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6 Reasons Why It’s Hard for Veterinarians to Talk About Overweight Pets

I’ve been a veterinarian for many years, but obesity is really something that all of us who love pets and want them to feel good and live long and healthy lives need to address. With pet obesity at epidemic levels (over 58 percent) weight management needs to be talked about. Pet owners deserve clear instructions, including what food and how much to feed...but why would a client feel that they didn’t get a clear recommendation or plan from their veterinarian?

1. Many pet owners won’t acknowledge that their pet is overweight or don't equate their pet being overweight with illness. The fact is that even pets who are 15 percent overweight (an ideal weight cat of 10 pounds who weighs just 11.5 pounds) already have inflammatory changes in the body causing damage. Getting the client to acknowledge the problem can make the discussion delicate and time consuming. The veterinarian may feel they risk losing trust with the client and may not go there (or go there strongly enough). At our clinic, we simply focus on always being the pet’s advocate and try and communicate the risks and benefits of obesity as clearly as possible without offending.

2.  A body condition score (BCS), body weight and muscle condition score (MCS) need to be taken routinely and trends monitored. We have good tools to do this and can easily teach the owner how to monitor these at home. An accurate scale and good visuals help everyone in the family understand the goal. Monthly reassessment is recommended if pets are more than 20 percent overweight. But repeat visits also take time and cats, in particular, are usually not fond of car rides. We try and paint reassessment visits as “easy, friendly visits” and a good time to pick up food or flea, tick, or heartworm preventives.

3. A safe, effective food recommendation must be made. With over 15,000 different brands, there is currently no way for the veterinarian (or pet owner) to easily choose a safe, healthy food. That along with the “over-marketing” of grain-free, raw, and natural foods, which many times are not science-based at all, can cause us to hesitate on a recommendation. If the pet is 20 percent or more overweight, almost all board-certified veterinary nutritionists highly recommend a prescription diet for the pet to safely lose weight without losing muscle mass or depleting micronutrients. The top pet food companies all have Rx diets that are moderate calorie and higher in protein that burn fat while maintaining muscle condition and satisfying the pet. 

4. The correct number of calories needs to be calculated. Calorie calculation has been made much easier by the Pet Nutrition Alliance (PNA) nutritional calculator. The PNA does not recommend a food, but based on your pet’s current BCS, it will give a starting calorie number. (Again, reassessment is stressed.)

5. Veterinarians, in general, are no better trained in nutrition than physicians. There are only 85 board-certified veterinary nutritionists in the world. Some veterinary schools aren't lucky enough to have one, they are in such short supply. But there are more and more continuing education courses focusing on weight management and the profession is slowly coming up to speed.

6. Treating pet obesity involves changing how we feed our pets, so it can be an emotional, not a “fun” topic. OK, so neither are fleas, ticks, and vaccines, necessarily, but getting a client motivated to change strong pet-feeding-related behaviors can be challenging. At our clinic, we hold an annual “Pets Reducing for Rescues” contest, donating money to rescues to increase the fun, and client motivation and buy-in. By rewarding with prizes like activity monitors, microchipped and automatic feeders, under litter box scales, etc., and holding regular weigh-ins, people are more engaged and find that weight loss isn't so difficult after all. We even have a fully equipped cat gym (yes, a cat gym!) to send the message of how important home activity is and to gather cat owners monthly to discuss nutrition and cats’ indoor needs.

Yes, we are sometimes fighting an uphill battle with all these obstacles. But the goal is a vital one. It has been proven that ideal weight dogs live an average of 15 percent longer, and that has been proven in most other species, too. Just as importantly, they feel better, have less medical problems, are more active, and the human health bond is enriched. It can be done. As they say, let's just do it!

Dr. Ken Lambrecht is medical director of West Towne Veterinary Center, an AAHA-accredited, gold-level designated Cat Friendly Practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Ken currently serves on the Cat Friendly Practice Committee. He is pet parent to four cats, including Bug, his world traveling adventure cat.

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