Ah, Christmas food! What is it about these festive delights that we just can’t say no to? The stollen, the mince pies, allll the chocolates … and that’s before we even get to the main event, with the turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets … my mouth’s watering just thinking about it! It’s a really good job that it isn’t Christmas every day – sorry Wizzard, but it wouldn’t do out waistlines any favours at all.
The thing is, despite the constant temptations, we humans do have the ability to regulate what we eat. Yes, around Christmas time we may all gain a few pounds as a result of all the culinary temptations but typically we’ll have either lost a few in the run-up to Christmas in preparation or we’ll get back on the healthy eating and exercise in January to regulate our weight again. Our pets, however, are solely reliant on what we feed them. We’re in control of their diets so if we’re giving them extra food throughout December because it feels good to treat them, that’s going to affect their weight. For some breeds, gaining even small amount of weight can have a negative impact on their health. Pugs, for example, are prone to obesity but even being slightly overweight can make breathing problems worse, so it’s vital that you monitor their weight and avoid the overeating that can lead to weight gain. Other dog breeds that are prone to obesity, according to a Royal Veterinary College (RVC) study, include Beagles, Golden Retrievers, English Springer Spaniels, Border Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels. While all dog owners should be aware of their dog’s weight, owners of these breeds should be particularly careful that their dog isn’t overeating, under-exercising, or both. It was estimated in the 2021 RVC study that approximately 1 in 7 UK dogs are overweight, which can seriously affect their health, mobility and life expectancy. The study also found that, similar to humans, the dogs which were most at risk of weight gain were middle aged dogs (between 6 – 9 years). Likewise, obesity in cats also appears to be on the increase in the UK, with reports that this situation became considerably worse during lockdown when owners admitted to overfeeding their cats when they were at home more – a scenario that’s repeated over the festive period. As with dogs, carrying too much weight can be really dangerous for cats’ health, affecting every aspect of their lives from their ability to groom themselves through to heart health.
Now, vets aren’t here to body shame animals. We’re not concerned with whether they have the ideal ‘shape’ because of how they look – it’s all about their health for us, and sadly we see time and again the negative impact that being overweight can have on an animal. Obesity can damage both the length and quality of your pet’s life, and can put them at risk of diabetes, joint problems, ligament damage, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancers and respiratory difficulties. Put bluntly, those extra pounds or kilos can take years off an animal’s life so, when you think you’re ‘treating’ them with bigger portions or little snacks here and there, you’re actually doing them much more harm than good.
Christmas can also throw us out of our regular routines so you might find that with all the parties, nativities, visiting relatives, shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating etc that the season adds to your to-do list, Fido’s walks may become shorter to help relieve the pressure on your time. You may even skip one or two. Plus, it’s really cold out there. It’s quite understandable but, while missing the odd walk won’t have a hugely detrimental effect on your dog’s health, cutting down from two walks a day to one for a period of two or three weeks while you’re busy, coupled with some extra treats here and there (probably because you’re feeling guilty about the lack of walks/attention) and … well, you get the picture. It’s easy to see how the weight could sneak on for your four-legged friend. Before you know it, your once svelte pooch is bursting out of their Christmas jumper.
In addition to the weight gain, human Christmas food can be really rich and not at all appropriate for animals’ digestive systems. Cats and dogs have very different digestive systems to humans and very often the food that we eat will be too rich and fatty for them to digest. This can lead to diarrhoea, vomiting or, in severe cases, pancreatitis – which can be chronic (meaning it has to be managed for life) or sometimes fatal. It’s really not worth the risk of sharing that cheese board or gravy, no matter how interested your pet may seem. Yes, they can smell delicious food and may want to join the feast, but you have to be the adult here! Stay strong and, for their own good, say no.
There are also a number of festive foods that are poisonous for dogs and cats – these are an absolute no-no! Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to share your Christmas chocolates, mince pies (or anything containing raisins/sultanas or grapes), macadamia nuts, onions/garlic/chives/leeks, anything containing the artificial sweetener Xylitol, alcohol or caffeine. Yep, I realise that list actually looks a lot like a recipe card for Christmas dinner … so that’s why it’s important to make sure you’re not sharing your Christmas feast (or your pet isn’t in a position to help themselves!). Cooked turkey bones are also dangerous as they can splinter and present a choking hazard or a blockage or puncture in the digestive tract, so letting your furry friend munch on the turkey carcass is also out. I’m not just being mean here, I promise! It’s the best way to ensure the whole family enjoys a happy, healthy Christmas and New Year.
If you are concerned about your pet’s weight, whether that’s Christmas related or not, we run regular weight clinics where we can advise you on what to feed your pet and how much they should be exercising to help them get back to, and maintain, a healthy size. You’ll be amazed at the transformation you see in an animal when they start to shed the excess pounds; it really does give them a new lease of life.
After all that, I think I’ve talked myself out of the mince pie I was about to tuck into. I’ll take my own veterinary advice and enjoy the treats in moderation this Christmas!