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‘We shouldn’t classify pet obesity as a disease’
  1. Robin Hargreaves


Robin Hargreaves argues that the chronic weight gain that leads to obesity in pets is a normal animal behaviour and physiological mechanism, and so should not be regarded as a disease process.

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Robin Hargreaves is a director and veterinary surgeon at Stanley House Veterinary Group in Lancashire

There are well-supported moves to have the veterinary community identify pet obesity as a disease, as it is described in people. In June, a panel of experts, chaired by Adele Waters, editor of this journal, came together for a roundtable meeting to answer the question ‘How can we best address the pet obesity epidemic?’

They concluded that classifying obesity as a disease would be a big step in the right direction.

I have been in general practice since 1985 and have dealt with weight gain and obesity in pets on a daily basis, and I fundamentally disagree with this supposition. This conclusion seems to have been reached because obesity in people is widely accepted to be a disease and is approached as such by medics in their attempts to improve our health. I accept that there are hugely complex drivers that influence our relationship with food, and if experts believe that treating obesity as a disease is the most effective way to tackle the associated health consequences in people then fair enough. Discussions at the roundtable meeting highlighted a link between owner and pet obesity, and, from my own experience, I would agree that the emotional and general health of an owner can affect the way an animal is fed and exercised. However, I don’t believe you can directly link human weight gain and obesity to the situation in pets.

I don’t think there is any dispute that pet obesity is caused by an imbalance of calorie input and expenditure and that obesity is the end stage of a chronic process of persistent weight gain. We tend to most commonly see obesity problems in dogs, but eating all the food available is simply them displaying normal behaviour, not a disease process.

When I have questioned the use of the word ‘disease’ to characterise obesity I have been referred to the accepted definition: ‘A condition of the living animal...or of one of its parts, that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.’ I can see why obesity might fall under this definition, but if we inspect closer it does not.

The critical point is that there needs to be a ‘condition’. The chronic weight gain that leads to obesity is just the body doing what it is supposed to do with excess calories – saving them for a rainy day. Obesity can impair normal function, but there is no condition or disorder to fulfil this definition.

Defining obesity as a disease could be terrible for the manage-ment of weight issues in pets

I think the consequences of us defining obesity as a disease could be terrible for the management of weight issues in pets and won’t make tackling the issue more effective.

Take the situation of dental disease, for example, which is a condition that is common and progressive, but preventable and easily identified. It is woefully undertreated because owners consider it to be a normal and inevitable consequence of ageing. If we accept that obesity is a disease then, due to its progressive nature, it will also become a disease associated with ageing. Providing owners with a reason not to accept responsibility for weight management of their pet will only make our job of trying to tackle it more difficult.

Veterinary nurses have pointed out that a huge remit of their role is to advise clients during diet/weight/nutrition clinics. If obesity were to be classified as a disease then its diagnosis becomes an act of veterinary surgery and thus beyond the scope of Schedule 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act. As such, vet nurses would no longer be able to take the lead in tackling it.

Chronic weight gain is a result of a normal animal behaviour and physiological mechanism but, clearly, we have to do much better in tackling it so that it doesn’t lead to obesity. We need to talk about the issue more often and earlier with our clients. Working with our nutrition and medical experts, we should develop and use measures, tools and guidelines to produce a consistent and empathetic offering to help clients help their pets.

There are so many more helpful things we could do together rather than this very well intentioned but, in my opinion, misguided initiative.

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