Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The trouble with tidbits

Your dog sits near the table and with rapt attention watches every bite you eat. Or perhaps your cat repeatedly head-butts your legs, demanding snacks.  So you give your pooch your leftover toast or your uneaten chicken skin.  You let your kitty slurp up the remaining milk in your cereal bowl.

We love our pets and love to spoil them, so we’re probably all occasionally guilty of that behavior. Besides, it’s only a little tidbit; what harm can it do? 

Treats add unnecessary calories, which lead to unwanted pounds. And those lead to lethargy, inactivity, wear and tear to joints, diseases such as diabetes, and a host of other problems. Another issue is nutrient balance. If your pet’s food is AAFCO1 approved, that means it’s complete and balanced. When you add extra nutrients in the form of snacks, you can throw that carefully concocted nutrient profile out of whack.

Giving snacks is important to many pet owners. I don’t object to my clients feeding up to 10% of their pets’ calories in the form of treats. Once you figure out how many calories you’re feeding your pet, you’ll be able to figure out how many calories that 10% is. But good luck finding the calorie information on the bag of food! You’ll need to do a little research. Go to the company’s website, or call the 800 number on the bag. 

It turns out that the 10% in question translates to a paltry amount of extra morsels. Until I was enlightened by the “doughnut conversion scale,” I had no idea how quickly the calories add up.

What exactly is the doughnut conversion scale? It’s a chart put together by Royal Canin showing the conversion of dog and cat treats to the comparable number of doughnuts for humans.

You gave Fido that slice of toast? Two doughnuts. If he eats a dried pig ear, it’s proportional to your eating three doughnuts. The biggest shock for me was a large knotted rawhide bone: 10 doughnuts!

Cats don’t fare any better. Ten tiny commercial treats equal one doughnut. How much weight would you gain if you ate eight doughnuts a day? Feed your cat one ounce of cheese daily and see what happens to his waistline; that’s the feline equivalent of eight doughnuts!

Pick treats that are nutritious, such as good-quality commercial treats, homemade biscuits, apple slices, string beans, carrots, squash, broccoli or other veggies. Figure out how many of those treats equal 10% of your pet’s daily caloric intake (again, you might need to go to the Internet for calorie information), and set them aside in a bowl every day. That’s it; he can’t have any more, no matter how much those soulful eyes implore you.

If you feel yourself giving in, remember that the enjoyment your dog or cat receives from treats isn’t related to the quantity. The value of feeding tidbits is derived from his interaction with you, and the predictability of the routine. Pets thrive on consistency, so having a set routine2 for giving snacks is a worthy goal.

Feeding and giving treats is an important aspect of the human-animal bond, so enjoy doing it; but pay attention to those doughnuts!

1 Check the small print on the pet food bag. It will say something like “X Brand is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) Dog/Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance”.

2 Don’t give your dog treats every time he comes in from being outdoors. In my experience, unless you offer very low-calorie snacks, like carrot coins, that is the fastest route to obesity.

Monday, October 12, 2015

What the death of a pet can teach us

Not long ago I was browsing in a store when I heard someone say, “Dr. Molly!”  It was a client whose cat had recently been euthanized, and she told me that she was still heartbroken.  She lives alone, and that kitty had been her constant companion. She then went on to tell me that she would never get another cat again. Losing a pet was too painful.

Folks have lots of good reasons for not replacing their lost pals:  Long hours at work, or otherwise being too busy, can preclude having a dog. Some people want to start traveling and don’t want to have to board or find a caretaker for their pet. Economics and allergies are other good excuses to avoid pet ownership.  But not getting another companion for fear of the inevitable loss is a reason that deserves further consideration. 

About seven years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic disease, and that sent me on a quest to make sense of it all. My research led me to read Victor Frankl’s famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who was sent to four different concentration camps during World War II. His suffering there was unimaginable. The odds of his survival in the camps were one in 28, but survive he did. His profound book isn’t about just his torment at the camps, but also his insight as to what makes life meaningful. 

I recently reread his book and realized how well it related to my observations as a veterinarian.

Frankl said that we can discover meaning in life in three ways:
  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
The first two ways, finding meaning in achievement or accomplishment and experiencing something, are easy to understand in the context of pet ownership. By giving a pet a good life, not only are we doing a good deed, but we are also creating the experiences of mutual joy, love, and affection. Frankl contends that experiencing can be as valuable as achieving. That is therapeutic, because we live in a world that emphasizes achievement in the external world at the expense of one’s internal experience. 

The third way is by finding meaning in suffering. Frankl suggested that we can find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation. It challenges us to change ourselves. “In some ways,” he wrote, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” 

The suffering after the death of a beloved pet caused my client to reject the thought of getting another cat. According to Victor Frankl, we would need to find meaning from such an event in order to transcend our anguish. What could possibly be meaningful about losing a beloved companion?

 Losing your pal opens up the opportunity to provide another pet with a happy life. That is especially important for an animal that is confined to a crowded shelter and at risk of euthanasia or that is otherwise homeless. Immersing yourself in sorrow in the long term will preclude your giving love to another dog, cat, or other pet, and it isn’t a righteous tribute to the friend you lost.

Victor Frankl contended that we may find meaning in life when facing a situation, such as death, that cannot be changed. He believed that when we suffer the death of a loved one, we “bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”  He felt that we should suffer bravely, and he considered that to be ennobling.  Being imprisoned for four years allowed him that unique perspective.

Through suffering the loss of a pet, we survive and learn to cope. If you could see that as an ennobling achievement, as Victor Frankl did, it would allow you to move on. Fear of loss would not deprive you of what could be many more years of giving and receiving the love of a pet. And that will add to the richness and meaning of your life.