“A mouse is really very low in carbohydrates.”
Dr. Deborah Greco, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center on 62nd Street and York Avenue, was standing over a cat-well, it certainly seemed like a cat. It had all of a typical cat’s furry features, but its body was the size of a watermelon and its head looked to be about the size of a tennis ball.
“Cats are really designed for eating mice,” she said, mulling over the obese feline stretching languidly in front of her. “When you feed them diets that have a lot of starch and grains, then they get fat, and can get diabetes.”
The doctor was being diplomatic. But the subtext was plain: New Yorkers are stuffing their cats and dogs full of food-often people food-to an alarming degree, creating a city filled with porky pets. Vets and owners of pet day-care centers say they’re seeing bigger beasts squeezing through the door.
“A lot of the cats we get are obese,” said the manager of the Wagging Tail in Tribeca, which offers dogs and cats a lap pool, treadmills and customized nutritional programs. “Some of them look like a small dog. The cats can’t play among each other. It’s harder to make cats lose weight than dogs. The cat has to be a spry guy to be thin.”
New York’s pooches are also putting on the pounds.
“Half the dogs I get are huge,” said a part-time dog-walker named Jim who was recently walking a pack on Fifth Avenue near 72nd Street. “I get some that I have to drag down the street. I don’t think they get up off their asses all day.”
“About 60 percent of the pets I see are overweight,” said Dr. Kelly Gavin, a vet at Park East Animal Hospital on 64th Street. “People tend to treat their pets like they want to be treated. Animals in other countries really don’t have this problem. Just like their owners, pets are getting fatter now.”
Marsha Habib, owner of the Sutton Dog Parlour Kennel on East 60th Street, admits that both she and her dog are overweight.
“My dog has bad hips, so I make a concerted effort to give her one cup of food twice a day,” said Ms. Habib. “But she loves her Pig Ears. She’s spoiled and won’t go two inches past the door without her Pig Ears.”
Ms. Habib said that she works on keeping dogs active when their owners are away. “The dogs in boarding are very overweight,” she said. “The husband will come in and say, ‘I’m taking a few treats, but don’t tell my wife.’ Then the wife will come in and say, ‘I’m taking a few treats, but don’t tell my husband.'”
“These are affluent dogs, and they get fed very well and they get taken care of very well,” said Dr. Lawrence Zola, a vet at University Animal Hospital. “The quality of their food is very good, which means it’s very digestible and little goes to waste. If the quantity of food is increased, more is going to get absorbed than passed. These dogs are eating the same as they were when they were four. Their metabolism slows down when they get older, and you do the math.”
Ms. Habib said that it’s difficult to convince owners that the more people food they give their dogs, the less responsive the animal will be to dog food-which is the only kind of food they should be eating.
“People feed them emotionally,” Dr. Greco said. “If you’re feeling kind of bad, you make yourself a milkshake and you think, ‘Oohhh, I think my dog feels bad, too. Here’s a spoonful for you.'”
“It’s hard for pets in New York to get the exercise that they should,” said Dr. Susan McLellan D.V.M. “It’s a battle-and also, just like we are, they’re generally overfed. Obesity is certainly something we deal with all the time. Many cats are just grazers and eat continuously all day, and some don’t have a break in their appetite-especially if people have over one cat, and one doesn’t eat as much, the others become obese. People are more aware of this problem now, for themselves as well as their pets …. But like their own weight, it sneaks up on you.”
Dr. Greco is starting a pet obesity clinic. First step for portly kitties: a version of the Atkins diet. In the wild, cats regulate themselves depending on what they catch, which tends to be mice. This is why the Atkins diet works. Ketosis, a common side effect of the Atkins diet in people, doesn’t occur in cats, because they’re genetically adapted to that kind of diet. “If there’s any animal that could do the Atkins diet and not become ketonic, it’s a cat,” said Dr. Greco. For dogs, who are not as naturally carnivorous and thus cannot handle as much fat, the doctor said she might recommend “Barry Sears’ Zone diet or a modification.”
Dr. Greco is hoping to buy a DEXA machine, which is a smaller version of the body-composition testers found in hospitals. In big cities like New York, as many as 40 percent of cats-and 30 percent of dogs-may be obese. Their ideal percentage of body fat is less than 30 percent (compared to about 20 percent in humans.)
