Understanding pet owner behavior to achieve weight loss in companion animals (Sponsored by Nestlé Purina)
Part of the 2011 Nestlé Purina Veterinary Symposium publication
Obesity in companion animals has become a serious medical problem. Data published in Australia found 33.5% of dogs were classed as overweight, whereas 7.6% were judged to be obese, findings which are likely comparable to those in the USA.1,2 The prevelance of obesity in cats appears to be similar.3 Overweight animals may experience orthopedic problems, metabolic diseases, a reduced quality of life, and a shorter life span. Even with a plethora of weight-loss diets available to them, some pet owners seem unable to help their companion animals lose weight. When owners try a weight-loss diet for their pet, and the pet does not lose weight, the owners may conclude the diet or your advice is ineffective. Considering the behavioral factors in weight loss will improve owner compliance and benefit the pet with better overall health.
Health risks associated with obesity
Research has indicated that overweight dogs with hip osteoarthritis will show fewer clinical signs of lameness with an 11% to 18% weight loss.4 Caloric restriction and maintaining a lean body condition throughout life have been associated with an increase in the median life span of dogs.5 Research has found that the risk of health problems was higher in overweight cats—"heavy cats were 2.9 times as likely to be taken to veterinarians because of lameness not associated with cat bite abscesses. Obese cats were also 3.9 times as likely to develop diabetes mellitus, 2.3 times as likely to develop nonallergic skin conditions, and 4.9 times as likely to develop lameness requiring veterinary care."6
Indoor confinement and physical inactivity (often found in cases of obesity) have also been associated with diabetes mellitus.7 Puppies and kittens that are overweight are more likely to become overweight adults. Spayed and neutered individuals may be at a higher risk for weight gain because of decreased energy requirements.8 Naturally, certain chronic disease conditions and medications can also contribute to excessive weight gain. Finally, obesity can lead to other behavior problems if it causes pain or if it causes anxiety or competition over food resources, which may even result in aggression.
Understanding the problem
In most situations, the weight issue is not complicated. Pet obesity results from overconsumption of food provided. Yet the problem goes deeper; with both the owner and the pet contributing issues and behaviors that make food consumption about more than nutrition. For many owners feeding their pet is a bonding experience associated with love and caring. They like to show their pet how much they care, and providing the pet with delectable food, treats, and special tidbits symbolizes love. Owners of overweight cats were found to have a closer relationship with their cats and view them as substitutes for human companionship when compared with owners of normal weight cats.9 Owners of overweight dogs also tend to feel that their dogs are a substitute for human companions and spend more time with their dogs during meals.10 Additionally, owners of overweight dogs tend to interpret every need of their dog as a request for food.10
Feeding ecology of dogs and cats
Because of the feeding ecology of canids, a dog's food-seeking behavior may not be hunger driven, but the natural food-scavenging behavior of dogs. Dogs tend to eat in a "feast or famine" mode, eating large quantities when food is available since hunting and catching prey is unreliable. In life, food is an important commodity; some dogs will ask for food even if they receive adequate daily nutrition. The smell or presence of food is enough to elicit this response in most dogs. If they receive food, this reinforces scavenging and begging behavior, making these behaviors more likely to recur. Acquiring food through a certain behavior is a Pavlovian learned response that is difficult to extinguish.
The feeding ecology of felids is different, and many owners are unaware that cats would naturally eat multiple small meals daily rather than one or two larger ones. Even if owners are aware of a cat's natural tendency, they may not know how to feed their cat in that manner and maintain weight or achieve weight loss. Cats may vocalize to the owner for attention or to play, but owners often assume that the cat is hungry, especially if the cat follows them into the kitchen. Even rubbing behavior, a typical cat greeting behavior, can be misinterpreted as food seeking.
Social factors in food consumption
Social factors within the home can have a profound influence on consumptive behavior in dogs and cats. Group eating in dogs results in social facilitation of eating and for some dogs an increase in consumption. Dogs may threaten, fight, or intimidate other dogs when food is being prepared and consumed, altering the amount consumed or the eating pattern of other dogs. Common signs may include an altered consumption rate; faster eating with increased intake may be interpreted as hunger, or very slow eating may be interpreted as dislike of the product provided. However, both can simply be a sign of competition or anxiety about food.
For cats, if necessary resources, such as food bowls, are not adequately provided and spaced within the home, a cat may overeat or eat very quickly when a food bowl is available. These behaviors could lead to obesity, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal problems. Severe social pressure between household cats may result in increased vomiting, and the owner may presume that the food is at fault or that there are hairballs. Owners may attempt to switch food without success, instead of addressing the underlying social factors. Cats also prefer to eat in privacy and take prey to a secluded location for consumption, and cats may replicate this eating behavior in the home.
Satiety versus meeting caloric needs
Another issue is satiety, the sensation of fullness, which may not be achieved or noted by the pet. When the pet is fed a food that is highly palatable it may be stimulated to consume more than it needs. Alternately, if the food has high caloric density per piece, resulting in smaller portions being offered, the animal may not "feel" full. Although ideally an animal should eat to meet its caloric needs, if it does not "feel" full, begging and food-seeking behavior may persist.
