Pet obesity clinic sets sights on slimming overweight animals

What does it take to start a successful pet obesity clinic? The staff of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals will be able to tell you soon enough, considering they just opened the nation’s first such clinic to be run by a full-time, board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

The Massachusetts-based clinic, opened in August 2012, will confront the pet obesity epidemic with a targeted approach involving clinical research, education, and patient-specific weight loss programs.

Dr. Deborah Linder, DVM, DACVN, admitted that because she and her staff are venturing into uncharted territory, they will have to maintain a flexible strategy while the clinic forges its identity.

“I think we still don’t know what’s going to work best, so we need to have an adaptive plan,” Linder said. “We need to be flexible and ready to change if we find one plan works better than another, or if different strategies work better with owners than others.”

It would be a mistake to think that the clinic will be starting from scratch, though.

The staff includes three board-certified clinical nutritionists under Linder’s supervision. Also, because the clinic is a branch of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, Linder and her staff will have a wealth of veterinary research, knowledge, and resources at their disposal.

Linder discussed some of the goals her clinic will focus on as it grows and evolves to meet clients’ needs.

Goal 1: Make obesity part of the conversation
Not enough pet owners are discussing obesity with veterinarians, as evidenced by a survey from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimating that there are 88.4 million overweight pets in the United States.

Linder said many of her clients haven’t realized their pets had weight problems until their veterinarian brought it up. This opened her eyes to the influence veterinarians wield when it comes to making clients aware of their pets’ weight.

Because of this influence, Linder said her clinic will work to ensure that obesity is a common topic of discussion between veterinarians and clients, and that veterinarians will be more consistent with nutritional assessments.

“We need to be assessing body condition scores and also lean muscle tissue in each appointment. I hope that many more owners and veterinarians are aware of how important body condition is,” she said.

Goal 2: Find better ways to educate clients
Educating clients about obesity is one of the first steps toward healthier pets, but that is sometimes easier said than done.

Some pet owners “shut down” when veterinarians mention the health consequences of animal obesity, possibly because they feel like they are being criticized, Linder said. To address this, her clinic will continuously search for more effective methods of educating clients on obesity and correcting their pet-feeding behaviors.

From her own experience, Linder said it helps to work as a coach or negotiator with clients, “building that team approach with the client so the owner thinks you are working with them and not against them.”

She said it often helps to approach the client with an attitude of, “You can tell me anything, I’m not going to judge. We’re going to work together to find what makes you happy and how we can make your pet healthy.”

Goal 3: Help owners make smarter pet food choices
Today’s pet food market offers more choices than ever, which can make nutritional decisions difficult for pet owners.

According to Linder, Tufts conducted a study where they examined the calorie content in dry dog foods featuring labels claiming to help with weight management. The study showed that the products’ calorie counts ranged from 217 to 440. Adding to the confusion, not all foods are even required to include calorie content on the label, she said. These discrepancies and omissions are not helpful to consumers when they are trying to provide a healthier diet for pets.

Treats are another significant contributor to pet obesity, according to Linder.

“I would say a lot of my patients have more than 10 percent of their total calories per day coming from treats,” Linder said. “I’ve seen some of them go up to 90 percent from treats, but that’s not the norm. It not only imbalances their diet, but adds extra calories.”

The clinic will tackle this problem by researching available nutrition options, as well as keeping clients informed about the foods they feed their pets and proper feeding practices.

Goal 4: Set an example for other veterinary practices
As more hospitals nationwide search for better ways to help clients manage their pets’ weight, veterinarians will likely be closely observing the practice management strategies, research, and treatments taking place at Tufts.

Linder said she wants veterinarians to benefit from lessons learned during her clinic’s evolution, which is why she will visit other clinics to discuss obesity, as well as continue to produce research and articles about advances in effective weight loss strategies.

Ultimately, she said she hopes her clinic’s efforts will inspire other practices to learn from them and take action against obesity.

“We want veterinarians to know that we’re there when they need us,” Linder said. “Obesity is not easy. It’s an intensive process and we really want to make sure that we put everything we can into it.”

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