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Ask a Vet: How do You Feel About “Kitty Liposuction”?

Bad -- it's painful, it's not effective against cat obesity, and its has potential complications.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Nov 3rd 2015


Recently I had the opportunity to visit some relatives. On one afternoon their next-door neighbor came over to enjoy a glass of wine with our group. She was an extremely nice person, and she was a very dear friend of my relatives.

But there was a problem. She had been tipped off. Two sips into the first glass of wine she innocently said to me, “You’re the vet, right?”

The short moment of hesitation before my answer would have been enough for anyone who knows me well to imagine what was going through my mind. Normally when I am faced with this question I claim not to be a vet but rather to sell insurance. Term life insurance, to be specific. In fact I know nothing about term life insurance, except that its mere mention will change the subject of the conversation.

This case, however, was hopeless. I was cornered and I had to come clean. I copped to my true profession.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

I won’t bore you with the predictable deluge of questions, ranging from how to treat a friend-of-a-friend’s dog’s torn cruciate ligament to whether I would ever be willing to treat a Pit Bull if, gasp, one were brought to my office. (Note: Pit Bulls come to my office regularly and I happily treat them.) One question, however, stood out from the others.

“Do you ever perform liposuction on cats?”

A torrent of thoughts passed through my mind before I answered, simply, “no.”

It turned out that the nice friend of my relatives was acquainted with a local veterinarian. He had entertained her with a story of “kitty liposuction” (apparently he never figured out that testicle stories are in fact the best way to entertain nice ladies).

The story, as she recounted it, involved a surgery (probably a gastrointestinal foreign body removal) in an obese cat. While the cat was under anesthesia, the vet had cut out as much fat as he reasonably could. He had made the fat cat thinner. Pretty cool and funny, right?

No.

Fat-cat-on-couch-shutterstock_144403258

Fat cat on a couch by Shutterstock

First let’s split a hair. What was just described was not liposuction but rather lipoexcision or old-fashioned lipectomy (although the word lipectomy has been corrupted since the advent of liposuction). And in my opinion it is ragingly unethical.

Let’s start with the idea of cosmetic surgeries in animals. Although people may mock our human compatriots who make too many trips to the plastic surgeon, there is nothing unethical about cosmetic surgery in people. If a consenting adult wishes to change his or her appearance, that person should have the right to do so.

But cats don’t suffer from body image issues

There is no evidence that cats even experience theory of mind, which means that there is no evidence that they are aware that other individuals have thoughts. That means that they aren’t aware that other individuals are thinking about what they look like. They don’t even appear to recognize themselves in the mirror. They don’t have hangups about their bodies, and good for them.

They also can’t desire, let alone consent to, cosmetic surgery.

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Obese cat works out by Shutterstock

Of course, cats can’t consent to any form of surgery, so one might next ask how any surgical procedure ever could be justified. The answer is that in veterinary medicine surgery should be performed only if the patient derives benefit from it, and if the benefit outweighs the pain and the risks of complications.

Proponents, such as they are, of feline lipectomy might protest: Over the years I have ranted again and again about the dangers of feline obesity. Might kitty liposuction have a medical benefit to obese cats? The answer is no. The amount of fat that can be removed during such a procedure will have no impact on metabolism or physiology, nor will it affect the pathology of obesity. The procedure is performed strictly for the sake of vanity. And by vanity, I mean the vanity of the veterinarian performing the procedure.

But even if one agrees that feline liposuction is of no benefit to cats, one might still ask what harm the procedure does. The answer is potentially plenty.

Surgery is painful, and adipose tissue (fat) is not devoid of nerves. I once had a friend who underwent actual liposuction; she said that it was one of the most painful experiences of her life. There is no reason to believe that lipectomy would be any less painful. How on Earth can one justify causing pain to a cat for a medically useless procedure?

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A cat at the vet by Shutterstock

And how about complications? It turns out that my relatives’ friend’s vet-friend is not the only individual who is fond of kitty liposuction. I once worked with another such individual. He routinely trimmed excessive fat from the abdomens of cats during surgeries for unrelated issues. And I regularly saw his patients come back with complications.

When fat is removed from the body, an empty pocket (called “dead space”) is created where the fat used to be. As we know, nature abhors a vacuum. Although dead space is not in fact a vacuum, it is empty space, and the body usually will try to fill it. Unless specific preventative measures are taken (and, to be honest, the sort of vet who performs feline liposuction is not likely to take those measures) the space is likely to fill with blood, pus, or serum (which is like blood, only not red). Swelling and infection can occur. Additional surgeries may be necessary to address the complications.

Finally, there is a more subtle ethical problem with feline liposuction

A core principle of medical ethics is involves not deviating from the matter at hand. If a person goes to the doctor for carpal tunnel syndrome surgery, he rightfully expects that he will not wake up having received a facelift. Doctors are only supposed to perform procedures that the patients or their proxies (owners in the case of veterinary medicine) have approved. The veterinarians I have known who performed lipectomies usually do it for their own amusement without the owner’s approval (let alone the patient’s consent). That is a major ethical fail.

There is good news. When I picture a vet performing feline lipectomy, I picture someone old. It is hard to imagine anyone under 60 performing the procedure. Those who perform feline liposuction, along with other ethically questionable procedures (I’m talking about you, ear croppers, tail dockers, and declawers) will be retiring or dying off in the not too distant future. The procedures will die with them.

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