Overweight pets are on the rise


Chances are you're already seeing the effects of pet obesity manifested in diseases like diabetes and osteoarthritis. And obesity-related illnesses won't start decreasing anytime soon.

Chances are you're already seeing the effects of pet obesity manifested in diseases like diabetes and osteoarthritis. And obesity-related illnesses won't start decreasing anytime soon.

In fact, as much as 40 percent of American household pets are obese or overweight, according to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPI) in Brea, Calif. And the problem isn't limited to dogs and cats; other pets such as rabbits and ferrets are also tilting the scale.

Of course, pets aren't the only ones battling obesity: According to the American Obesity Association, 65 percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese, and obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And overweight owners are three times more likely to have overweight pets, according to VPI.

Part of the problem is that with the advanced medical technology available, people are getting the notion that health problems can be fixed with a simple surgery or medication, but that's not always true, says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. "We aren't going to have a miracle cure for Type II diabetes in pets anytime soon," he says.

Who suffers?

"When pets lose vitality, it injures the owner-pet bond, particularly for families with dogs," says Dr. Ward. "Pet owners like to be able to engage in physical activities with their dogs, and if an older, obese pet can't participate anymore, they lose some of that interaction."

Of course, the hard part for many pet owners is that they enjoy indulging their pets. So they too often overfeed them or give them the less healthy, but tastier, food choices. In the long run, those questionable choices damage the pet's health and may shorten its life. Case in point: Insurance claims related to heart attacks in pets rose 47 percent in the past two years, according to VPI data.

Quick facts

Obesity also affects a pet's quality of life. "Down the road, an overweight animal has an increased likelihood of developing crippling osteoarthritis," says Dr. Ward, who is also a personal trainer. Pointing out these types of consequences to owners helps them understand that a treat can be a threat in disguise.

What can you do?

The best approach: Work hard to get this health message across to owners. For example, Dr. Ward tells pet owners that obesity is just as serious as cancer, and even more common and life-threatening. And he lets his clients know that he walks his talk with his own pets.

You're not alone if you feel uncomfortable discussing pet obesity. "We don't want to talk about it because we worry that what we're saying will be misconstrued," says Dr. Ward. "This is a very personal issue if you're struggling with it yourself, and you clearly don't want to offend your client."

Remember though, if you don't discuss pet obesity with your clients, it can come back to haunt you. For instance, no one wants to face euthanizing a pet because the client can't or won't treat Type II diabetes, heart disease, or osteoarthritis. "So much can be prevented simply by talking to your clients," Dr. Ward says.

Info bite : Defining obesity

He suggests talking about your own experiences with controlling a pet's weight. It can also help to focus the conversation on your mutual goal. For example, you might say something like, "Mrs. Smith, I know you try to keep Fluffy healthy, and one of the very best things you could do is control her weight."

While a wellness visit is a great time to talk about diet and weight control, you have other opportunities to boost clients' awareness about the danger of pet obesity. For example, the team at Seaside Animal Care holds an annual health fair and an open house that focuses on weight. Dr. Ward also reaches out to the local media through pet-health segments on television news and radio, and by submitting articles to local newspapers and magazines. "You'll be pleasantly surprised at their acceptance and reception," he says. "It would also be great to promote a dog jog or another event that gets pet owners tuned in to pet fitness and health," he says.

The ongoing effort

Of course, weight control is not a "hold a great event and move on" kind of issue. Keep in mind that pet owners need regular education and reinforcement.

Some practices post charts to track pets' weight loss. They weigh them every time they come in and offer a prize, like a bag of low-fat food or a toy, to pets that reach their goals. You also may want to put a scale somewhere accessible so owners can bring pets in and weigh them for free, without having an appointment.

Finally, you should offer or display literature about the dangers of pet obesity. "Many people think that being physically limited is the biggest consequence," says Dr. Ward. "Clients may not be aware of the many health risks, such as diabetes and joint and back problems."

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