VMX 2020—Pet weight loss and mobility: tips from the pros

January 17, 2020

Pet obesity is, unfortunately, still making news. But Banfield Pet Hospital is hoping to make progress in the fight against pet overweight and obesity with its 2020 VET Report.

Coinciding with the release of its fourth annual Veterinary Emerging Topics (VET)® Report, created in partnership with the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC), Banfield Pet Hospital presented several sessions at this year’s Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX) on the problem of overweight and obesity that is facing a hefty portion of dogs and cats today. Among the sessions was a panel discussion during which several veterinary specialists and researchers shared the secrets of their success in getting pets to lose weight and be more active.

But first, the hard truth: The 2020 VET Report found more than half (51%) of adult dogs that visited Banfield hospitals in 2018 were overweight, and less than 10% of those dogs were able to lose the excess weight successfully. Of those that did slim down, about 40% resumed their overweight status within 12 months. Unfortunately, pet obesity has been an issue for some time. Banfield continued its focus on overweight pets in this year’s VET Report because they believe the conversation around this important issue needs to change before the situation will improve.

Catherine Lenox, DVM, DACVN, Royal Canin's scientific affairs manager, stressed the importance of taking a comprehensive diet history. “A diet history does two important things,” she said. “First, it presents a clearer picture of what the pet is eating, including caloric intake. And second, it gives the veterinarian insight into the feeding practices or methods of the owner.”

A comprehensive diet history should include the following:

  • Diet type, amount and frequency, including the duration of feeding. “Always ask how they measure the food,” Dr. Lenox advised.
  • All types of treats, table scraps and human foods fed, including the amount and frequency
  • Food given for medication administration
  • Food used for training
  • Other pets’ food
  • Dietary supplements
  • Flavored medications
  • Toothpaste

Jason Coe, DVM, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, said many practices start off the weight management conversation with the wrong question. Instead of simply asking what type/kind of food the pet is eating (noting that in one study [article in press] 61% of clients named only one type of food in response to this question, and only 8% mentioned treats), phrase your question like this: Tell me everything your pet eats throughout a day, starting in the morning right through end of day.

“This will elicit much more information about the frequency of feeding, and the types of food and treats fed, and it will provide details on which further questions can be asked,” Dr. Coe said. “Asking the question in this way make take another minute or so, he says, but the time spent is well worth it.”

Mary Sarah Bergh, DVM, MS, DACVS, DACVSMR, affiliate associate professor at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said studies have shown that obesity significantly affects mobility in dogs, and that weight loss may lead to a longer life span, fewer signs of hip osteoarthritis (OA), and decreased elbow and shoulder OA. She recommended setting small goals, because what is actually needed may seem monumental to the client.

“Set smaller goals initially so they seem more attainable,” she said. “After all, many owners don’t even recognize that their dog is overweight.” She also noted that even small amounts of weight loss can make a big difference in mobility—a loss of just 6% of body weight can significantly decrease lameness.

If an orthopedic problem exists, she said, make sure you devise a multimodal management plan (e.g. NSAIDs, joint supplements, a weight loss program and physical therapy). A formal physical therapy program can really improve comfort, she said, and the owners can participate. “Massaging the legs can help improve blood flow and tissue elasticity, and make the dog feel better and want to move more,” she said. Other therapies the owner can perform include range-of-motion exercises and swimming (be sure not to exhaust the dog cardiovascularly).

Finally, she said, don’t forget about nutrition consulting, and perform frequent rechecks to check the effectiveness of your program.

Alex German, PhD, DECVIM-CA, SHFEA, FRCVS, professor of small animal medicine at the University of Liverpool, said his secret to success is simple: failure! “I run a specialist weight management clinic, and when it started I promised our sponsor (Royal Canin) 100% success because, well, we’re specialists,” Prof. German said. But what he found was quite different: less than 1 pound of weight loss per week, only half of patients reached target weight and half regained weight.

“We can learn more about how to be successful by studying our failures,” he said. We now know that we’re less likely to have success in pets that are excessively overweight and that pets are more likely to regain weight if the owner changes the diet once weight loss is achieved. We also know that slow weight loss is risk factor for failure. Finally, failure taught him not to be a slave to targets like percent weight loss. “So-called success is a loss of 1% to 2% of body weight per week, but what’s more important are improved mobility and a better quality of life.”