Winter months in general and the holidays in particular mean colder weather, more time indoors and increased access to large portions of decadent foods—for both people and their pets. Just a single season of increased caloric intake combined with a sedentary lifestyle can have significant effects on the health of a pet.
But a little client education can go a long way.
Craig Prior, BVSc, medical director and partner at Nashville’s Murphy Road Animal Hospital and partner at the Nashville and Rivergate Pet Emergency Clinics in Tennessee, says veterinarians can serve as valuable partners in reducing the ill effects the holidays can have on pet health.
“In the winter, there’s definitely a holiday splurge going on,” he says. “Clients have the attitude that it’s OK because the pet will lose the weight in the summer. That’s a bad mindset to get into, and it’s up to us to try to break it. After all, it will get harder to lose that weight over time.”
S. Dru Forrester, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, a scientific affairs representative for Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan., agrees.
“Unless there is an increase in exercise and play activities indoors or decreased intake of food and treats, pets will gain weight,” she says. “It may not be very noticeable the first winter; however, over time a few pounds add up, resulting in an obese pet.”
Weight gain isn’t the only nutritional holiday hazard for pets. Tales abound of animals that help themselves to dangerous levels of holiday feasts when owners aren’t looking.
Dr. Forrester says a friend’s wire-haired Dachshund once consumed an entire roasted turkey that was cooling on the kitchen table. “Fortunately, the dog did not develop serious complications like pancreatitis,” she said. “The key learning from this experience is to be careful about keeping food out of reach of pets during the holidays when you are preparing for family gatherings or events.”
Ann Wortinger, BIS, LVT, VTS (ECC, SAIM), program chair of the veterinary technology program at Sanford-Brown College in Dearborn, Mich., has seen similar situations—often with worse outcomes.
One Christmas while working in the ER she took a call from a couple who had decided to lock their golden retriever puppy in the bedroom, where holiday candy was stored. “Yes indeed, the dog finished off all the candy including a large amount of chocolate,” Wortinger says. “She got to finish off the day with vomiting and activated charcoal.”
In a separate case, Wortinger recalls a several month period in which her practice manager’s dog had ongoing diarrhea with intermittent vomiting. The dog was unresponsive to dietary or medical therapy, and after two to three months, they decided to perform an endoscopy.
“We removed the entire plastic outer wrapper for their Thanksgiving ham from the dog’s stomach,” Wortinger says.
Basic education and nutritional consultations can help prevent such dangerous food encounters, as well as general weight gain, Dr. Prior says.
“Every patient, every visit, should have its [body condition score] done and a nutritional consultation,” he says, adding that body condition scores that rank as overweight or obese should be seen as an actionable item and treated as such. Veterinarians should also look back to see if holiday weight gains appear to be a trend in a given animal and, if so, address that fact with the owner, he says.
Forrester suggests that veterinarians might want to recommend that owners keep a written record of their pets’ food consumption and amount of exercise, especially if more than one person is feeding or walking the pets. This can help owners recognize times when the balance between food and exercise shifts dramatically.
Wortinger adds that measured feedings, using a standard 8-oz. measuring cup, are essential to know how much food an animal is actually eating.
“Also, recommend that pets not be fed in the kitchen while food is being prepared—it’s too tempting to give pets human food,” Forrester said. “Even small amounts of food add up to lots of calories.”
Indeed, Hill’s estimates that a single oatmeal cookie for a dog is the equivalent of a hamburger for a human. For a cat, one ounce of cheese equals four chocolate bars for a person. Putting food consumption in such terms can drive home the message for pet owners.
Prior also notes that many owners don’t think of treats or human food as actual food when given to pets. That mindset needs to be broken, he says.
Wortinger says veterinarians should discuss appropriate pet treats and ensure that clients know what reasonable amounts are allowed.
“They will give treats no matter what we say, so make sure you have some say in what is appropriate and what isn’t,” she says.
Pet owners should also be advised about how holiday traditions might affect their pets. For example, discourage them from decorating Christmas trees with candy, especially chocolate, Wortinger says.
“Watch the use of tinsel on trees; cats love a good linear foreign body. And from personal experience, do not put the treats or toys for the pets under the tree until the last minute. Mine are routinely stored in our freezer to avoid unwanted accidents, like a Christmas tree knocked down and landing in front of the only door into the apartment.”
In addition, Prior says veterinarians should encourage owners to keep up their pets’ activity levels by suggesting games that can be played inside and recommending gear, such as coats, that can make pets more comfortable in the cold.
“Think through the reasons the person doesn’t want to go outside and try to counteract those reasons,” he says.
“In addition to that, let’s leverage our practice management software and websites,” he adds. “Send out newsletters before Thanksgiving to warn about the dangers of holiday foods. Market to your clients and educate them.”
Repetition is key, Prior says.
“It takes three no’s for a client to say yes,” he says. “Apply that to anything you’re trying to educate them about. Saying it once and moving on is not enough.”
This Education Series article is underwritten by Hill’s Pet Nutrition of Topeka, Ka.