Unfortunately, many dogs and cats weigh more (or much more) than they should for optimum health. In fact, a recent U.S. pet obesity survey, conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, classified 55.8 percent of dogs and 59.5 percent of cats as overweight or obese (1).
Telling a client their pet is overweight is never easy. Here is an alternate approach to having the conversation about overweight pets, plus advice on how to help your canine patients lose weight.
How to Tell a Client They Have an Overweight Dog
Below are five key tips for bringing up this tricky topic in any exam situation.
Pull out a body condition score chart
If during the exam you find that the patient has a higher body condition score than you feel is appropriate for that pet, slow down as you feel over the ribs and explain what you are feeling. Let the client know you’re having trouble feeling those ribs because there is extra tissue on top.
Next, pull out a Body Condition Score chart so you can point out what their dog currently looks like and what would be ideal for his health. Using a visual element may help the client put two and two together. The goal here is for the client to agree that the pet is “over-conditioned.” If they pick a body condition other than the one you would pick, describe what you are looking at that is helping you determine the dog’s body condition score.
Address the potential health risks
Even after looking at the BCS chart, some clients may still believe their dog is healthy. In their eyes, he may just be “extra fluffy” or “pleasantly plump.” Talking about the potential health risks associated with having an overweight dog can help put matters into perspective. Health risks to mention to your clients may include:
- Diabetes mellitus
- Osteoarthritis, and other joint-related diseases
- Respiratory disease
- Decreased ability to deal with hot weather
- Urinary incontinence
- Predisposition to cancer
- Anxiety or depression
- Decreased overall life span
Know your audience
Anytime you need to broach a sensitive issue with a client, take their unique personality into account and consider what type of relationship you have with them. For instance, If you know the client is more numbers-oriented, it may help to tell them that the ideal BCS is about 10-15 percent of the dog’s body weight. This helps solidify a need to act.
While some clients appreciate a more direct, straightforward approach, others may respond better when you speak gently and choose your words carefully. If you frame the conversation appropriately and handle it with tact and compassion, it will be less likely to cause offense. Once the client starts to see what you see, you can make a plan together to get their dog back to an ideal body condition.
Identify the pain points
To get to the bottom of why the pet is at an unhealthy weight, try tapping into the human-animal bond. Ask the client about their relationship with their pet, and then listen carefully. Ask them to tell you a little bit about a typical day with their dog, including food, treats, exercise and playtime.
Food is a huge consideration for many pet parents. Listen for concerns about trusting certain dog food brands, hints about making their dog’s food at home or feeding table scraps, understanding on how many treats are given per day, and clues about why outdoor exercise might be difficult or how much time the client is able to spend with the pet. This is critical. Don’t just hear the words coming out of their mouth, think about the implications of what they are telling you. Use reflective listening to confirm that you fully understand their concerns.
Set proper expectations
If the client is open to it, let them know you have some ideas that may be able to help. Don’t fight the client’s point of view—empathize with their concerns and try to help them do what they are doing better. If you automatically jump to recommending something they don’t trust, they likely won’t trust you either. Make sure to address exercise and playtime as well. Help clients through any obstacles they express that are preventing their pet from exercising daily.
Once you’re aligned, set proper expectations about how long it’s going to take their dog to lose weight. Make it clear that their pet isn’t going to become slim and trim overnight. Shedding 3 pounds may sound like a walk in the park, but as you know, it can take a good six months for a 10-pound dog to lose that amount of weight.
How to Help a Dog Lose Weight: Diet and Exercise
Some clients will express that their dog acts hungry all the time. Other dogs get extra food as an expression of love from their pet parent. How can we help clients who are feeding their pets (and inadvertently making them gain weight) because they love them and/or don’t want their pet to feel hungry?
We all have our tricks, but one option is to introduce pets to vegetables early in their life and use them to help control weight. Adding vegetables in with a dog’s normal meal will help to decrease the overall density of the meal—it’s approximately the same number of calories while feeding more “bulk.” If a dog will eat uncooked vegetables, it will take more energy to digest when compared to cooked vegetables. If the dog will only eat cooked vegetables, then they will still help achieve the fullness factor.
You could also suggest feeding vegetables or canned pumpkin as an in-between-meal snack to keep dogs feeling full without adding any substantial calories. For dogs who are a little more picky, clients can try a vegetable “soup” and pour some low-sodium chicken or beef broth over the vegetables to add some extra flavor.
Exercise is also important for mental and physical health in both humans and pets. Sometimes we have to get creative to fit exercise into our daily life. How can we do the same for our dogs? Share a variety of options with your clients, such as going on walks together, heading to the dog park, or taking a day trip to the beach, lake, or mountains. When discussing outdoor activities, it’s a good time to double check that your client is regularly administering broad-spectrum parasite control, such as Interceptor® Plus (milbemycin oxime/praziquantel).
If your client’s dog eats kibble, suggest feeding it exclusively in a treat-dispensing toy to make their dog work for their food. They might also consider trying a “scavenger hunt,” in which they hide the toy and tell their dog to look for it. As he runs around the house looking for his food, he’ll get a good workout in.
How to Help Prevent Future Obesity in Dogs
Once you have a plan in place to help a dog lose weight, it’s very important to follow up with your client by phone, email, text, or whatever means you have. Be specific about why you are following up. Try to personalize the note so that your client knows you care.
Respond and help your client through any additional hurdles, and continue to follow up. If you want that dog to lose 10 pounds, then partner with your client and coach them through the process—right through their achievement of a health goal. If you don’t have the time to follow up repeatedly, have your RVTs, assistants, or a veterinary telehealth service help and report back to you.
Don’t forget to celebrate successes. When that pet meets their weight loss goals, celebrate with them. Feature their story on your social media page (with the client’s permission, of course). Send the client a coupon for 10 percent off their next visit or send them some cool swag.
Why is this all important? You have taught your client how to evaluate their pet’s weight. You built trust by listening to and partnering with your client and showed you cared by following up and helping them achieve their pet’s health goal. You empowered your client to do what they are doing, better, and without judging their decisions. Your client knows how to help prevent obesity now—you showed them how.
If anything, make sure your client has access to a body condition score so they can remind themselves of what an optimum score looks like for their pet. If you have done your job well, you will have helped that pet and created a sticky client who will want you to be their veterinarian, always.
Interceptor® is a trademarks of Elanco or its affiliates.
Interceptor® Plus Indications
Interceptor® Plus is indicated for the prevention of heartworm disease caused by Dirofilaria immitis and for the treatment and control of adult roundworm (Toxocara canis, Toxascaris leonina), adult hookworm (Ancylostoma caninum), adult whipworm (Trichuris vulpis), and adult tapeworm (Taenia pisiformis, Echinococcus multilocularis, Echinococcus granulosus and Dipylidium caninum) infections in dogs and puppies six weeks of age and older and two pounds of body weight or greater.
Interceptor® Plus Important Safety Information
Treatment with fewer than 6 monthly doses after the last exposure to mosquitoes may not provide complete heartworm prevention. Prior to administration of Interceptor® Plus, dogs should be tested for existing heartworm infections. The safety of Interceptor® Plus has not been evaluated in dogs used for breeding or in lactating females. The following adverse reactions have been reported in dogs after administration of milbemycin oxime or praziquantel: vomiting, diarrhea, depression/lethargy, ataxia, anorexia, convulsions, weakness, and salivation. For full prescribing information see Interceptor® Plus package insert.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco US Inc., the maker of Interceptor® Plus, for her services in writing this article.