simply that our pets, more specifically dogs, just get less exercise in the winter. Who wants to walk the dog in the dark, cold morning for 30 minutes, when just a few months earlier it was bright out and you could get away with wearing your pajama shorts and t-shirt? (Maybe that’s just me.)

And, we all know that pathetic look Fluffy gives you when her paws get cold.

But more likely, just like studies of human weight management have reported, caloric intake plays a much larger role than activity does.

‘Food’ Does Not Equal ‘Love’

Most of us see food as love, and your dog does too. In fact, switching from free feeding to meal feedings can deepen the human-animal bond. That’s because then the animal connects you to their food source. We might as well use the term “primary food giver” instead of “pet owner.”

From there it’s an easy step to “If I give Fluffy more yummy food, she will know how much I love her.” This mindset can get our pets into trouble quickly. You may eat that tablespoon of peanut butter without the extra 90 calories making a huge hit to your daily caloric budget. Your 24-pound Fluffy, on the other hand, needs only 400 calories a day. One tablespoon of peanut butter for Fluffy would be equivalent to fitting one Big Mac into your day.

Not only would regularly adding a Big Mac make you loosen your belt, but it would also raise your blood pressure, among other health concerns. And it’s the same for Fluffy.

Holiday Food Hazards

During the holidays it’s common to feel that our pets should get special holiday meals just like we do. Unfortunately, I’ve seen illnesses related to every special dish you can imagine:

  • Turkey bone stuck in the esophagus of a Yorkshire terrier.
  • Vomiting up orange mush after getting too much sweet potato casserole (you know, the one with the marshmallows on it).
  • Anemia from too much garlic in the roasted potatoes.
  • Swallowing a needle attached to a garland of popcorn (oddly enough, that dog didn’t have to have surgery).
  • Chocolate toxicity from getting into the gifts under the tree.
  • And more Thanksgiving pancreatitis cases than I can count.

Whether these treats are given or stolen, we need to be wary of our pets getting rich, sugary foods that they aren’t accustomed to. Indulging in our holiday foods can cause pancreatitis, diarrhea, toxicities, and/or gastritis in our pets.

If you insist that Fluffy gets her Thanksgiving dinner, set aside a small amount of turkey and vegetables (no onions, garlic, or grapes!) and cook them plainly by either boiling or cooking with a small amount of olive oil.

Avoid giving pets “just a little bit” of everything that makes it to your holiday table. Trust me, they will still think it’s a Thanksgiving miracle that they get even a tiny amount of human food. And remember, most pets will think kibble is a treat, if you act like it is.

One final note: please don’t tell my dog, Emmie, that I wrote this blog about not feeding your dog too much food. She’d plot my demise if she knew! (That’s Emmie above, decked out in holiday ribbon and begging for turkey with her eyes.)

Happy Holidays to you all!

—Dr. Alyssa Kritzman

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