Whether they think fat cats are cute, or that loving their dog means treats or human food, getting a pet’s weight down starts with communicating the dangers of obesity to clients, according to a handful of veterinary technicians who have tackled some difficult cases.
Perhaps no fat pet has received as much recent publicity as Skinny, a 43-pound cat found in late 2012 in the Dallas area. Skinny ended up in the hands of the staff at East Lake Veterinary Hospital and Pam Nowell, RVT, who has a history of slimming down fat cats.
It’s a story that Nowell likes to recount, especially to clients—to drive home just how damaging it can be when a pet is overfed. She and other techs cite overfeeding as a principal reason for pet obesity.
"He was 43 pounds when we got him,” Nowell said. "He couldn’t even groom himself because he was so overweight.”
Starting a Program
The hospital put Skinny on Hill’s m/d pet food, and a volunteer from the local pet orphanage came in regularly to walk him. At first he could walk only about six steps before having to sit and catch his breath, and Skinny also had problems with his hips that made walking more difficult.
"As he gradually lost weight he was able to walk a farther distance each couple of weeks,” she said. "At one point he was even running in the clinic.”
Skinny was adopted by a former East Lake veterinarian, and is now down to 31 pounds. That’s a story with a good ending, but Nowell and others who serve on the front lines in the battle against pet bulges are seeing more and more overweight pets.
In most cases the problem is threefold: Too much food, too many treats and not enough exercise, Nowell said.
When dealing with clients with obese pets, she asks how much food they are feeding their pets, to which the most common reply is "a cup,” Nowell said. But it’s usually not a true cup by measurement standards; often it’s a large coffee mug, or something even bigger they are using as a scoop.
The first step in the solution: East Lake gives clients a measuring cup.
"When they see that cup, they are surprised at how much they are overfeeding,” she said.
When it comes to weight loss, looks are important too.
"I discuss how to feel the rib cage for excess fat and how the waistline should look,” Nowell said.
Laura Massicotte, a vet tech at Town & Country Veterinary Clinic in Starke, Fla., in the last two or three years has seen a greater number of obese pets coming in.
"You definitely see a trend toward obese pets,” she said.
Oddly, this obesity trend may be a function of love.
What Massicotte has gathered from her interactions with pet owners is they view feeding as an expression of love.
"They’re just trying to be nice to their pet,” she said. "A lot of our clients don’t understand how damaging it is to feed their dog human food.”
A component of that problem is what she refers to as the "If I’m eating, they should be eating” mentality, which is a form of social interaction between pet and pet owner.
To address this issue, she advises clients to keep a bowl of the pet’s food on the dinner table, so during a meal when a dog begins to beg, the dog can be given one of its own kibbles.
"It’s a way of satiating a social behavior between pet and owner,” she added.
Like Nowell, Massicotte draws on personal experience to relate to clients. She adopted a 67-pound blue heeler named Hank, who was nearly 30 pounds over his ideal weight. She got him down to around 45 pounds by starting out with a low-calorie, high-fiber therapeutic diet then transitioning him to Hill’s Science Diet Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution.
Talking to Clients
But approaching clients about their pets’ weight requires sensitivity, tact and good numbers, said Signe Corbin, a senior veterinary technician with Westlake Animal Hospital in Austin, Texas.
Corbin shows clients their pets’ score on a body conditioning system, with a scale that goes from 1 to 9; 5 is ideal weight, and 9 is double what it should weigh. Corbin then constructs a report card and circles where a pet is on the scale.
Once the numbers are introduced, being tactful is important, she said.
"You want to tread lightly,” she said. Tact is particularly important if a patient is also overweight, but that can also help them sympathize with their pets more. "Most people can relate to how it feels if you’re overweight, if there’s stress in your body.”
Stress and pain in areas like the knees, or shoulders, the onset of diabetes and heart disease, as well as respiratory issues are among the host of problems she relays to pet owners when speaking about their pet’s weight.
"You can say, ‘If I could wave a magic wand and do one thing for this pet, it would be to work on the weight loss,’” she said.
Massicotte’s method is similar. She cites studies showing that obesity can shorten a pet’s lifespan, and she uses a weight chart to show pet weight gains year to year. She uses Hill’s Healthy Weight Protocol, a metabolic calculator that, among other things, enables vet techs to figure a pet’s idea weight. Details are available at www.hwp.hillsvet.com.
Nowell, with East Lake, likes to discuss exercising, playtime and tricks like putting pets’ food where it requires them to walk more.
"With Skinny, he loved to roll over on his back, so I would touch his stomach and he would put his hind feet and front feet together when I touched him and he would do kitty crunches,” she said.