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Task force set up to consider action

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01 April 2008, at 12:00am

JOHN BONNER reports on a meeting held to discuss ways of tackling this serious welfare problem

OWNERS of a morbidly obese pet can now be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for failing in their duty of care to provide the animal with an appropriate diet. But could that owner then sue his or her veterinary surgeon for neglecting to provide adequate guidance on preventing the animal becoming overweight?

That intriguing question was raised at a meeting in London aimed at forging an alliance between practitioners, veterinary nurses, pet food manufacturers and others to find new ways of tackling the epidemic of obesity in dogs and cats throughout the developed world.

Mark Evans, chief veterinary adviser to the RSPCA, said obesity was regarded as one of the most serious welfare problems facing domestic animals. But unlike most other major health issues it was entirely preventable, he told the conference organised by Hill’s Pet Nutrition.

Much like their owners, surveys showed that roughly half of all dogs and cats in the UK were overweight or obese. Even more worrying, the charity has begun to find evidence that overfeeding is becoming a problem in other companion animal species – horses, rabbits, birds and reptiles.

Before joining the RSPCA, Mr Evans was in practice in Hampshire and set up one of the first pet obesity clinics in the country. This followed an incident 20 years ago when he was outraged to see an item on a television programme about the search for the nation’s fattest cat. He complained to the television station that it was dealing frivolously with a serious medical problem.

Raising awareness

Since then concern about the effects of obesity in pets has become more widespread – 76% of small animal practices now run dedicated obesity clinics, welfare charities have campaigned to raise awareness of the issue and pet food companies have developed low calorie diets that feed a market worth £33 million a year.

Yet, there was very little evidence to show that this work has had much impact. “I am not convinced that we have made the slightest difference to the scale of the health problem,” Mr Evans said.

A change in approach was needed; it was misguided to place so much emphasis on treating animals that are already obese, effort should be concentrated on preventing the problem arising in the first place.

The meeting saw the launch of a new initiative intended to develop new and more effective strategies for dealing with this issue. The Pet Obesity Task Force is made up of a group of prominent veterinary surgeons, nurses and animal behaviourists, together with Dr Ian Campbell, a GP, former chairman of the National Obesity Forum and professional adviser to an all party Parliamentary group looking into human obesity. Similar groups will be formed in other European countries where there are similar problems.

Recognising that there is much to learn from more long-standing efforts to cope with the equivalent human health issues, the task force will trawl for ideas outside the veterinary sphere.

“Let us take a step back, review our knowledge, re-evaluate our approaches, think outside the box and innovate. What could we learn from social scientists, human psychologists and others engaged in trying to tackle the very same problem in people – especially children?” Mr Evans asked.

Professor John Innes of the Liverpool veterinary school, and another member of the new group, reminded the audience of the vast range of medical conditions in which obesity is a predisposing factor.

These include osteoarthritis, diabetes, pancreatitis, respiratory disease, urinary tract disorders and various neoplasms. In some of these conditions, the causal link was well established, while in others there was an apparent link or one suggested by extrapolating from human studies.

So an important job for the task force would be to direct research to improve epidemiological data on the effects of canine and feline obesity. But one thing was already established: the condition does reduce both the duration and quality of an animal’s life, he said.

Although the impact of obesity is well known, it remains a very difficult condition to treat, as explained by marketing research specialist, Susan Rogers. She pointed out how closely the growth in animal obesity mirrored that in their human owners.

Lack of understanding

Studies into levels of self-awareness among overweight humans showed that there was a remarkable lack of understanding of where they stood on the weight spectrum. “If they can’t see obesity in themselves and their children, there is little chance of them seeing it in their pets,” she warned.

The key to making owners address the problems of obesity in their pets was changing their mindset so that feeding was not the only way to demonstrate love for the animal and denying food on demand was not an act of cruelty.

Vets were vital to getting this message across. Studies in various European states had shown that owners were more likely to adhere to a diet recommended by a veterinary surgeon, even if it might take repeated mentions for the message to get through.

Vets must, however, be proactive in initiating the necessary weight control programmes. Just as owners made ridiculous excuses to themselves – “he is not fat, he is just big boned” – so do vets make strange rationalisations to avoid the risk of offending the animal’s obese owners, said David Watson, former head of communications for Hill’s and now publishing director for Onstream Communications.

Indeed, in about half of all consultations in which the subject arises, the discussion is initiated by the client. Vets will tell themselves that they are too busy to bring up the subject or that weight control advice is the responsibility of the veterinary nurses.

Mr Watson acknowledged that the VN’s role in client education was crucial but success would depend on a team approach.

Both veterinary surgeons and VNs now had a legal as well as a professional duty to overcome any embarrassment about confronting clients with necessary advice on weight management.

Mr Watson pointed out that Rusty (pictured) – the 74kg labrador that was the subject of the first prosecution of its kind under the new Act – must have been seen by a veterinary surgeon before reaching that state.

“If I don’t mention that an animal is overweight, then if the owner is taken to court, where do I stand? Can the owner then prosecute me for negligence in not doing my best for an animal under my care? I believe that before long this will happen,” Mr Watson said.