Resolved: to educate clients about diet


This might be an ideal time of year to talk to pet owners about pursuing a healthier lifestyle for their companions.

National Report

-- Losing weight was the second most popular New Year's resolution last year, behind getting out of debt, according to a Franklin Covey poll. So this might be an ideal time of year to talk to pet owners about pursuing a healthier lifestyle for their companions, nutritionists say.

An October 2008 DVM News Poll indicated that veterinarians rank about 37 percent of their patient population as obese. A 2006 Pfizer study showed similar results, adding that only about 17 percent of pet owners agreed with their veterinarian's assessments.

Veterinarians are well aware of the health risks to obese cats - diabetes mellitus, joint diseases, non-allergic skin conditions and early death - and to obese dogs - osteoarthritis, cardiac disease, respiratory conditions, dermatological problems, compromised immune function and intervertebral disk rupture.

It might not take much for Fifi or Fido to tip the scales. Just one ounce of cheddar cheese for a 20-pound dog is the human equivalent of one-and-a-half hamburgers. The same thing fed to a 10-pound cat is the human equivalent of three-and-half hamburgers, according to the animal-snack translator at

So what can a veterinarian do to help their patients get through the holiday season without joining the ranks of obese pets or becoming even more unhealthy? How can a well-meaning veterinarian talk to the overweight owner of an obese pet? Here are some tips:

Already overindulged

Additional foods beyond regular pet foods, like chocolate and grapes, can have adverse effects on some pets, and large amounts of high-fat table foods, common around the holidays, can lead to gastroenteritis and pancreatitis, says Dr. Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVM and a professor of nutrition at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Talk to pet owners about keeping non-pet foods to a minimum, or substituting human-food "treats" with items like carrots or green beans, she says. Counteract any holiday indulgences or under-the-table sneak treats by feeding pets a little less of their regular food that day. Also, many veterinarians suggest offering treats of affection instead of food to satisfy a "beggar."

For pets already desperate for a New Year's Resolution to drop a few pounds, suggest that owners keep a "food diary," paying close attention to what, when and how much is fed to their pet, says Dr. Sarah Abood, DVM, PhD, a pet nutrition specialist with Michigan State University.

Food should be served in 8-ounce portions, and snack in amounts no bigger than a thumbnail, she adds. Another tip to cut back on pet snacking is to advise owners that all treats should be fed from the food bowl, not a human hand. Also, try placing food bowls at the top or bottom of a staircase so the pet has to exercise a little just to get to their food, Abood says.

Communicating the problem

Talking to pet owners, especially those who don't maintain a healthy weight for themselves, can be a difficult task, Freeman says.

"The main thing is to address it," she says. "Don't avoid the subject. Provide the owner with accurate reasons why it's a health risk for the pet."

Get a thorough diet history of the patient to find out where its individual problems are, whether it's too many treats, the wrong type of food or too many hands in the household offering snacks, Freeman suggests. Offer specific recommendations on food brands, feeding amounts and frequencies and monitor the pet's progress.

For pet owners who simply don't agree that their pet is overweight, Freeman suggests using diagrams or photos of what an optimal weight would look like to illustrate the difference between the ideal and reality.

Increase compliance

Don't be above scare tactics. Sometimes, an incentive must be given to the pet owner to help them understand that their pet is obese and there can be adverse consequences, Freeman says. Outline all the consequences and provide specific instructions to owners that are easy to follow on how to improve their pet's health.

Discuss the incentives the owner offers their pet and negotiate specific types and numbers of treats allowed that will fit into the overall diet plan.

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