veterinarian talking to labrador owner about pet obesity

Welfare and Behaviour

Talking about the weighty issue of pet obesity: 5 tips for veterinarians

Discussing weight loss can be one of the most difficult conversations veterinarians have with owners of overweight cats and dogs. But with pet obesity on the rise throughout the pandemic, it has become an increasingly necessary one. 

To help their peers address the importance of healthy weight management during consults, veterinary professionals from Mars Petcare and beyond have shared advice and best practices that can lead to positive conversations with owners of obese or overweight pets:

1. Find out if owners are ready for change 

Georgia Woods-Lee, ROYAL CANIN® Weight Management Clinic Nurse at the University of Liverpool, Small Animal Teaching Hospital, considers it's important to understand if an owner is ready to change their pet’s lifestyle and feeding habits. Even if owners might not be ready to commit to any changes when their pet is diagnosed as overweight, it’s important that clinicians continue assessing owners’ readiness during future consults. 

2. Be aware of unconscious bias: avoiding assumptions and stigma 

Many veterinarians fear they could cause offence or drive clients away when bringing up the issue of excess weight. But, as Georgia Woods-Lee explains, fear, worries and unconscious biases can lead to avoidance. Acknowledging them can help veterinarians realise what is keeping them from helping owners understand their pets’ health needs. Focusing exclusively on the pet, reassuring owners that obesity is manageable alongside other associated conditions and talking about positive results you can achieve together are key to a successful conversation.  

3. Steer owners in the right direction by helping them find the answers themselves

Another method veterinarians can use is to help owners realise their pet is above their ideal weight. This means helping them understand what normal weight looks and feels like in their pet, by asking them to check their body condition score during the consult.  Asking them if they are happy with their pets’ weight and if they can feel – and count! – their pets’ ribs during the body condition score check are tips Georgia Woods-Lee recommends.

4. Focus on pain and its effects on a pet’s quality of life

Making sure owners understand that managing pet obesity is not only about helping their pet lose weight is another efficient strategy, as Dr. Gwen Covey-Crump explains. Talking to clients about the chronic pain caused by the excess pounds is crucial: over 80% of dogs over 8 years of age experience chronic pain, and many cases go unrecognised.  Focusing on pets’ behaviour changes is also key, especially because some of these are not so obvious. Overweight dogs and cats gradually become less playful, less keen on walks, stop greeting owners, sleep more during the day, stop on walks – but they might not be doing the more obvious things like limping or crying out. Weight loss helps improve pets’ quality of life by reducing pain and lameness, which is why Dr. Covey-Crump recommends that clinicians offer examples of techniques that have worked for other pets and focus on the outcomes of a weight loss programme: being able to take pets on longer walks and giving their pets less medicine overall. Clinicians can also team up with owners to turn this effort into a family project, set achievable goals and celebrate small achievements. 

5. Have a thoughtful and meaningful conversation with owners based on trust 

“Establish trust and show real interest in the pet by asking the right questions”, says Dr. Ernie Ward. This will help veterinarians reach their goal of getting an accurate picture of the owner’s feeding behaviour & nutritional history, which will inform the right course of action and build client relationships based on trust 

Dr. Joanna Gale shares even more communication tips for veterinary students and early career professionals.