An estimated 45 percent of pets in the United States are overweight or obese. So now's the time to tip the scale in favor of leaner, healthier pets.
We can't be afraid to talk about fat pets," says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Ernest Ward Jr. The owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., Dr. Ward, a certified personal trainer, also trains his team to broach weight-related issues with clients, and he provides educational materials on his Web site.
Dr. Ward's interest in stemming the obesity epidemic doesn't stop with his clients. He founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), a group of veterinarians and veterinary healthcare experts dedicated to reducing pet obesity. His timing is impeccable; he estimates there are more than 33 million obese pets in the United States. That's about half the number of U.S. adults age 20 or older that are obese—60 million, according to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
The fact that clients and their family members may share a weight problem with their pets is one reason doctors and team members hesitate to talk about the issue, says Dr. Ward. And if the educator is overweight, he or she may worry about coming off as hypocritical or not credible. Yet these reasons aren't an excuse to ignore the problem, he says. "There's a compassionate way to get at this issue."
In fact, bringing up weight-related issues with your clients could be a stepping stone to better health for the whole family. Among APOP's charges: Developing and promoting parallel weight loss programs designed to help pet owners lose weight alongside their pets. "I see this as an opportunity to help clients be healthy, too," says Dr. Ward. "My medical interest doesn't stop at pets."
One way to gain information without putting clients on the defensive is to ask general questions about their pet's lifestyle, no matter the pet's size. "The best treatment for obesity is prevention," Dr. Ward says. So even if the pet's not overweight, this approach gives you a chance to talk about behaviors that could cause health problems later.
Dr. Mary Ann Vande Linde, a consultant with VMC Inc., in Evergreen, Colo., suggests that you ask clients to fill out a lifestyle assessment form before the exam. Ask about the patient's activity level and eating habits. "And show pictures of the body score levels, so your clients can mark where they think their pet falls," she says. "Then you can see where the client's coming from."
Once you're in the exam room, you may ask a question that you think is clear, such as, "Does Max eat table scraps?" Yet the question might not be clear to your client. It could be limiting—or your client might just say what you want to hear. She recommends asking an open-ended question instead, such as, 'What's Max's favorite food?' When the patient says, 'Bacon,' you can then ask direct questions about how he gets the bacon. "Well, I cook it for him every morning," the client says. "Using a mix of open-ended and close-ended questions helps you get the most from your conversation with clients," Dr. Vande Linde says.