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Advice from the experts: top tips for fighting back against pet obesity

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Consider creating a formal referral process for obesity Embedded Image

At Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, there is now a formal referral process to the pet obesity clinic run by nurse Clare Espley. This helps make owners aware the issue needs immediate action.

‘A lot of the time the vet was maybe seeing the animal for a booster or another problem, and they’d mention it was overweight, and they should probably come in to see the nurse. Then the owners would go home and forget about it, because they’re far too interested in what they’ve originally come in for.

‘So I actually made a referral letter, which says your pet has been referred to the clinic to see Clare because the vet (or the nurse) that you’ve seen has said it’s overweight. We find it helps clients take the problem a lot more seriously because it’s more formal – [it signals to them] this is a problem, you need to do something about it.’

The referral pack also takes away the need for vets to have a conversation they may find challenging. Instead they can simply raise the issue in the knowledge that Clare – who has a special interest and additional training in the area – will be able to confront and talk through any sensitivities.

‘They really don’t have to worry – they can just say: “Look, your animal is overweight, come in and see Clare.” That’s the end of their conversation.’

Provide encouragement and recognition when a pet is successfully losing weight Embedded Image

‘I recommend creating a programme very similar to a Slimming World sort of plan,’ says Victoria Bowes, veterinary nursing course manager at Moreton Morrell College and co-author of The Management of Pet Obesity. ‘Once your pet has reached X amount of weight loss, you get a certificate. A lot of people really like that sort of continuous reward, and I think it encourages achievement.’

You might also consider taking pictures of animals that have lost particularly significant amounts of weight and posting them in the practice or on social media, not only to encourage the owners of those animals but also others who may have weight issues. Reports Kerry Griffith, veterinary nurse at PDSA Pet Hospital in Basildon: ‘We’ve got pictures around the practice of Sadie [a Labrador retriever who lost 25 per cent of her bodyweight thanks to support from Griffith] – I do like showing people the before and after.’

Employ the Delboeuf illusion Embedded Image

‘Owners need to acknowledge portion size,’ says Victoria Bowes, veterinary nursing course manager at Moreton Morrell College. ‘Some people have huge food bowls for their animals and so when they put a bit of food in there it looks ridiculous.’

She suggests veterinary staff could valuably encourage owners to make the most of the Delboeuf illusion so beloved of buffet restaurants (namely: put the same amounts of food on a small plate and a big plate, and your mind will think the small plate constitutes a feast and the large one merely a snack).

‘We need to encourage owners to buy smaller food bowls, or change to food toys so that the food is eaten more slowly over a longer period of time,’ Bowes contends.

Regularly weigh AND measure Embedded Image

‘We measure with a tape measure at every consult. Because, as with people trying to lose weight, sometimes you don’t see weight loss [on the scales] but you do see centimetres,’ reports vet nurse Clare Espley, who runs obesity clinics at Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre.

It’s a technique also used by Kerry Griffith, veterinary nurse at PDSA Pet Hospital in Basildon. ‘Owners get a bit disheartened if [their pets] haven’t lost weight. If you take measurements and can tell them their pet has lost a couple of centimetres off their waist and chest, and say we’re still heading in the right direction [that can be really encouraging].’

Help owners understand how to manage the cost of a special diet Embedded Image

‘When you say the words “prescription diet”, a lot of people think: “Oh, that’s going to be expensive,”’ says Kerry Griffith, veterinary nurse at PDSA Pet Hospital in Basildon. So she likes to break down the cost of a bag to help them better understand whether they might be able to afford it without too much sacrifice.

‘I like to work out how long that bag’s going to last them, and how much it costs per day in comparison to maybe what they’re already feeding. I think when you say to someone: “Oh, it’s just 70 p a day to feed your dog twice a day [on the prescription diet],” it’s very different to the £40/50 per bag cost [they are focused on].’

Avoid the blame game, and consider the psychology and behaviour at play Embedded Image

‘There’s been some research showing that people with overweight and obese cats are more likely to have an emotionally dependent relationship with them that involves saying things like: “I talk to my cat about things that worry me”; much more than people who have normal weight cats,’ explains Jon Bowen, who leads the veterinary behaviour service at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College.

‘The issue there is that if your cat provides you with an immense amount of social support, then that means you really want to make sure that cat’s happy, and the way that you do it might be through food.’

Seen in this context, overfeeding starts to feel like a much more logical activity. Emphasises Bowen: ‘We’ve got to be careful not to demonise people.’

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