Most behavior is influenced by the "if/then" relationship—if I do behavior A, then outcome B occurs. The stronger the relationship is between the behavior and outcome, the more difficult it will be to change the behavior. In weight-loss issues, several "if/then" situations arise that may be obstacles to success. In fact, the mere presence of the owner may be a signal that food is forthcoming, resulting in a classically conditioned response. For the owner, the pet's apparent delight at receiving food is the reward for giving treats or tidbits from the table. The owner might be unaware of how to provide bonding and enrichment for the pet without using food. Appropriate enrichment and owner-pet activities can be another way to strengthen the human-animal bond. In addition, keeping dogs and cats more active encourages weight loss.
Identifying the issues
The first step in identifying the behavioral issues underlying a pet's weight problem is to gather pertinent information about the household routine. For starters, ask owners to identify all sources of food being provided to their pets, including all set meals and treats. Provide owners with a measuring tool for food and treats and ask them to measure the amount of food provided each day for one week. Ask owners to identify the feeding pattern (once daily, twice daily, several small meals, free choice). (For a complete list of questions to ask pet owners, see Table 1.)
Table 1. Explore the feeding behavior
Dietary and environmental management in dogs
Feeding set meals rather than free-choice feeding works well for many dogs and is often recommended. Most dogs would prefer to eat at least two meals a day, and feeding multiple meals may help with begging behavior. All food provided to the pet must be measured using the same measurement tool every meal. Alternately, a week's worth of meals can be set up and then dispensed at mealtime. Regularly scheduled meals will help create predictability for the pet and may reduce owner overfeeding. In a multiple-dog home, certain recommendations may make compliance easier. (See Table 2.)
Table 2. Feeding routines for a home with multiple pets
For some dogs, slowing down the rate of eating and having the dog work for its food can increase satiety and decrease begging. The best options for doing this are food-dispensing toys. These must be used cautiously in a multiple-dog home since fighting over food-dispensing toys can occur. (See Table 3 for a resource list.)
Table 3. Resources
If food-seeking behavior and begging occur while human food is being prepared and eaten, then the dog should be confined elsewhere during these activities. However, owners are often unable or unwilling to comply with this recommendation. One alternative is to use part of the pet's daily ration as "table treats" that are given when the dog begs at the table. Another is to feed the dog during these times using a food-dispensing toy or a long-lasting treat. A more useful tip is to explain to the owners that the begging behavior is reinforced by the dog intermittently receiving food, which makes the dog hopeful that this will occur again. Therefore, when they stop feeding the dog from the table, begging behavior is likely to continue and actually may increase, until it finally goes away if no food is given.
If food sharing is a large component of the human-animal bond, create an acceptable food-sharing plan that includes the approved diet or some low-calorie substitute such as carrots or apples. Identifying and dealing with this problem is likely to increase compliance overall.
In some situations, counter-surfing and garbage-raiding will test the owner's patience. Discussions about how to keep these items away from the dog can help. These include keeping garbage under the sink, rather than in an accessible garbage can, and placing bread in a covered breadbox.
Treats are almost always an issue. Many dogs get treats for simply being cute or just coming inside. These can add up to many additional calories over the course of a day. Although we would like owners to stop giving the pet treats, realistically most will not. By calculating the number of treats given each day, it is possible to ask the owners to break each treat in half and decrease the number of treats by 50%. Once they realize that the size of the treat does not seem to matter to the pet, it is often easy to substitute something else or switch to a low-calorie option.
Owner and pet become conditioned to use food as a bonding exercise. Replacing this bonding exercise with another is crucial to success. Increasing exercise, bonding, and play is critical. It is often assumed that a dog with a fenced yard will exercise itself, but once the dog is out of adolescence, this is simply not so. Therefore, the owner needs to find a way to increase activity levels. Walks are a good alternative. In many situations, the owner is unable or unwilling to walk the dog due to its behavior on a leash. Appropriate control products, such as head halters or no-pull body harnesses, can be used to address leash-walking problems. As part of the weight-loss plan, the owner could meet with a veterinary technician to learn how to use these devices for more pleasurable walks. Walks do not need to be long, but should be frequent. Be sure to counsel owners that an increase in exercise does not mean that the dog can increase its intake of food.
If the dog likes to play with toys, then the owner and the dog can play fetch. Most owners have a difficult time getting the dog to drop the ball so that the game can continue. This can be overcome by using two objects. When the dog returns with one object, the owner holds up the second one, asks the dog to drop the object and when it does, the new object is thrown. Other games are possible, such as hide and seek or even basic training or tricks to keep the pet moving.
Dietary and environmental management in cats
The feeding ecology of a cat differs from that of a dog. Cats generally will eat multiple small meals a day, some say up to 12 to 15. Cats often like privacy when they eat, so placing food bowls in noisy or busy locations may alter feeding patterns and lead to either under- or overconsumption.
