As Australia’s pets pack on the pounds, how to best treat pet obesity is a growing issue for vets. The solution, says one US-based pet nutrition expert, could lie in examining the pet-owner relationship. By Shane Conroy
Our pets are in the midst of an obesity crisis. According to research that came out of the Royal Canin Weight Management Congress, our ballooning pets are largely a result of overindulgent pet owners.
The Congress revealed that more than half of cat and dog owners always or often give their pet food if they beg for it (54 per cent), and almost a quarter (22 per cent) sometimes overfeed their pet to keep them happy.
While there are several vet-approved pet food diets on the market, simply sending your clients home with a bag of diet dog or cat chow may not be enough to win the battle of the bulge alone.
Dr Deborah Linder, board-certified veterinary nutritionist® and research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Boston, believes vets must more deeply examine the pet-owner relationship to get to the bottom of the obesity problem.
Packing on the pounds
Dr Linder says this begins with educating pet owners about the dangers of obesity and the heavy impact even a small weight gain can wield on their beloved pet’s lifespan.
“Some owners may be unaware of just how much each extra pound is weighing on their pet. While a gain of five pounds (2.2kg) may sound like a holiday dinner weight gain for a person, the same amount of weight would be the equivalent of gaining almost 20 pounds (9kg) for your pet,” she explains.
“While you might not see it right away, studies have shown pets who are overweight develop more medical conditions and have worse quality of life. On the other hand, pets who are trim are healthier, happier, and could live a longer life (1.8 years in one study).”
When it comes to identifying pet obesity, Dr Linder says vigilance and early intervention are vital.
“The body condition scoring (BCS) system and a thorough diet history are your best friends,” she explains. “As soon as you notice potential overfeeding or a pet entering the overweight range, check in and help show owners how to check and monitor the pet themselves. For example, the rib cage should feel just as padded as the back of your hand.”
Food does not equal love
Some pet owners may feel that giving their pet regular food treats has become an essential part of their bond. However, this can sabotage the results of a vet-prescribed weight-loss diet.
“We treat our cats and dogs like family members more than ever before,” says Dr Linder. “This can be a great thing as we are more invested in our pets’ wellbeing and care. However, food should not equal love. There are many other ways we can show love to our pets and enhance and support our bond with our animals.”
Vets can play a lead role in revealing some of the other ways pet owners can maintain a strong bond with their pets without the calorie-rich treats.
“Exploring the bond between pets and household members through open-ended questions like ‘Could you describe your daily routine with your pet?’ can help to identify other activities that strengthen the human-animal bond,” she says. “However, it is important to emphasise that following dietary guidelines does not equal no feeding at all. Sometimes, it’s as simple as swapping out current treats for lower-calorie options.”
Context is everything
Obesity can be a sensitive issue to raise with dedicated pet owners. Vets may feel apprehensive about offending clients with conversations around the weight of their pets. This can be particularly concerning where you believe the pet owner’s overindulgent behaviours might be at the root of the cause.
When raising this issue with your clients, Dr Linder says context is everything, and choosing your words carefully can help to quell any offence caused.
“Instead of using potentially accusatory, individual-focused phrases like ‘Max could lose a few pounds’, one option is to instead try ‘Did you know pets who are trim live longer lives? You could add years to your pet’s life by getting weight off!’.
“You will often have better success by emphasising not only the benefits for a pet, but also the owner’s relationship with their animal and how this could make them happier as well as healthier.”
Every pet is different
Dr Linder also points out that a one-size-fits-all approach to pet weight loss and diet management rarely achieves the best outcomes. She says if a vet can understand each client’s unique relationship with their pet, they will be better equipped to design a personalised weight-loss plan that the client will be more comfortable following over the long term.
“Understanding the pet-owner relationship can help vets individualise nutritional management and find solutions that both the owners and the healthcare team feel comfortable with,” she says. “Asking about the relationship between the pet and all members of the household may uncover non-negotiable aspects of the human-animal bond that can be discussed and included in the plan to increase adherence.
“This kind of compromise can still allow for strides towards overall improved health. There may be compromise diets that are nutrient-dense and lower in calories, and the rate of weight loss can be slowed to be more gradual and careful to avoid nutrient deficiency during weight loss plans.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day
At the end of the day, the success of any weight loss plan will require vets to provide “continuing education and feedback for owners, as well as oversee troubleshooting as issues arise”, says Dr Linder. “The most important thing is to encourage owners to keep at it and provide resources at every opportunity to ensure success. Listening to owners and better understanding their relationship with their pet can help veterinarians better provide suggestions that support that human-animal bond without adverse effects to their pets.”