Study concerning 'comfort eating' among pets stirs debate among veterinarians

A study recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior reporting that many pets resort to comfort eating in times of emotional distress has sparked a response from a well-known British veterinarian who is concerned that the study may reinforce some pet owners' unhealthy feeding habits.

The study, conducted by Franklin McMillan, DVM, DACVIM, former clinical professor of medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine in California, concluded that many pets resort to comfort eating in response to stressful circumstances. This behavior is responsible for many pets becoming obese, he reported.

McMillan suggested in the study that pets were likely to overeat when they experience negative emotional cues such as boredom, anxiety, and depression. He recommended that instead of simply reducing the amount of food provided to pets, pet owners should take time to discover exactly which stressors are triggering the comfort eating.

“The bottom line is that there is a ton of evidence in humans and animals like rodents that stress-induced eating, or emotional eating is a very real thing and contributes to obesity, so we should be looking at it in pet animals," McMillan said. “If this is a major factor in our pet animals, then the standard approach, by simply yanking away their food, is very misguided and potentially harmful." 

While the study has made national headlines, some veterinarians are not so quick to agree about the proper course of action for dealing with overeating pets.

In the U.K., noted veterinarian Robin Hargreaves, BVSc, MRCVS, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, voiced his concerns about McMillan's recommendations. 

"Animals do have emotional needs. You can't get away from that," Hargreaves said to The Sunday Telegraph. "But the biggest problem relating to pet obesity is human behavior, rather than animal behavior. This advice gives an excuse to people who do not want to stop feeding their pets."

Hargreaves said that rather than spending too much time analyzing their pets' emotional issues, pet owners should first restrict the amount of food they feed the animals.

"It can be hard to resist that hungry look from your dog and too easy to substitute real attention and interaction for treats, but it's in the pet's best interests to get it right," Hargreaves told The Sunday Telegraph.