Tandem dieting programs can address pet obesity

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Participant drop-out rates were significantly lower in the PPET group.

Results from a study examining the possible benefits of combining treatment of overweight people and their canine pets demonstrate that both animals and their owners are more likely to adhere to a weight-loss and control program when they participate together vs. alone.

The Wellness Institute in Chicago investigated the People and Pet Exercising Together (PPET) study.

That information provides veterinarians with a useful tool for initiating a discussion about overweight pets and for addressing the problem with a strategy that is safe, effective and enjoyable, according to Jennifer Jellison, DVM, who practices in Columbus, Ohio.

"Obesity among pets is an epidemic in this country, and it poses significant health risks for the animals. Owners may realize their pets are overweight, but may lack the motivation to tackle the problem, and they also become tired of hearing about it repeatedly over time. In addition, some vets are reluctant to even raise the subject for fear of insulting their clients," Jellison says.

"Referencing this study offers a novel way to open the door to discussion of this issue, but importantly, it also provides a solution that is fun and has simultaneous benefits for strengthening the human-animal bond and improving quality of life for the owner."

The concept of combining companion animals and owners for social support to enable success with a weight-loss and weight-maintenance program was investigated in the People and Pet Exercising Together (PPET) study conducted at the Wellness Institute, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago. Sponsored by Hill's, the 12-month trial included three study groups: a people and pet group (PPET) comprised of 36 obese people with overweight pets (PET); a people only group (PO), including 56 obese people without pets; and a dog only group (DO), including 53 dogs whose owners did not participate in a weight-loss program.

All overweight human and animal subjects underwent a thorough health screening prior to enrollment. The dogs were fed a diet of low-fat, nutritionally balanced food (Hill's Prescription Diet® Canine r/d®) until ideal body weight was reached and then were changed to weight maintenance food (Hill's Prescription Diet® w/d®) for the duration of the study.

The people were provided with meal plans and pedometers and received behavioral counseling on controlling calorie intake and increasing physical activity. All groups were asked to participate in some moderate-intensity physical activity for 30 minutes three times a week and were followed with regular weigh-ins.

Data analyses based on last observation carried forward showed that at four and 12 months, animals and people in all groups lost weight and increased their physical activity level. In the PPET group, average weight loss for dogs was 15.8 percent and 15 percent at six and 12 months. Corresponding values in the DO group were 15.6 percent and 16 percent, and weight loss for people in the PPET and PO groups averaged about 5 percent at both 4 and 12 months. Across the various groups, moderate level activity accounted for 78 percent to 94 percent of total activity, and in the PPET group, the majority of the increase (about two-thirds) was dog-related.

While statistical analyses showed no significant between-group differences in the weight loss and physical activity endpoints, participant drop-out rates were significantly higher (p<0.05) in the DO group compared with the PPET group both at four months (25 percent vs. 11 percent, respectively) and 12 months (32 percent vs. 20 percent, respectively).

"This buddy approach seems particularly useful for promoting adherence to a new healthier lifestyle, which is important because dogs, like people, may be initially successful with weight reduction but be challenged to maintain the loss," Jellison says.

Jellison was involved as a consultant in the study protocol design. Robert Kushner, MD, medical director, Wellness Institute, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and professor of medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was the principal investigator. Working together with veterinarians from the company, he developed the idea of performing a formal study to investigate the benefits of pairing people with their pets in a weight-loss program. A recent study showing people entering a weight-control program were more successful at losing weight and maintaining their weight loss when they participated with a companion rather than solo served as the basis for that concept.

"The medical literature is replete with studies demonstrating the benefits of social support for accomplishing goals, and there are a number of trials showing the value of canine companionship for improving well-being in people with various medical illnesses, such as depression or heart disease. However, this is the first study I am aware of looking at the role of dogs to fill that social support role for weight control," Kushner says.

Jellison observes the concept that animal success in a weight-loss program might be enhanced by enlisting owner co-participation and vice versa seems intuitively obvious. However, the availability of clinical study data verifying its validity is important.

"Having this evidence in-hand makes it easier for us as vets to say to our clients your pet is overweight, but according to this study, if you exercise together, you and your pet will get healthier," Jellison explains.

The study was recently presented at the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity in Las Vegas.

Ms. Guttman is a freelance writer based in Deerfield, Ill.

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