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.
14 thoughts on “Weigh In On This”
One group that could help, and generally doesn’t, is the show world. Interesting article on obesity in the show ring: http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/early/2015/06/22/vr.103093.abstract
The study found 26% of dogs in the showring were overweight. Some breeds were much worse: 80 per cent of Pugs, 68 per cent of Basset Hounds and 63 per cent of Labradors.
I think there are as many reasons for dogs being overweight as there are for humans – too much food, not enough exercise, and emotional dependency being up there near the top. But it certainly does not help that pet foods rarely if ever show calories per 100g, and treats in my experience never do. Instead manufacturers produce ever more variations (Food for small intact female poodle over two years and less than seven, exercised for one hour a day, with owner who will be impressed by the pictures on the front and the scientific sounding jargon but has insufficiently acute eyesight to read the tiny print listing the ingredients). It would be so much easier to discuss with your vet how many calories a dog needs, according to size, age and lifestyle, and feed accordingly! I believe it is coming – roll on the day!
Different dogs need a different amount of ‘calories’ I have a 38kg dog and his 28 kg litter sister. They eat the SAME amount of food daily to maintain optimum condition.
Sallee is a nervous dog, but very light on her feet and would be a great Agility dog IF she wasn’t so nervous. Ironbark is a big lovable Klutz/Dork. I have noticed this with previous German shepherds — their food requirements relative to their weights and ages is highly variable.
Mine are much the same, Jenny – one dog is laid back and prone to weight gain, one burns up calories just by bouncing everywhere. I would like to know the calorie content of foods because that way, once I know how many calories each needs, it is much easier to work out how much they would need of a different food. In the end the only way of being sure is to keep checking their weight and condition, but it would be helpful to have a more accurate starting point!
Yes and no! Many people do not recognise obesity or over weight problems I their own dogs. I know that my sister was very concerned about these ‘growths’ on her dog’s belly. When I told her it was no more than fat (on her mammary glands) and the dog was over fed, my sister simply wouldn’t believe me. Now that the little dog is mine, she is of a much better weight, but is difficult to keep her weight off because se needs so little food and she is highly motivated by food!
It would be interesting to see equivalent figures for humans and their doctors. Based on the BMI, I’m overweight but not obese, and have been for 50 years. I have never had a physician tell me I should lose weight.
I am overweight and have had numerous doctors tell me so and advise me to lose weight 😦 However having lost a lot of weight before an operation, and having been then gently warned by the surgeon that I had over-done it — my GP just looked at the weight charts and told me I should lose more 😦
The trouble with people is charts 😦
Many years ago my daughter had two little min
i-foxies. The Tilly was a butter-ball — a fat sausage on sticks, while Bella was trim taut and terrific — well muscled and a good tuck up. I used to nag my daughter to get to try to get some weight off poor little Tilly.
But when she took them to her vet, he pronounced that Bella was underweight, and that Tilly was fine! ? I subsequently heard several stories about people with Agility dogs being cautioned by their vets that their dog were ‘under-weight’. 😦 Yet the owners of numerous fat dogs that I’ve known have never been told by their vet that the dogs are overweight 😦 It seems that until the dog’s health is seriously compromised vets in general don’t seem to recognise it — or are otherwise reluctant to tell people.
Great article! Points out the number one nutritional problem I see in my small animal practice. Over feeding. It would be interesting if that study of the UK veterinarians would mirror that of US veterinarians.
We track body condition scores on all our annual wellness visits. We ask what food and how much our clients feed on a daily basis. We then give target weight goals and advised how to reach them. We advise them on this area of their pets health just like we do for dental health, disease prevention and parasite protection. Some take and follow our recommendations and some don’t.
Unfortunately we see little change in body condition scores in most pets from year to year. There is no one reason for this. Just as there are multiple reason why people are overweight (despite their knowledge and awareness of the health ramifications of being overweight) there are many reason dogs and cats (a whole another story) are overweight.
Thanks again for a thought provoking article.
Hi Mike – Thanks! I agree that it would be nice to see a study of this magnitude in the US. One of the reasons that retroactive studies of this size are possible in the UK and also in Scandinavia is because almost everyone there has pet health insurance, which allows extensive and consistent record keeping. There is evidence that the incidence of overweight conditions is similar in the UK, EU and the US, so results may be quite similar in the US. Love that you view body condition and weight in the same way that you look at dental health, parasite prevention and wellness. As you note, the vets can only do so much though, and ultimately it is up to the people who are filling the food bowls day in and day out…… Thanks for reading – more on this topic soon!
It’s not all on the vets. Some clients do not react well when they’re told they have an overweight pet. (In Barb’s comment above she mentions getting a similar reactions from her clients.) I see a fair number of overweight dogs getting various types of orthopedic surgeries, and one thing that always surprises me is that someone will pay a few thousand dollars for a knee or hip surgery but refuse to put their pet on a diet.
I don’t know if the problem is that “food = love” for some people or, since many dogs will eat whenever food is available, the assumption is made that they must be hungry all the time. Owners need to step up and take care of the problem. Since there are so many overweight dogs, I’m not sure owners know what proper weight looks like.
Hi Tom – Completely agree. The paper’s authors did not examine the reasons that vets were not recording weight status of their patients and listed this as a study limitation. Among other reasons, they stated that owners not wanting to listen or becoming upset about this type of discussion could cause veterinarians to avoid diagnosing a patient as overweight or obese and recording it in the dog’s health record. The owner’s role in this, and specifically their skewed perceptions of the weight status of their own dogs was previously examined in the study that I reviewed in the essay “Do you think I look fat in this collar” (this is why I do not discuss it in this essay). The single study that is reviewed here was never intended to impugn veterinarians, nor to blame them for the obesity epidemic, nor to suggest a simple solution to the problem. Rather, given that many of the statistics that we have about overweight dogs are collected from practicing veterinarians (see APOP), these researchers asked what proportion of vets are diagnosing obesity in their patients and discussing it with the clients. Their results suggest that, probably for a number of different reasons, veterinarians are diagnosing the problem far less than it actually occurs. Ultimately, of course, it is the owners who cause the problem in the first place and who are responsible for their dogs’ body condition. However, vets can (and do) play an important role both in helping to prevent overweight conditions and in helping dogs to lose weight when needed. The results of this study suggest that despite the fact that vets say it is an important problem, as a group they may not be discussing it or diagnosing it as frequently as they should be.
I have a very tall Doberman, I was at the vet clinic to have him neutered, after the procedure the paper work stated that he was obese. My main vet never said this and said she had a couple other Doberman’s that were just as large. At the time he stood 29 inches at the withers and weighed 115 lbs. but did not look overweight.(to me). Now he is 5 years old and starting to have trouble getting up and down, so I wish I would have paid more attention to this and feed him less and exercised him more, but he always seem’s to be hungry.
Glad you pointed this out for everyone because it bothers me to see him getting up and down like an old man.
Hi Allen – You know, the most important thing is that you love your dog and take good care of him (and I am sure he loves you also). Please do not beat yourself up over this, as many factors affect the development of osteoarthritis in dogs. While I do think it is very important that veterinarians and other pet professionals help owners to keep their dogs at their optimal weight, that is just one of many ways in which we care for and love our dogs. And, it sounds like you and your boy have a great relationship and that you care for him beautifully. Thanks for reading – Linda