Just like humans, studies reveal the average Australian family pet is getting fatter. A simpler approach to diet, however, might be just what the doctor ordered. John Burfitt reports
It is one conversation in the clinic with the pet owner that most vets agree is never easy to have.
“It is just such a touchy subject to talk to people about, and I know some vets find it difficult to start this conversation,” says Dr Liisa Ahlstrom, technical services veterinarian for Bayer Australia.
“You have to work out a way to talk to people about their overweight pet, and they can easily be offended as it can be interpreted as you criticising them for not caring properly for their animal. And if that client before you is overweight as well, it can be an even more delicate topic to broach.”
Finding the right way to tackle the topic about overweight family pets has become a necessity in veterinary circles in recent times, with the reality that our pampered pooches and favoured felines are getting bigger, not smaller.
According to the University of Sydney’s Prevalence of Obesity in Dogs report from 2005, the occurrence of overweight and obese dogs across Australia was 41 per cent.
That prevalence increased with age up to about 10 years old, and then declined. The one surprising twist with the data was that rural and semi-rural dogs were more at risk of obesity than urban and suburban dogs.
Indeed, the report is now a decade old. But veterinarian Dr David Isaac, animal health, innovation and research manager of animal nutritional supplement company Sustenhance, believes that if the same report was conducted today, the results could be higher.
“It is up to us to intervene now as clients are relying on us. Just don’t leave all of it up to the client to determine.” Dr Liisa Ahlstrom, technical services veterinarian for Bayer Australia
“It is a combination of sedentary lifestyle, far too many treats and more often than not, too much food,” explains Dr Isaac. “If you look at 30 years ago, the variety and quantity of pet foods and treats were limited. Now the range is extensive, offering far better nutrition, and pets are viewed as an extended family member. And that is part of the problem.”
Dr Isaac believes that when a daily overdose of treats, in addition to hearty helpings of regular meals, is associated with an expression of love and care, then animals are on a sure path to obesity.
“We are all leading busier lifestyles, and if the dog or cat is left alone, they are left with far more treats than they need to keep them happy,” he says. “I know cases where treats make up as much as 10 to 20 per cent of the animal’s daily dietary needs, and yet this is never taken into consideration with their main meals.
“There is also this myth that pets need the same kind of food, and the same amount, as humans. It can be such a danger, as animals have their own very different physiology and digestive systems.”
Which is why Dr Liisa Ahlstrom believes the importance of the family vet having regular conversations with clients about the fitness and wellbeing of their pets can not be understated.
“We are only now realising the consequences of obesity and it is far more on our radar as something to look out for,” she says. “We need to be actively counselling our clients about the impact of obesity and diet on our pets, and the flow on effects that can have on overall quality of life and life expectancy.
“There is a range of high quality, complete and balanced diets available today, and vets are well educated and doing their best to educate clients. But whether pet owners then act upon that advice when they get home is another thing,” says Dr Ahlstrom.
In terms of exercise, a one-size-fits-all approach can never be adopted towards any family pet. Getting a cat out for a daily run is near impossible, but being sure to play with the animal around the house so it is moving is paramount.
In the case of dogs, animal fitness trainer and physiotherapist Karen Uden of Barx Active says a daily walk is an essential. “It is true we are leading more sedentary lives, but dogs need this and their walk must be part of the daily schedule,” she says.
Adding a range of other activities is the ideal scenario, but Uden insists that the age, size and health of the animal all needs to be factored in, especially if conditions like diabetes and arthritis are present.
“With dogs, it is all about variety, so while a walk is good, an additional visit to a dog park where it can interact with other canines or a trip to the shops or even a training activity session is what vets need to be encouraging, so the animal is being stimulated in a number of ways,” she says. “One good walk and one other activity a day is what people should aim for.”
A real lack of understanding is the main issue vets face when dealing with overweight family pets, says Dr Lindsay Hay of Sydney’s Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital. In short, he says, pets are simply being fed too much.
“If we are seeing overweight cats and dogs, then I believe it is because of overfeeding rather than reduced exercise,” he says.
“There is a widespread belief that obesity is linked to exercise rather than nutrition/overeating. It is important to start the conversation early—as a puppy—so people understand early the connection with overfeeding.
“People need to understand that dogs have a different metabolism and don’t starve like we do,” says Dr Hay. “Dogs in the wild eat when they can kill and can go for long periods without food, and they get no ill effects. So, the mantra is ‘feed less food, less often’ and reassure people that they can’t hurt their dog by feeding less.”
His ongoing strategy for dealing with overweight pets is to reduce food intake by as much as 50 per cent as a starting point. The dog then needs to be monitored by the vet.
“Then you introduce food that is less energy dense—either special diet foods or home cooked based on protein and vegetables,” he says.
The family veterinarian must, Dr Ahlstrom stresses, take the lead with combating obesity by offering clear instructions for pet owners to follow. “The vet needs to offer the advice on what the animal needs to be fed and at what times through the days,” she says. “And if treats are to be offered, it is part of the routine, not in addition to it.
“It is up to us to intervene now as clients are relying on us. Just don’t leave all of it up to the client to determine. This is one area where the more specific the advice, the better.”