Eight-year-old chocolate labrador Blue is shaped like a barrel and has a slow, lumbering gait. Rolls of fat bulge from his collar; his belly hangs low, skimming the ground. Mournful eyes look out from a jowly face. Blue is on a diet, you see, and he’s hating every minute of it. No more juicy rabbit ears or plump chicken feet. He sneaked some cake earlier in the week from the kitchen floor, but his owner, Mary, got it away before he could finish it.
“I hate this bit,” groans Mary*, as Blue thunks on to the scales at the Pet Health and Therapy Centre in Welling, south-east London. “It’s like Weight Watchers.” Ideally, Blue should weigh no more than 36kg. The scales creak: 47.1kg. “He’s gone up again,” sighs Mary, who has requested anonymity because she is embarrassed. “My son and daughter are really skinny,” she says in a pleading tone. “People think I starve my children but overfeed my animals.”
A 39-year-old dog walker from Mottingham, south-east London, Mary says that Blue is on a calorie-controlled diet and regularly walked. “He goes on walks all the time!” she says, pulling up her phone to show me photos of Blue hulking over her clients’ dogs. Sometimes, members of the public come up to Mary at work and tell her that she’s got to let Blue’s owner know he needs to lose weight. “I am the owner,” she responds.
Reluctantly, Blue is led into a hydrotherapy tank for his weekly session. “The water reduces the pressure on his joints,” says 23-year-old veterinary physiotherapist Miranda Cosstick, “and places less stress on the hips.” When Blue began training in November 2021, he could only manage 10 seconds on the underwater treadmill. Now, he is up to 45 seconds, even if he has regained the weight he initially lost. The treadmill whirrs. Blue stares out glumly from the warm lapping water. Cosstick waves a dog treat in front of him, and he lunges forward and tries to get it out of her hand. “You have to taunt him with it,” says Cosstick, “to get him to move.”
But this is not animal abuse, whatever Blue’s plaintive eyes might suggest. Already, Blue is arthritic and finds it painful to walk. If he doesn’t lose weight, he is likely to die young from obesity-related complications. And he is not alone. Fuller-figured pets are, increasingly, a mainstay of UK homes. “We’ve seen an increased prevalence of obesity in both dogs and cats for a long time,” says Prof Alex German of the University of Liverpool. The PDSA animal charity reports that 78% of veterinary professionals have seen an increase in pet obesity in recent years, with obesity rated as one of the top five welfareproblems for UK pet owners.
Many owners don’t realise the health consequences of their pets being overweight. Only 69% of those the PDSA surveyed agreed that overweight pets were more likely to suffer from serious diseases. “They’re more likely to suffer problems with mobility, arthritis, diabetes, respiratory problems and problems with their urinary systems,” says German. Overweight dogs may die two-and-a-half years earlier than their non-obese peers.
But Kitty Thanki is not one of those members of the public in denial about the damaging effects of pet obesity. “I’m a doctor,” says the 35-year-old, from Camden, north London, “which is one of the ironies of having a fat dog.” Her seven-year-old pomeranian, George, looks like an overstuffed draft excluder. He weighs 6.5kg; ideally, he should weigh no more than 4.5kg. “He is greedy,” says Thanki. “He raids the bin. He eats the cats’ food.” During lockdown, George’s weight went up to 7.1kg. “My mum came to stay with me,” says Thanki, “and that’s where it all escalated. She feeds him human food, even though I tell her not to. She says it’s only a little bit, but she doesn’t realise the calorific impact of a slice of toast on a dog that’s so small.”
George’s story is not uncommon. The UK’s pet obesity crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Five per cent of cat owners, and 9% of dog owners, reported that their pets had gained weight since the March 2020 lockdown, with 1.4 million pets being fed more human treats during this time. “Being at home has made owners more likely to give pets a little bit of what they’re having,” says PDSA vet Lynne James. “It’s easy to do, when they’re sat there, looking at you.”
George has an Instagram account with 2,418 followers (@littlefatcockney), which Thanki initially set up to document his “weight loss journey”, to use the terminology of diet groups across the world. But the algorithm does not want George to become more streamlined. “When he looks the most rotund,” says Thanki, “he gets the most likes.” Thanki understands this impulse, even if she’d much rather have no likes, and a healthy dog. “I’m probably just as guilty of looking at fat animals online and thinking, they are so cute,” she says.
Thanki is referring to the pervasive internet trend for videos and photos of obese animals, often referred to as “chonky”, “thicc”, and “absolute units”. The most popular Instagram accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers, who like videos of obese cats getting trapped in cat flaps and struggling to climb on chairs. Some even sell merchandise, including dog backpacks, so owners can carry obese animals that are too unfit to walk. “The internet is part of the problem,” says James. “It’s normalising the appearance of these animals being overweight. If all you see is overweight pets, you start to think that’s normal. Pets that are a healthy weight start to appear skinny in comparison.”
The best way to check whether your animal is overweight is to take them to a vet, but owners can also assess them at home. “Run your fingers loosely over their torso,” says James, “and see whether you can feel their ribs and spine. You should be able to feel them with minimal pressure. You should also see a waistline that tucks in when you’re looking at them from the side.” I text James photographs of my two pet cats, Kedi and Larry, for professional assessment. “I’d want to put my hands on them to feel sure,” she says, “but they look good. I’d use them in a PDSA campaign as an example of healthy-looking cats.” I flush with pride.
