Obesity: A big problem

Obesity: A big problem

Jul 01, 2007

Ernest E. Ward Jr., DVM
Our patients are facing an epidemic. Left untreated, it can lead to severely debilitating conditions resulting in pain, suffering, and expensive medical care. Fortunately, the problem is preventable and can usually be reversed with simple treatment. The problem is obesity.

Here's the real question: Why aren't we talking about it? Every veterinarian and healthcare professional knows the story by heart. We eat too much. We feed our pets too much food. We all get fat. We become sick and arthritic and develop other weight-associated conditions and then undergo expensive medical treatments.

Obesity in people is a huge problem, of course. The American Medical Association estimates that 300,000 people die each year in the United States because of poor diet and physical inactivity, both of which contribute to obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that obesity-related problems cost our economy more than $75 billion each year. And our pets are suffering a similar fate. Roughly 40 percent to 55 percent are classified as overweight, and one-third to one-half of those are obese.

Help study obesity in pets
This is largely a modern problem. Obesity rates in the United States rose about 112 percent from 1970 to 2000. When I graduated from veterinary school in 1992, pet obesity wasn't even discussed in the classroom. And with such a seemingly simple solution for most pets and people—eat less and exercise more—you'd think we could reverse the trend. But the World Health Organization estimates that the number of overweight adults will grow by 40 percent over the next 10 years. And we're likely to see the same trend in the number of the plump pets visiting us.

It's time to speak out

The first step in improving pets' health and ending this epidemic is to talk about it. Why don't we?

Let's consider human medicine. In a 2004 study, more than 50 percent of obese people who did not undergo bariatric surgery reported that their primary care physician "never" or only "once in a while" discussed their morbid obesity with them. One reason physicians fail to counsel patients on obesity may be doctors' distrust of the available treatments. They see lots of weight loss options and lots of overweight patients; one doesn't seem to make an impact on the other. Physicians are unlikely to discuss weight loss plans that don't appear to work.

It's no different for veterinarians. We see lots of overweight pets and lots of diet foods and treatments, yet the number of fat pets keeps growing. So we don't talk about it.

For some of us, our busy schedules and lack of training in weight-related disorders and nutrition hold us back. But no matter the reason for our reticence, now is the time for us to learn about these issues and make time to talk to clients about them.