Fighting The Battle Of The Bulge

Dr. Ward’s annual pet-obesity awareness day has helped improve well being of cats.

Around 2004, every time Ernie Ward, DVM, found himself among a group of fellow lecturers at a veterinary conference, he’d bring up the same topic: Had anybody noticed how many overweight animals they were seeing in their practices?

The question always drew a few jokes. “Oh, look, the skinny vegetarian wants to talk about fat cats,” Dr. Ward recalls—but nobody ever seemed to take the question seriously, despite Ward’s persistence. It might have gone nowhere, except that one day a friend issued a challenge: Quit talking about obese pets and do something about it.

So he did. In 2005, Ward, now 44, founded the nonprofit Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Among other things, the organization helped launch an annual pet-obesity awareness day, and an annual survey that this year suggested that more than half of American dogs and cats were overweight or obese. This data has helped focus national attention on the problem, including high-profile coverage in such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal.

“There are just a handful of people who have no additional training beyond veterinary school, who don’t pursue specialized clinical research, who still become hugely impactful in veterinary medicine,” says Steve Budsberg, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS. Budsberg, director of clinical research at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, is the colleague who gave Ward the put-up-or-shut-up challenge. “I can think of five, and Ernie’s one of them. … He has really accomplished a lot in his career that most people just wouldn’t, or couldn’t, go out and do.”

Secrets to Success

Ward’s professional bio is an exercise in high-achievement multi-tasking. Since 1993, a year after graduating from veterinary school at the University of Georgia, he’s owned Seaside Animal Care hospital in Calabash, N.C. He’s a regular on the national and international lecture circuit, named 2004 Speaker of the Year by the North American Veterinary Conference. He is the “house vet” on the Rachael Ray talk show; published a 2010 book, “Chow Hounds,” about pet obesity; and runs a practice-management consulting business on the side.

And, oh, yeah, he’s a certified personal trainer and Ironman triathlete, and is raising two young daughters with his wife, Laura, who manages their animal hospital.

But Ward says it’s not because he works so much longer or harder than anybody else—just more efficiently and always with tightly focused goals in mind.

“Some people think if you’re working efficiently, you don’t have to do much, but it’s the exact opposite. The more efficient you are, the more you can do,” Ward says. “When I’m at work, we’re all full throttle. But the flipside is, we’ve decided what our priorities are. We’ve figured out what we can give up.”

In veterinary school, Ward might not have been the student you would have picked to achieve such success. His former professor Budsberg jokingly remembers that Ward “sometimes came to class.” Perhaps that was because he was busy being a rock star—Ward moonlighted as a member of The Violets, which charted a minor hit with “I Hate the Grateful Dead” in 1991.

At the same time, however, Budsberg says, Ward was an “extremely bright, energetic” student, a natural showman and leader.

Price of Success

After graduation and a brief stint working at someone else’s clinic in Georgia, a mentor helped Ward find a great deal on a shuttered clinic in an idyllic, beachside North Carolina town. But there were strings attached; the previous clinic had a horrible reputation. The first day it opened, Ward took in just $62. To establish the business, Ward found himself working around the clock.

The hard work paid off, but at a price. Ward never surfed, wrote or exercised—all things he loves. One day in 1999, his hospital thriving, Ward could barely force himself out of bed to go to work.

“So we decided we needed to rethink everything,” Ward says. He and his wife gave themselves a year to turn it around.
Almost immediately, they hired another vet, realizing they’d reached the limit of what a one-veterinarian practice could accomplish. Next, they rethought appointment flow. Ward had never understood linear appointments; it made much more sense to stagger them and maximize efficiency.

Then, they attacked recordkeeping, a time-consuming task that Ward hated. Rather than end his days doing dictation, Ward scheduled an extra five minutes at the end of each appointment to review exam findings while a tech recorded them. The move eliminated 95 percent of his recordkeeping duties.

Don’t Forget the Techs

Finally, Ward recommitted to staff training. Even in veterinary school, Ward had never understood why some veterinarians wouldn’t let techs do things like trim nails or clean ears. “I’d always hear (veterinarians say) ‘I can do it better and faster.’ And I’d think, well, why can’t you just teach them?”

With time-saving practices in place, Ward found time not only to pursue passions like running and cycling, but to reach new professional goals. He became a sought-after speaker and consultant, often on practice management. Local and regional media appearances led to higher-profile gigs on the Animal Planet cable channel and then with Rachael Ray. 

And, of course, he had time to focus on pet obesity. Originally, Ward envisioned his anti-pet-obesity organization as a vehicle to simply raise awareness of the pain, stress and illness excess weight causes.

But now, he says, it’s time to take it from awareness to action. Now that weight issues have caught owners’ attention, veterinarians must step in to provide solutions or risk having other industries take the lead, he says.

Beyond that, Ward sees a real opportunity to affect human health as well. Ward recently opened a companion business, Doggone Healthy, a pet spa/boutique with nutritional supplements, doggie exercise programs and weight loss strategies. But eventually, he hopes for crossover between his worlds as a personal trainer and as a veterinarian, such as a facility promoting parallel weight loss with dogs and humans.

As he talks about these plans, you can hear his excitement. He envisions petcentric programs targeting childhood obesity—“We need to get kids to pick up the leash and put down the video games”—and promoting overall health. What’s good for pets, he believes, is good for humans. Why not solve two problems at once? That would be the efficient way to go about it.


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