The most important thing, says German, is not to berate owners. “Obesity is a highly stigmatised condition,” he says. “There’s a lot of fat-shaming out there. You could argue: well, cats and dogs don’t know you’re making fun of them. But you’re potentially shaming the owners, and that leads to blame, and the problem with blame is that it gets in the way of good obesity care.” Thanki has experienced this casual judgment. “Strangers have come up to me and said: ‘Your dog is really fat,’” she says. “Once, my partner was carrying George at an event so he wouldn’t get stepped on and a woman said: ‘He’s got legs, you know. Oh wait, maybe he doesn’t, because he’s so fat.’’’
Celia Deakin, a 40-year-old teacher from Edinburgh, knows this stigma all too well. “I do feel guilty,” she says. “I would like him to be healthy.” Deakin is attempting to lose weight herself and says that when she takes her 13-year-old moggy Marlowe to the vet, she feels judged. “It’s shameful,” says Deakin, “to be overweight yourself and holding an overweight cat and saying: ‘I swear he doesn’t eat that much.’” Deakin describes Marlowe, who weighs 7.4kg, as “an absolute unit” and a “giant puma”. “Not in a Rubenesque way,” she adds. “He’s just a big, massive chunk.” When Marlowe jumps off the bed, says Deakin, “it sounds like a cannonball hitting the ground.”
Like George, Marlowe piled on the pounds during lockdown, when Deakin would feed him treats to stop him whining while she was teaching classes on Zoom. But, over the past year, she’s been on a mission to drop his weight, after the vet diagnosed him with arthritis. “I did this really intense diet where I ignored all his wails for food,” says Deakin, “and put him on special satiety food [calorie-controlled to help animals stay fuller for longer]. He lost literally a gram.” Deakin is at a loss. She doesn’t believe he’s stealing her other cat’s food, and she isn’t overfeeding him. She wonders if he’s just naturally big boned.
“Dieting can be a challenge,” says German, “and it’s best done in conjunction with a vet.” He advises owners to put their animals on high-quality satiety food, which is nutrient-dense. “Always weigh the food on a scale,” says German, “and minimise treats as much as possible.” When animals start begging for food, German advises giving them low-calorie snacks, such as slices of cooked courgette. “Often,” says German, “when the animal is whining, what it’s really craving is that sense of attention and reward. But there are other things you can do to reward your pets. Take the dog for a walk. Groom your cat.”
The best efforts of owners can be undone by our food-centric treat culture, and a lack of general awareness about the dangers of pet obesity. Deakin suspects that Marlowe is finding food outside: either the neighbours are feeding him, or he is hunting his own food. Thanki has had members of the public feed George from their picnics. “One man in St James’s Park gave him an entire packet of ham,” she says. “The man said: ‘Oh don’t worry, I don’t mind.’ I said: ‘I mind!’”
But there are also members of the public actively trying to undo the bad habits of their fellow pet owners. “I monitor their weight six times a week,” says Anna Talbot of the 37 gerbils in her care. Talbot, a 44-year-old cleaner and renovator from Staffordshire, runs an unofficial shelter from her house. “I haven’t got a home any more,” she says. “I have 16 tanks around the house. Six in my bedroom, six in my spare room, and four in the back room.”
Talbot specifically seeks out what she describes as “sad gerbils”, meaning gerbils who tend to be overweight or obese, and are being kept in small cages. She takes them home and puts them on diets. She rescued Jake in 2021, when he weighed 113g. “He was absolutely depressed,” she says. “All he would do is just shovel food in.” Jake was initially too fat to climb the stairs in Talbot’s house, but she would coax him up. “Give him that encouragement,” she says. “He lost a gram here and a gram there.”
In a few months, Talbot got Jake down to a much healthier 80g. But her efforts came too late. She found blood in his urine. She thinks it was related to his obesity. As it was a weekend, her vet wouldn’t do a home visit. “He lay next to me all night,” says Talbot in a strangled voice. “He was in agony. He was looking at me, just lying there. Half an hour before he passed, he walked up to me and Eskimo-kissed me. He knew I was there for him.” She says it was the worst experience of her gerbil-keeping life. “I’ve lost gerbils before,” she says. “I trod on a gerbil and killed him. It was awful. I have flashbacks. But Jake was different, because he was such a beautiful little soul.”
Despite her loss, Talbot is undeterred in her efforts to rescue obese gerbils. When we speak, she has just finished weighing Ethan, a gerbil she rehomed 10 days ago. He weighed 103g when she got him; now he is down to 88g (he should weigh around 80g). “They were chuckling at how fat he was in the pet shop,” Talbot recalls. “Saying: ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen such a fat gerbil!’ I couldn’t wait to get him out. If you hit an animal, it would be animal cruelty. Obesity is the same. They can’t decide for themselves. You need to take the upper hand, give them a good diet and exercise.”
Most experts agree, however, that overfeeding is not wilful animal abuse. “People aren’t doing this from the wrong point of view,” says James. “They’re doing it because they love their pets and think they are doing the right thing. I hesitate to call it cruelty, especially when you have a pet that is really motivated by food, and acts as if they are hungry, even when they are not.” Thanki is charitable about her mother’s habit of feeding toast to the dog. “A lot of it is cultural,” she says. “I’m from an Indian background. When I went to my nan’s house when I was a child, I would always be bursting when I left. It’s ingrained, that idea that feeding someone means they’re loved.”
But there is such a thing as loving someone to death – particularly when they are an adorable animal with a taste for treats, and a petulant whine. Owners of obese pets can take comfort that most bad habits can be undone, with discipline, underwater treadmills – and the odd chunk of courgette.
*Some names have been changed.