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Time to take action...

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01 April 2008, at 12:00am

LIBBY SHERIDAN reviews the motivation and support that owners need to ensure their pets lose excess weight

THE long anticipated epidemic – affecting both people and animals – has finally arrived. No, not bird flu: obesity. Across Europe, one in four people is classed as obese and in the UK over 20% of children in their first year at primary school are overweight.

Studies predict the level of obesity in pets could top anywhere between 25 and 50%, making the problem at least as prevalent, if not worse, as human obesity. If people cannot help their children lose weight, then how are they ever going to be able to help their pets?

And just how easy is it to get help? Veterinary practices are “one-stop-shops”: dietitians, fitness instructors and behaviourists all rolled into one. That has got to make life easier for the pet owner because it means we can develop cohesive programmes that look at all aspects of the weight management conundrum as a whole.

There are many ways we can provide the motivation and support that pet owners need to ensure their pets lose excess weight. And who knows what other benefits could arise from educating clients about nutrition and the need to take regular exercise with their pet?

Structuring weight loss

Any weight loss programme should be made up of three vital elements:

  1. a feeding plan;
  2. an exercise plan;
  3. a re-check plan.

This last plan is often omitted or clients just fail to comply with it but it is a vital part of a weight loss strategy. Developing a re-check plan is about much more than simply scheduling in appointments, as this goes straight to the heart of the issue: client compliance and motivation are critical to the success of a weight loss programme.

The feeding plan

Once a pet is overweight it requires very little energy to maintain its adipose deposits. During starvation states an animal will lose significant amounts of lean tissue so the objective of a feeding plan must be to restrict calories to bring about weight loss while preventing or minimising nutrient deficiencies and loss of lean tissues.

Establishing a more controlled pattern of eating can be achieved if pet owners stick to offering food at set meal times. Feeding numerous small meals through the day can be desirable if the client’s schedule lends itself to this routine as each meal results in energy loss due to the cost of digesting and absorbing the food – sometimes referred to as the thermic effect of food.

The nutritional composition of the food is also important in ensuring that good results are achieved quickly without compromising on the health of the animal. Recently, trials have established that target weights can be achieved in as little as eight weeks with individual overweight animals losing at least 22% of their body fat while still maintaining muscle mass, using new diet formulations.

Fibre has been used in weight loss diets for some time, to provide bulk without calories. The new approach is to blend soluble and insoluble fibres to increase digestibility, while also keeping total dietary fibre high. This ensures energy intake remains low while the appetite is still satisfied.

The popularity of the Atkins diet has focused the attention of many people on the role of protein in weight loss. Protein levels are important in weight loss petfoods, since protein can increase satiety through stimulation of cholecystokinin secretion – many researchers feel that this is the main route by which the Atkins diet works.

As an added bonus, by providing protein the loss of lean tissue is minimised. It has recently been found that, independent of the protein intake, high levels of the amino acid lysine help further maintain lean muscle mass.

L-carnitine stimulates the conversion of fat into energy and the benefits of carnitine supplemented diets are now well established. In the next few years the importance of lysine supplementation within a balanced diet is likely to become as widely accepted.

The target for weight loss is normally in the region of 1-2% per week and the use of food diaries is a useful way to evaluate how well the pet owner has managed to stay on track. There are many potential pitfalls since we are dealing with the often wobbly willpower of the owner and the ability of the dieting pet to “cheat” by scavenging or begging for food from other people. By feeding a food that remains nutritionally complete even when calorie intake is reduced, and that promotes satiety, our chances of success will definitely increase.

Some owners are accustomed to using food as a way to reward their dog. High calorie, high salt foods are often used as treats and are hand fed. In some cases the owner may have come to associate food snacks with desired or perceived “happy” behaviours in their pet and it doesn’t take a psychologist to predict that this can be a difficult cycle to break because the owner enjoys the pet’s reaction and the dog has become conditioned to perform for these types of rewards.

Using the diet food as a treat can produce similar results because the stimulus could be the act of hand feeding. In any case it is important to address these behavioural considerations (both pet and human), since this is a habit that may easily return once the target weight has been reached. Talking to the client about alternative ways to reward their dog, such as the use of toys, active games and praise, is an important but often overlooked aspect of the communication.

The exercise plan

Hill’s recently got together with UK tourism boards to find the Top 21 Dog Walks. A great way to get overweight pets mobile again is to make exercising them interesting to their owners.

Why not ask clients to suggest their favourite local dog walks? Put a town or ordnance survey map of the area in the waiting room with the walks marked on them. You could even grade the walks according to their suitability for overweight dogs or those with mobility problems – starting with “green” walks that are largely on flat, even ground and of short duration, culminating in “red” walks that include hills or rough terrain.

Get together with your local tourist information office and see if there are walks they can suggest. This is all about establishing new routines that will become embedded within your client’s day-to-day life and therefore adhered to in the future.

It has been found that in the management of childhood obesity, a change that involves the whole family is more likely to be successful and dog walking is something that the whole family can take part in. Even if your client is on a tight budget, it is a very attractive option: walking is free and requires no special equipment other than comfy shoes.

Many will argue that exercise, especially the gentle exercise suitable for a very overweight pet, does not burn off the calories to any great extent. However, building muscle strength and stretching will help restore mobility and when a dog is out walking, it’s not eating!

It has also been found that the metabolic rate decreases when people diet – basically the body burns calories more slowly because it believes it is approaching a state of starvation. The reduction in energy expenditure can be partially compensated for by exercise. Remember, too, that our whole approach should focus as much on changing lifestyles as calorie burning.

The re-check plan

Our natural inclination is to be focused on the needs of the animal, so it can be difficult to think about re-check appointments as anything other than an opportunity to re-weigh the animal and adjust feeding quantities. In fact, these appointments will be of much more value if we can think about our behaviour as well as that of our client.

Monitoring progress and reinforcing goals will always be one important part of our communication but think carefully about providing praise and positively reinforcing good behaviours. Return visits do not really provide the ideal time to “punish” failure because if the pet is regaining weight the client is going to need even more support and advice and we need him or her to come back again. The last thing we want is to make this visit an unpleasant experience.

With time you can predict events that act as certain triggers for clients, so this also provides an opportunity to anticipate when relapses will occur and to take preemptive action. So, if you know that Christmas or a pet’s birthday will result in a binge, invite the client in beforehand and remind the person of all that has been achieved, reinforce how well the pet is looking and identify suitable treats and gifts that the pet can safely enjoy without gaining weight.

Last but not least, let’s not wait until a pet becomes obese before we take action. It is the habits that develop when pets are young that are the hardest to change.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that pets often start to gain weight in early adulthood as growth slows down and owners fail to adjust feeding quantities accordingly; and as walks become less about the fun factor and more of a chore.

A lifestyle inventory at around this time could look at exercise and feeding routines and could act as a powerful predictor of obesity as time goes on. Let’s approach obesity with an open door and an open mind. We can make a difference.