The type of food and the way food is provided seem to influence weight loss in cats. A randomized, single-blind study in 2009 investigated the effect of dietary strategies and diet composition on weight loss in cats.11 Cats in the study were fed either Diet A, a novel dry high-fiber ration; Diet B, pre-prepared portions of dry and moist food; or Diet C, an existing commercial dry high-fiber ration fed with a measuring cup. Mean weight loss was similar among the groups. However, owners using Diet C and the measuring cup recorded higher hunger scores than those for Diet A or B. In addition, owners using Diet C and the measuring cup were most dissatisfied. Owners noted an increase in activity in the cats with all diets. Perhaps encouraging owners to separate out daily portions ahead of time and give those portions to cats as well as using a high-fiber food can increase owner compliance and affect cat behavior.
Because social issues can have a profound effect on food consumption in cats, environmental placement of food is very important. (See Table 2.) Owners may not be aware of social issues because aggression between cats is often not overt, but may consist of staring, blocking, and mild chasing, which can intimidate a cat from approaching the food bowl. It often is illuminating to ask when the owner sees all the cats in one place. If that rarely occurs, then distributing resources all over the home is essential because some cats may have their movement and access to resources restricted by another cat.
Exercise and increased activity can aid in weight loss in cats. Some cats enjoy interactive play with their owners and the use of toys can greatly enhance this activity. (See Table 3.) Owners should realize that when active play wanes after a short time, removal of the toy and substitution with another would restimulate play activity.12 Adding climbing towers and placing food bowls in out-of-the-way places can increase activity. Some cats will use food-dispensing toys and can have at least one meal a day provided in this manner.
Follow up and overcoming pitfalls and lapses in compliance
Owners often get discouraged because weight loss is slow. One pound of weight lost by a dog can equal 5 pounds lost by a person. Explaining the weight loss as a percentage of body weight sometimes helps. For example, 5 pounds lost in a 50-pound dog can seem like a small amount to the owner. But when you explain to the owner that the dog has lost 10% of its total body weight, the significance of the achievement is more likely to become clear. Moreover, pet owners are often isolated from other pet owners, so opportunities to share experiences through a structured program such as Project Pet Slim Down (projectpetslimdown.com) can help increase compliance.
Evidence exists that weight-loss programs that include regular follow up improve compliance and results.13 Not only can follow-up visits be used to weigh the pet, but they are an opportunity to discuss what behaviors are troublesome and interfering with compliance. At that time, the technician can offer alternate solutions that may help the owner keep on track with the treatment plan. Enhanced compliance can occur by offering the owner pre-prepared pet food, food-dispensing toys, play items, and control devices for walking the dog.
Effective weight-loss plans are achievable using the proper diet, behavioral interventions for both the owner and the pet, and good coaching and follow up.
1. McGreevy PD, Thomson PC, Pride C, et al. Prevalence of obesity in dogs examined by Australian veterinary practices and the risk factors involved. Vet Rec 2005;156:695-707.
2. Burkholder WJ, Toll PW. Obesity. In: Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, et al, eds. Small animal clinical nutrition, 4th ed. Topeka, Kan.: Mark Morris Institute, 2000;401-430.
3. Colliard L, Paragon BM, Lemuet B, et al. Prevalence and risk factors of obesity in an urban population of healthy cats. J Feline Med Surg 2009;11:135-140.
4. Impellizeri JA, Tetrick MA, Muir P. Effect of weight reduction on clinical signs of lameness in dogs with hip osteoarthritis. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000;216:1089-1091.
5. Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, et al. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;220:1315-1320.
6. Scarlett JM, Donoghue S. Associations between body condition and disease in cats J Am Vet Med Assoc 1998;212:1725-1731.
7. Slingerland LI, Fazilova VV, Planting EA, et al. Indoor confinement and physical inactivity rather than the proportion of dry food are risk factors in the development of feline type 2 diabetes mellitus. Vet J 2009;179:247–253.
8. Harperd EJ, Stack MT, Watson TGD, et al. Effects of feeding regimens on a bodyweight, composition and condition score in cats following ovariohysterectomy. J Small Anim Pract 2001;42:433-438.
9. Kienzle E, Berglert R. Human-Animal Relationship of Owners of Normal and Overweight Cats. J Nutr 2006;136(suppl):1947S-1950S.
10. Kienzle E, Bergler R, Mandernack A. Comparisons of the feeding behavior and the human-animal relationship in owners of normal and obese dogs. J Nutr 1998;12(suppl):128.
11. Bissot T, Servet E, Vidal S, et al. Novel dietary strategies can improve the outcome of weight loss programmes in obese client-owned cats. J Feline Med Surg 2010 Feb;12(2):104-12.
12. Hall SL, Bradshaw JWS, Robinson IH. Object play in adult domestic cats: the roles of habituation and disinhibition. App Anim Behav Sci 2002;79:263-271.
13. Roudebush P, Schoenherr WD, Delaney SJ. An evidence-based review of the use of therapeutic foods, owner education, exercise and drugs for the management of obese and overweight pets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:717-725.