Obesity: Prevention, Client Consultation Best Cure for Disease

Scientists now know that fat cells are active and that pets never lose the number of cells they’re born with though they can add to that total, said Deb Zoran, DVM, MS, PhD. And while many practitioners recognize obesity as a problem, Zoran wants more professionals to treat it as a disease and emphasize early methods of prevention, such as adjusting exercise and diet to hormone levels affected by neutering. Once neutered, energy needs decrease by 25 to 30 percent, which should be reflected in diet, Zoran explained.

“Prevention is almost always better than a cure,” Zoran told a packed audience at the ACVIM meeting in Louisville, KY.

Citing statistics that one in three neutered cats is obese and that one in five cats overall is obese, Zoran said environmental factors should be discussed with clients in separate sessions dedicated to nutrition.

In these appointments, professionals could cover high-calorie diets, free-choice feeding, and diet requirements for neutered versus intact pets as well as indoor/outdoor lifestyles.

“Prevention is a good tool,” said Sean Delaney, DVM, MS, a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. “It’s something that nutritionists are focusing on more and more.”

The same may not be true for general practitioners. “I’m not sure that veterinarians as a whole are doing more than they have before,” Delaney added.

Part of the problem may be that general practitioners struggle with the perceived value of preventative nutritional counseling, he explained. Scheduling a separate appointment for nutrition may solve that issue.

“What else can you do to increase a pet’s lifespan? Nothing,” Delaney said. He believes that a nutritional session would enable professionals to cover caloric requirements and the role nutrition plays in overall health. And while it represents an additional client cost, he said, “I think it’s inherently worth the value.”


Discussing Diets

To prevent obesity, Zoran encourages professionals to counsel clients early about food selection. Appointments focused on diet discussions and calorie counts – are an ideal way to track and monitor weight gain, which becomes increasingly important as cats age, she added. “Assess cats often and readjust” their diets, Zoran told audience members.

Cats use protein for energy continuously and studies show that if diets do not provide enough protein calories, the body will take its protein from muscle mass. In addition, insufficient protein in the diet can lead to changes in fat metabolism, Zoran said.

In addition to protein levels, clients need to pay close attention to carbohydrates, she warned. In addition to shorter GI tracts, cats do not have the digestive enzyme amylase so it is more difficult to digest carbohydrates.

Wet foods that are high in protein and low in fat and carbohydrates are preferable for cats, and have the added benefit of providing more water to the diet, which influences lower urinary tract health, Zoran said. But clients should be warned that many over-the-counter foods that tout low carbohydrate levels are high in calories, she added.

Due to the fact that fat cells never leave the body, cats should be closely monitored for weight gain. Even one teaspoon of excess food can lead to one pound in excess weight, Zoran warned.

“We originally thought that fat cells didn’t do anything, but we were wrong,” Zoran said. Scientists have explored the hormonal role that fat plays, its influence on appetite and insulin sensitivity, and how it leads to diabetes, which is why “it is so important for veterinarians to control obesity,” Zoran added.

Helping clients understand the feline digestive system may be helpful in preventing obesity, Zoran said. For example, in the wild cats are grazers that hunt for their food. If bored, inside cats can turn to eating for entertainment, which is why Zoran suggests using food balls to stimulate interest. She also advises separate feeding for cats in multi-cat households. Other ideas for cat wellness can be found at the Indoor Cat Initiative website.

While general practitioners are in the best position to handle preventative counseling appointments, additional skill sets may be required to answer specific nutritional questions. If a boarded nutritionist is not located nearby, many professionals offer remote counseling, said Delaney, who is one of 33 boarded veterinary nutritionists in the world.

He offers professionals access to a free calorie counter service online, and referred to several other online resources, such as Petdiets.com and Tufts University.


Photo provided by the United Kingdom’s first pet obesity clinic at the University of Liverpool.