Fight the giant

Pet obesity is a big problem, but that doesn't mean you should throw in the towel. By educating clients—and your team members—you can knock out this debilitating condition.
Oct 01, 2008

Gina Toman
Biscuit, a 46-pound beagle, waddles into your reception area with his owner, Mrs. Franklin. As the receptionist greets Mrs. Franklin, she notices that Biscuit is panting heavily after the short walk from the parking lot to the practice door. When the technician comes to escort the pair to the exam room, she sees that Biscuit has to struggle to get up off the floor. Mrs. Franklin sees it too and says, "He's really slowed down now that he's old." The technician thinks to herself that Biscuit is only 6 years old.

Obesity is a major epidemic facing pets today. Veterinary team members must be capable of recognizing the condition and be comfortable discussing it with clients. If not, people like Mrs. Franklin will leave thinking their pets' struggles really are age-related and pets like Biscuit will continue to suffer.

Round 1: Removing the stigma

What makes pet obesity different from other illnesses we encounter in our practices is that it parallels a problem people are battling. According to data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, two-thirds of American adults ages 20 and older are overweight or obese. Obesity is seen as more of a social problem, almost like a moral assessment, so it often carries a stigma. You know clients won't be offended if you tell them their pets have arthritis, but you're not sure how they'll react to the news that their pets are obese. As a result, many team members feel uncomfortable talking to clients, especially those who are overweight, about pet obesity. But you shouldn't.

Calculate the calories pets need
Obesity is a medical condition just like the others you and your team treat every day. You comfortably talk to clients about their pets' arthritis, kidney failure, or heartworm disease. Approach obesity in the same way. Discuss the facts, and don't make any personal judgements about the clients or their lifestyles. Begin the discussion by explaining that obesity increases the risk of many diseases and health problems. Sure, treating obesity isn't as easy as dispensing medication, but veterinary nutrition is fairly straightforward. You can provide clients with exact recommendations for their pets' diets. But first, every one of your team members must understand the components of your practice's obesity diagnosis and treatment program.

Round 2: Preparing your team

Staff training and role-playing are crucial to ensuring that your team members provide a consistent message about your hospital's philosophy on obesity. Many team members groan when they think of role-playing, but it's a tried-and-true way to ensure everyone knows the practice's message. To make role-playing nonthreatening—even fun—get a doctor or senior team member to go first. This person will play the part of a team member. Then ask any staff member to assume the role of a client who doesn't believe his or her pet's weight is a problem. After acting out the scenario, discuss what worked and what statements or body language could have been more effective.

Team training sessions should include formal lectures, written notes, and testing. Our practice uses phase training to ensure all team members know their stuff. This type of training establishes written goals and measurable standards for every knowledge level or phase. Teach team members about the common diseases associated with obesity, how to recognize at-risk pets, the signs of related illness, and your hospital's treatment options. Following are five topics your education program should include.

1. Calories. The first order of business: The veterinarian examines the pet and determines its ideal or target weight. Then you can plug that number into the formula (see above) for calculating a pet's caloric resting energy requirement (RER), which is the energy a pet needs at rest to digest, absorb, and metabolize nutrients.