Obesity Affects More Than a Pet’s Physical Health

Julie Liu, DVM

How often have you recommended weight loss for a patient, only to find at the next visit that the pet has gained weight? The 2018 National Pet Obesity Survey estimates that almost 60 percent of cats and about 56 percent of dogs are overweight or obese, and the consequences of obesity go beyond a shortened lifespan and decreased quality of life. Pets who are overweight can have higher levels of fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS). Including the emotional effects of obesity in our client education may help more pet parents successfully manage their pets’ weight.

  • Obesity and pain. Dogs and cats who are overweight have an increased risk of arthritis. Since fat releases inflammation in the body, overweight pets with arthritis can become even more painful. Obesity has also been linked to cruciate tears and an increased risk of intervertebral disc disease in dogs, even in non-chondrodystrophic breeds. Regardless of the cause, decreased mobility from pain limits the amount of enrichment pets receive from play and walks, affecting their home life. At the veterinary clinic, pain can cause FAS even during otherwise Fear Free exams, and lead to severe FAS when more stressful positioning is required, such as during restraint for cystocentesis or radiographs.
  • Obesity and chronic disease. Overweight cats are at a much higher risk of developing diabetes. While continuous glucose monitors have replaced blood glucose curves for many clinicians, diabetic cats will still need frequent veterinary visits and needle pokes at home unless they go into remission. Obesity has also been shown to be a risk factor for development of feline lower urinary tract disease, and many overweight senior cats develop matting that requires full body shaving at the clinic. Similarly, obesity has been linked to a host of chronic conditions in dogs, including tracheal collapse, and dogs already undergoing respiratory distress from an underlying disease will have even higher FAS when they’re struggling to breathe at the veterinary clinic.
  • Obesity and veterinary handling. Even the most stellar phlebotomist at your clinic is going to have more trouble palpating a jugular vein when it’s buried under an inch of subcutaneous fat, and the rest of us mere mortals may not be able to feel it at all. Needle pokes are painful and increase FAS for our patients, and palpating and repalpating can also be stressful by triggering a startle response. By the time you reposition the pet and swap out staff members, your patient’s FAS levels may be too high for you to accomplish the blood draw you started 15 minutes ago.

The advantages of keeping pets at an ideal body condition are clear, but we know firsthand how difficult it can be. In the 2018 pet obesity survey, 80 percent of those veterinary professionals surveyed had attempted weight loss with their own pets, some admittedly more successfully than others. Sharing stories of struggles with our own pets and celebrating progress can help our overweight patients–even a ¼-pound weight loss can be significant in a cat or small dog, and it’s better than a ¼-pound weight gain, regardless of the pet’s size. It may feel awkward to discuss weight management when clients see us giving treats throughout a Fear Free visit for positive reinforcement, but rather than shying away from the topic, use it as a teaching opportunity. “We care about your pet’s emotional health, which is why we’re giving treats. Little treats allow us to give lots of positive reinforcement without your pet getting too full or taking in too many calories.”

Weight management can be challenging, but by discussing the emotional benefits along with the physical, we can take a Fear Free approach to the health of our patients.


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This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

“Julie Liu is a veterinarian and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. In addition to advocating for Fear Free handling, she is passionate about felines and senior pet care. Learn more about Dr. Liu and her work at www.drjulieliu.com.”
 This article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends at Blue Buffalo Pet Food.

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