Obesity is a very common health problem in pets. Is your dog or cat overweight…and if so, has your veterinarian had a serious discussion with you about the health risks associated with obesity in pets? A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science examined how a group of vets in Ontario, Canada talked to clients about their overweight cats.
The findings show that many veterinarians tend to avoid potentially uncomfortable conversations about the less than ideal feeding practices of clients who have overweight cats, and they also often do not have serious discussions about weight management. Vets are more likely to skirt around the issue to avoid insulting clients. Their strategies include the use of humor, and addressing the pet directly (i.e. “You sure love your food, don’t you Fluffy?”).
The article notes that many owners of obese pets try to “normalize” their pet’s weight and minimize the seriousness of the problem. This can be especially true for cats, as they tend to see the vet less frequently than dogs, so there are fewer opportunities for discussions between a vet and owner about feline obesity.
The researchers examined nearly 300 videos of vet-client interactions involving feline patients. The results show that only a small percentage of the vets had any discussions about the causes and prevention of obesity. In fact, most of the conversations were generated by a handful of the vets who were more likely to bring up the issue.
What were some of the communication problems identified? When talking about specific kinds of cat food, the vets were more likely to mention specific brands’ quality and nutritional content, and the clients tended to focus on shapes and colors. They often could not name the brands they used and said things like the food was “from the natural pet store.”
If clients seemed resistant to talking about feeding habits, the vets often resorted to humor when addressing a cat’s weight. Talking to the pet as a way of communicating with the client was a common strategy. This “patient-directed speech” would often take the form of a compliment on the cat’s appearance (nice fur, for example) and then joking conversations with the animal (“You’re not missing many meals, are you?”).
What can be done to improve vet-client communication about pet obesity? The authors recognize that addressing pet obesity with clients can be a sensitive issue for vets. However, they stress that there is “a need for a dynamic and individualized response to obesity management in veterinary medicine.” Pet owners can be resistant to measures like reducing food intake and eliminating treats, but vets need to be more proactive in exploring their clients’ attitudes, asking questions, and providing clear explanations and plans in order to improve communication about pet obesity management and prevention.
And of course, we pet owners should talk honestly and openly with our vets about how we are feeding our dogs and cats, especially if they are overweight. Awareness about the risks of pet obesity and what we as owners can do about it is important. Here’s a great website to learn more about pets and weight: petobesityprevention.org