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Addressing a weighty problem

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Support, empathy, understanding and encouragement: according to three veterinary nurses specialising in obesity, each is crucial to helping confront the issue of overweight pets.

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Clare Espley is used to the expectation that she will shout at people. As a veterinary nurse running pet obesity clinics at Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, she sees owners whose animal’s weight has become a problem – many of whom fully expect to be blamed for the situation.

‘People are so worried that you’re just going to tell them off about it,’ says Espley, who’s been running the clinics for the past decade or so. ‘Some are quite worried and apprehensive. I’ve had a few in the past who’ve said: “I can’t believe you were so nice, I was really worried you were going to shout at me.” And it’s like, no, I’d never do that.’ Indeed, she has developed a referral pack that explains how pets can become obese and which specifically tells owners the clinic does not judge them by the size of their pets.

Victoria Bowes, veterinary nursing course manager at Moreton Morrell College and co-author of The Management of Pet Obesity, agrees tone is crucial when broaching the issue of weight. ‘I think one of the key things is that, as professionals and as people, we cannot be remotely derogatory or remotely accusatory when discussing pet obesity with owners,’ she contends.

A lot of people don’t like the term obesity

‘We have to be supportive. There’s a lot of trigger words I think as well – a lot of people don’t like the term obesity; “Your pet is obese” – that might push an owner away. I always feel with a weight management plan it should be very much a plan that is made for every individual. There’s not one that fits all. I think you have to change it per owner and per animal, and make it a holistic plan – a very individual-based plan.’

There are no easy replacement words when it comes to language around obesity, Bowes acknowledges. And it can be a highly charged and emotional area. That’s why she’s inclined instead to focus on objective measurements when explaining the issue to an owner.

‘Rather than going in with the defining word ‘obesity’, it’s better to get a body condition score. Rather than saying: “Your pet is obese”, take out your body condition score sheet and say: “Your pet’s grading in at six out of nine, this is slightly obese” or “your pet’s grading in at eight, it’s very obese”. Then they’ve got a grading and they can see what’s going on. It’s that tangible thing, making them see it and understand it rather than just saying: “Your pet is obese.”’

Ingredient for success

‘Running a weight management clinic can’t be forced on a nurse. It needs to be someone who really wants to do it and has a passion to do it. If they don’t, that’ll come across and they won’t be successful.’

Clare Espley, veterinary nurse, Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre

Kerry Griffith, a veterinary nurse who runs obesity clinics at PDSA Pet Hospital in Basildon, is in complete agreement. Asked about the defining factor for pet weight loss success, she points to owners’ ability to understand that their animal is overweight. She concedes that encouraging such an understanding is not always a straightforward proposition, however.

‘Because a lot of animals are overweight, if owners are walking in the park then most of the dogs they will see are also overweight. So it’s getting them to realise – to look at the body condition score that shows their animal is overweight and then committing to their animal losing weight. We can give them all the ingredients, so to speak – the diet and the exercise advice – but if the family aren’t going to commit to it, then it’s a lot more difficult to get them to lose the weight.’

With an understanding that there is an issue, owners can begin to understand the problem in greater detail. Before a first appointment with her, Espley asks them to complete a questionnaire on the lifestyle of their animal, as well as a food and exercise diary.

This, she says, enables an accurate picture of just what the pet is eating – ‘often you find if you question an owner directly in a consultation, they’ll just say wet food and mixer and they’ll forget about that odd piece of toast or odd biscuit or that bit of roast chicken’. So begins the process of the owner identifying where things might be going wrong.

Educating owners on just what an appropriate calorie intake is for an animal, and how treats can contribute to that, is a big task

Pet treats are included in the survey, with Espley characterising the absence of calories being listed on treat packets as her ‘big bugbear’. Educating owners on just what an appropriate calorie intake is for an animal, and how treats can contribute to that, is a big task, she says.

Many owners are unaware of just how many calories are in the treats and food they are giving their pets – the portions of food and treats pictured above all contain approximately 82 kcal

‘People think they’re doing the absolute best thing for their dog because they’re having a dental chew a day, but a lot of them don’t realise that can make up up to a third or so of the dog’s daily calorie requirement.

‘If I was allowed to change things, I’d make owners a lot more aware of calories on packets and how many calories their dogs are having a day, and what their calorie requirements [actually] are. It’s no good me saying: “Oh you’ve got a Jack Russell, it should be on 300 and something calories a day” – that means nothing to clients unless you can actually see it.’

Little wonder, then, that she characterises 80 per cent of her pet obesity clinic work as ‘more owner counselling than sorting the pet out’. She very deliberately sees clients frequently (‘I like to see dogs back every two weeks until they’ve lost weight; cats two to four weeks depending on temperament’), which not only allows for regular progress monitoring but also for the construction of strong relationships with owners.

‘My owners come back so often you build up this great rapport with them. And some of them, even once their pets have lost the weight, still come in for a chat. There’s that trust there.’

And that sort of trust proves a helpful means of opening up broader discussions about an animal’s wellbeing. Weight, says Espley, can be a very handy route into a holistic review of health.

‘I will get clients coming in for weight clinic and we’ll pick up other issues as well that might be a problem. Improving the general health of the animals as well is a huge, huge bonus.’

Tools to bolster understanding

For Richard Butterwick, there are tools which can support an understanding of healthy body weight. Mars Petcare, for example, has developed puppy growth charts. These aim to help vets and owners understand what a healthy weight looks like at puppy stage.

‘We’d like to be able to extend that to adult dogs so that we can then help owners understand, when their puppy’s grown to adult size, what their ideal reference weight looks like,’ explains the company’s global nutrition adviser.

The next stage will be to extend the charts to more breeds and sizes of dog. ‘Then I think the other logical extension we’re currently working on is trying to replicate those for kittens.’

It is arguably further evidence of the potential value of nurse-led obesity clinics in practices. Certainly Bowes is convinced that veterinary practices must now engage fully in the issue of managing pet weight.

‘Acknowledge the role nurses can play around management clinics,’ she advocates. ‘Animal diet is not a skillset of most owners. That’s why our role is so important with pet obesity.’

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