Combatting Obesity in Pets and People: A One Health Approach

August 14, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

A One Health framework between human and veterinary healthcare professionals provides a novel approach to treating and preventing obesity in pets and humans.

As reported in a recent Journal of Comparative Pathology review article, a One Health framework that fosters communication between human and veterinary health care professionals provides a novel approach to combating pet and human obesity.

Obesity is a persistent global health problem in both pets and people, despite years of obesity research and an obsession—particularly in the United States—with weight loss. In fact, nearly half of all pets and one-third of people in America are obese. Confronting obesity, however, is challenging due to the complexity of the problem and barriers to maintaining long-term weight loss.

A One Health framework, the article’s authors believe, can provide novel solutions to combat obesity on both the individual and societal levels.


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Communication Within Disciplines

In addition to interdisciplinary collaboration, the authors proposed communication strategies within veterinary and human medicine to address obesity.

Veterinary Medicine

Pet obesity is often a difficult topic to address in veterinary medicine. Clients may become offended when told their pet is obese, or discouraged if the prescribed weight loss plan isn’t successful. In addition, a veterinary health care team may send mixed messages to a client about his or her pet’s obesity.

The authors highlighted 4 key aspects of successfully combating pet obesity:

  • Proper diagnosis
  • Whole team involvement
  • Focus on the patient and client
  • Follow-up and readjustments, if needed

To discuss obesity effectively, communication with the client should be motivational and tailored to his or her “stage of change,” which can range from resistance to action. Also, defined forms of exercise, like planned walks, should be encouraged in addition to weight loss diets.

Human Medicine

Currently, physicians are expected to discuss weight during patient visits and document whether a patient’s body mass index (BMI) indicates obesity; such expectations create reluctance and unease regarding weight discussions. The authors recommended focusing less on BMI and more on a “health at every size” philosophy that promotes increased physical activity and healthy eating.

For example, Kaiser Permanente uses an “exercise vital sign” (EVS) to assess whether patients are meeting the US guidelines for physical activity. EVS is measured along with other vitals and can be the starting point for recommending forms of moderate exercise.

The One Health Approach

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association One Health Committee proposed 2 areas of focus to combat pet and human obesity: (1) the human-animal bond and (2) comparative and translational clinical research.

The strength of the human-animal bond can be leveraged to reduce pet and human obesity by increasing motivation and adherence to a weight loss plan. The People and Pets Exercising Together study was the first to illustrate the benefit of this bond in obese pets and people. In the study, people saw their pets as forms of social support to encourage physical activity.

Comparative and translational clinical research using companion animals serves several beneficial purposes, the authors noted, including:

  • Improved understanding of obesity’s causes
  • Evaluation of specific dietary components and weight loss strategies
  • Development of new, validated technologies to measure physical activity

Looking Forward

To promote a One Health framework to prevent and treat obesity, the authors proposed several actions to take:

  • Advocate for One Health policy initiatives that address obesity
  • Publicize and promote funding for One Health—focused research
  • Foster interdisciplinary communication through informational websites and symposia

Realizing the potential of a One Health approach to fighting obesity, the authors wrote, “will take the efforts and leadership of a committed group of like-minded individuals representing a range of scientific and medical disciplines.”

Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.