Deborah Linder, DVM, MS, DACVIM (Nutrition)
Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®
Changing the focus from obesity to proactive conversations about quality of life and wellness can make talking about nutrition easier and more enjoyable.
Proactive nutrition conversations can empower families to provide the happiest and healthiest lives for their pet
As a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®, some of the most common concerns I hear from families are: ‘What is the best diet?’ and ‘What should we feed our pet so he lives a long and happy life?’ The answer I give is often a bit surprising: The only nutritional approach shown to help pets live longer and happier lives is to start early and keep them at a healthy weight throughout their life!1-4 I let families know about an important lifetime study1 that looked at a group of Labrador Retrievers that only differed by the amount of food they were given. This study monitored dogs from the time of weaning and found that the dogs that ate more calories (and were then allowed to become overweight) had a shorter life span of a median 1.8 years compared to their trim counterparts. The dogs that were at a healthy weight their entire life also had fewer and more delayed signs of chronic disease.
Two important lessons learned from this study:
Healthy weight pets not only live longer, but can also thrive and live happier lives
When I previously focused on obesity in my conversations, I often heard from families that they wanted to prioritize their pet’s happiness in lieu of a healthy weight. Because animals don’t experience social stigma around their weight (i.e., overweight dogs are unlikely to be shunned at the dog park by other dogs!), some families I talk with have the misperception that ‘a fat pet is a happy pet.’ Studies support the opposite, however, and overweight and obese pets are at risk of worse quality of life, including lower vitality and emotional disturbance.3,4 Thankfully, this can be reversed, and weight loss can also improve quality of life3 and painful conditions like lameness in dogs.5
Talking with families about obesity can be challenging and can turn into emotional conversations for everyone on the healthcare team. However, instead of avoiding the topic, we can embrace the emotion and leverage the strong bond that families have with their pets6 to change the conversation. Focusing on a pet’s happiness and quality of life can help alleviate hesitation for engaging in weight loss or obesity prevention and make conversations easier. For example, one study showed 97% of cat owners would be willing to engage in a weight loss program if it would improve their cat’s quality of life.4 Introducing proactive nutrition at key points in a pet’s life can help prevent obesity and let families focus on positive and healthy strategies that strengthen their bond with their pet.
“The pet’s not even overweight, there’s no time to talk obesity!”
Proactive nutrition not only helps pets and their families, but can also reduce frustration and workload for the veterinary healthcare team.
As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is indeed worth more than a pound of cure (or at least very time-consuming treatment and management!). Weight gain is much easier to prevent than obesity is to treat. While it may seem like taking time that we don’t have to discuss a solution to a problem that hasn’t yet happened, because there are now more identifiable obesity risk factors for pets, we can have more effective and strategic conversations about proactive nutrition to better prevent obesity.7
Weight loss programs can be challenging not only for families, but also for veterinary healthcare teams and require long-term commitment and staff time and effort.8 From my clinical experience, creating an effective weight loss plan takes time and careful consideration to understand not only what an obese pet needs, but also what support the family needs in order to be successful.
Success can be challenging, even in optimal weight loss circumstances such as the one described in a veterinary teaching hospital obesity clinic with staff dedicated to weight loss patients.8 Though pets can safely lose up to 2% of their body weight per week, the average (practical) rate of weight loss in this obesity clinic study was 0.6% body weight per week.8 This occurred over a median 200-day duration, though some needed up to 3 years to achieve target weight, with weigh-ins every 7 to 28 days and an overall 31% attrition rate.8 Regardless of the work required, weight loss programs are still necessary and critical to improve quality of life in obese pets. However, efforts should be made to prevent obesity and minimize the need for these intensive interventions.