“That’s partly because they’re spayed or neutered, whereas most people are not,” said Dr. Greco. “Hormones tend to keep us a little leaner. I think it’s more of a problem in New York, particularly in cats, because they’re not allowed outside. They can’t exercise, and they also don’t have access to food that can keep them lean.”
One reason city cats tend to get fatter than city dogs is that owners often leave food out for them.
“Everybody says cats are nibblers,” said Dr. Greco. “Well, in the wild they don’t nibble, so I think sometimes that they’re eating out of boredom. They’re left in the house all day; they’re sleeping all day; they don’t get exercise; they have the tower of food, where you pour it into a big dispenser …. “
Dr. Greco has tested ways to feed cats so they don’t overeat throughout the day, trying both low-fat and low-carb diets. Purina, Waltham and Science Diet have all come out with high-protein lines.
“I noticed I would feed what I thought was an appropriate amount of fatty food, and the cats wouldn’t finish it-they would walk away on their own,” said Dr. Greco. “But when I’d try a lower-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, they would sit there and eat, sometimes even throw up and then go back for more. It was almost like they weren’t getting satisfied.”
On a recent afternoon, Dr. Greco was treating a gray 16-pound cat with 42 percent body fat; it’s belly was shaved and distended. By the doctor’s calculations, this cat’s body was composed of 2,855 grams of fat and 3,871 grams of lean muscle. His head barely peeked out above his bulging belly.
Nearby, a Labrador had a stomach so large that it grazed the floor.
“If you take an animal like this and feed him cake, this is what happens,” said Dr. Greco. Labradors, she said, are genetically predisposed to weight gain more than other breeds, like the poodle. Her own dog, a white poodle named Martini, has the perfect taper and body-mass index.
“My dog is very lean, but he also is a very picky eater,” she said. “He doesn’t gobble; he’ll pick and then come back.”
Labs, she said, “just eat it all at once, then ask for more. It’s like binge eating. It’s almost like they’re not getting the signal to stop.”
People often feed their dogs when they’re hungry themselves. “I think that people translate that their animal’s hungry at the same time they are,” said Dr. Greco. “People always say that obese owners have obese pets. That’s often the case. Bulldogs are a lot of times owned by big, heavy guys who are kind of stocky.”
Of course, many New Yorkers take action when they notice that the furriest member of the family is looking rather rotund.
“We used to always feed our dog chicken and rice. We’d make it specially,” said a 23-year-old Upper East Side resident with a King Charles spaniel. “But then she got really, really fat, so now we just buy Eukanuba.”
Daniela Goldman, a veterinary-school student and Manhattan dog owner, said she tried feeding her Lab, Bonaparte, a high-fiber, low-fat diet.
“It’s hard to have a dog on a high-fiber diet in New York, especially when you have to pick up after them every five minutes,” she said. The final straw was when her uncle walked Bonaparte through a parade last year. There were no garbage bins on hand (they’d been temporarily removed for anti-terrorism purposes), so her uncle was forced to haul the dog’s fiber-fueled waste along with him for several blocks. The family took Bonaparte off the diet, deciding to feed him reduced portions and cut back on the fiber.
“When you live on top of your animals, like you do in New York City, you notice everything,” said Ms. Goldman. “You think that they’re hungry all the time, because they’re always around. That’s why people go to their vets more in the city than anywhere else. You look at your dog and think, ‘Oohhh, he made a funny noise today.'”
Because city dwellers live so close to their pets, the way owners train and monitor them is all the more important. Food is too often used as a reward.
“My dog gained eight pounds when he stayed for a week with my friend in California, who fed him food for doing tricks,” said Dr. Greco.
At Le Chien Pet Salon on Third Avenue, Edward Alava, the business manager, suggests that owners stop giving their pets treats altogether. At his salon, where he boards and exercises dogs and cats, he switches them onto organic diets high in protein.
Telling owners to put their pets on a diet must be done gracefully.
“You can’t look at the dog and say, ‘You’re dog’s a little chubby,'” said Dr. Greco. “Instead, say, ‘Your dog’s over 15 percent of its ideal body weight.'”
For those who insist on serving four-star meals to their pets, one solution is to buy a doggie cookbook, which gives recipes owners can make for themselves and their canines.
“Usually, it’s women who are motivated to do that,” said Dr. Greco. “Pets are in many ways child substitutes for them. Cooking for them is not a big deal.”