It is a fact that many pet dogs (more than 50 percent by several accounts) are overweight. I reviewed the current statistics regarding canine waistlines in an earlier blog, “Do you think I look fat in this collar“. In that essay, we learned that owners of overweight dogs have a tendency to incorrectly assess their dog’s body condition, almost always underestimating weight and seeing a dog who is overweight as being ideal. Kinda like the portly fellow and his mirror below.
One suggestion to reduce this epidemic of perceptual disconnect is to post canine body condition score (BCS) charts in veterinary clinics. The reasoning is that veterinarians will use these charts to educate their clients and help owners to get a better handle on Rover’s weight problems. Of course, such charts are only helpful if the veterinarian chooses to use them and then actually discusses Rover’s weight with the client. Therefore, as a follow-up question to this research, one might ask, “Do veterinarians regularly access the body condition of dogs during routine visits?” Lucky for us, a group of researchers recently asked exactly that question.
The Study: Private veterinary practices in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were recruited to participate. Data from over 49,000 patient visit records were collected and were examined for the inclusion of a weight diagnosis (overweight or obese). When a diagnosis was found in the record, the dog was matched with a control dog using the criteria of age, sex, neuter status, breed and of course, weight. However, the control dog did not have a recorded diagnosis of being overweight. This research design is called a “case controlled study” and it allowed the researchers to examine various factors that influence whether or not a veterinarian will focus on a dog’s weight status during a routine veterinary visit.
Results: Of the 49,488 dogs whose records were examined, a notation for being overweight was found in only 671 cases (1.4 % of the dogs). Body condition score was recorded in less than 25 percent of patients. When comparisons were made between the dogs whose record showed a diagnosis of being overweight with their matched controls for which no diagnosis was made, only one health-related factor was found to influence whether or not a veterinarian discussed (and recorded) a dog’s overweight status. This was the diagnosis of osteoarthritis or lameness as a presenting problem. The researchers speculated that veterinarians would naturally include a thorough weight assessment in dogs with signs of arthritis, given the well documented association between overweight conditions and mobility problems in dogs. No other individual health problem or lifestyle factor was associated with a discussion of weight status during veterinary consultations.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Since data from multiple sources tell us that upwards of 50 percent of pet dogs are overweight or obese, it appears that, much like dog owners, veterinarians are markedly under-diagnosing obesity in their canine patients. It also appears that including BCS charts in examining rooms is not the answer, since veterinarians recorded a body condition score for less than 25 % of their patients. It is important to note that an important limitation of this study was that it was able to examine only written patient records and had no way to review the actual conversations that had occurred between veterinarians and their clients. It is certainly possible that in at least some cases, Fluffy’s weight problem was discussed during the visit, but not recorded in her file. However, even if the methodology missed a lot of diagnoses, 1.4 % is still a heck of a long way from 50 %. It is reasonable to assume that a substantial number of the 49,000 dogs in this sample group were overweight but had not been diagnosed as such during their routine veterinary visits.
If veterinarians are not stepping up (as much as they should) and calling Rover rotund, who can? Well the good news is that in this day and age there are many other pet professionals who work with dogs on a daily basis, interact regularly and positively with a multitude of dog owners, and who are completely capable of assessing body condition and weight status in dogs. So, trainers, doggy day care owners, independent pet supply store owners, shelter/rescue professionals, dog walkers, and pet sitters – consider this your call to arms! Help out your clients by educating them regarding good feeding and exercise habits for their dogs, carry a BCS chart with you or post one in your business (better yet, have a scale handy), and gently but firmly encourage your owners to prevent overweight conditions in their dogs to keep them healthy and happy throughout life.
Cited Study: Rolph NC, Noble PJM, German AJ. How often do primary care veterinarians record the overweight status of dogs? Journal of Nutritional Science, 2014; 3:e58;1-5.