Dealing with a clients’ fat pets can be tricky on many levels, but it’s an animal welfare issue that you and your practice can’t ignore. By Rachel Smith
Telling a pet owner that Ron the dashshund is too fat for his own good is something that a) no vet wants to do and b) no owner wants to hear. But when we consider that over 30 per cent of pets in Australia are overweight or obese, awkward conversations about dogs, cats (and rabbits) who are carrying a spare tyre or two are becoming all too commonplace in your average veterinary clinic.
For this reason, every vet should have a strategy to deal with pet obesity, especially when you consider overweight pets can suffer everything from arthritis and cancer to heart disease and diabetes. This not only reduces the pet’s quality of life, but hits the owner where it hurts with a higher number of visits to the vet. That said, broaching such discussions can be easier said than done, says Dr Paula Parker, president of the Australian Veterinary Association.
“Our role as veterinarians is to be an advocate for the animal’s health and welfare—and addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ requires courage,” she explains. “It is a skill to tell someone something that they perhaps don’t want to hear in a way that doesn’t make them defensive, but invested in the solution. It takes practice. But nearly every health problem is exacerbated or complicated by obesity and owners often don’t recognise this. Instead, they’ll report that their pet is ‘getting older’, ‘slowing down’ or being a ‘couch potato’.”
Dr Anne Fawcett, an animal welfare veterinarian who lectures at the University of Sydney and works at Sydney Animal Hospitals Inner West, co-authored the last study about pet obesity in 2005 and says there’s no data since then to suggest the problem is decreasing. “I think many pet owners are natural ‘feeders’ and feel that their animal is loved if it’s carrying a bit more weight,” she says. “I also think people who have an overweight animal can worry they’re being judged. People get very sensitive about their animals, but if the animal is in danger and their welfare is compromised, as a veterinarian I have to let them know.”
Why so tubby?
Considering the obesity crisis humans are facing globally, the answer to why our pets are getting fatter is no surprise. “The health concerns we see in ourselves are often paralleled in the pet world,” says Dr Mina Magelakis, scientific services veterinarian at Royal Canin. “And, while the majority of animals in Australia are desexed—which is great from a responsible pet ownership perspective—we also know that animals are far more likely to gain weight and have an increased appetite after being desexed, so it’s a double whammy.”
Dr Fawcett adds that an increase in the density of housing (and pets having less access to backyards) isn’t helping either. “Pets are getting less incidental exercise. There’s also less access to leash-free areas. And because there are less calories being spent, there are more calories going in with highly palatable, nutritionally dense food, whereas there’s more of a need for food that takes an effort to eat. So premium, good-quality diets are great, but depending on the animal, bones and fresh food might be part of that as well.”
Recommending the right diet
Getting independent nutritional education is key, says Dr Fawcett. “There are new brands springing up every day, all making claims and we have to think about the best recommendation we can make for each individual animal. I think it’s really important that vets maintain their independence, because their independent recommendations carry more weight.”
“We have to consider nutrition as part of every interaction we have with an animal and its owner, and vets are best placed to provide dietary recommendations to pets based on current scientific knowledge.”—Dr Paula Parker, president, Australian Veterinary Association
Dr Parker adds that pet food is largely unregulated in Australia, so the onus is on vets to remain up to date on the science. “We have to consider nutrition as part of every interaction we have with an animal and its owner,” she says, “and vets are best placed to provide dietary recommendations to pets based on current scientific knowledge.”
Science-based pet food is key for Royal Canin, says Dr Magelakis, who explains that the company offers different diets which have been formulated for the pet’s age, weight, size and breed. “We have an extensive range because we believe there’s not a one-size-fits-all diet for pets,” she explains. “I know from my time in clinical work that getting effective weight loss in pets is very challenging—so it’s best for vets to give advice on how to implement a weight loss program, and also safely track the pet’s progress. Pet owners require a lot of support because they often have to make fairly significant changes to their pet’s routine, and they want to know that they’re on the right track.”
Offering pet dieting services
You can have a page on your website with dietary recommendations for dogs, or flyers cat owners can take home so they know what to feed Fluffy—but it’s really about personalising the process for every overweight or obese pet you’re faced with, says Dr Fawcett. “This means performing a body conditions score (BCS) or having the nurse do it, which I think really improves the bond with the practice. I think you also need to take a detailed history and ask a lot of questions at every visit.
“You have to ask things like, ‘What do you feed this animal? How do you feed them? How often? What are their eating habits? What snacks do they have between meals?’ You want to ask the same questions in different ways to get a full picture. When putting together a program, I might talk about diet modification, but also exercise and activities that improve the human-animal bond, so rewards aren’t always food.”
Finally, after tailoring a weight-loss program for the pet in question, don’t forget to write down your recommendations, which can be stuck on the fridge for all family members to see and follow. “I’ve found that specific, detailed, written recommendations can be very helpful for most pet owners—as is explaining to owners how they can continue their bonding behaviours with their pet within my recommendations,” explains Dr Parker.
And with any luck, hopefully you can steer those portly pets back to peak health, she adds. “After all, being at an ideal weight and having a balanced, nutritious diet appropriate for the pet’s species, breed and age is central to our pets living long and happy lives.”