Obesity still a top health threat to pets, nutritionist says

Obesity still a top health threat to pets, nutritionist says

May 01, 2007

C.A. Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl ACVN, is a professor in the department of veterinary sciences at The Ohio State University, Columbus. He has conducted extensive research on the clinical nutrition of small-animal patients and the lower urinary tract disorders of cats. Here Dr. Buffington shares his thoughts on the indoor-cat initiative, nutrition issues facing pets, the difference between compliance and adherence, and future research endeavors.

DVM: What would you say are some of greatest nutrition issues facing pets today?

Buffington: Obesity – it ranks as issues 1 through 10. What's being done to prevent obesity? First, we have to get beyond equating diet and obesity. It's far more complex. For example, it's really about diet, exercise and the brain. And the brain is a big place. That factor is almost always left out – across species. Interestingly, we're seeing an epidemic of obesity and obesity-associated diseases in dogs, cats, horses and humans. When I talk to my physician colleagues, they're just as interested in what's going on in veterinary medicine, because it looks so similar. That's got to be telling us something. We just need to figure out what it's telling us and how to act on it.

Everybody plays a part: pet-food companies, owners and veterinarians. Veterinarians need to be teaching body- condition scoring, resulting in an appropriate body condition. Many of the pet-food companies have helped by having body-condition scoring schemes that they share with veterinarians and owners. Some companies have described this scoring on their packaging. Feeding directions on foods give you a ZIP code, but not the address of the animal. We need to be more focused on body-condition scoring. Again, animal husbandry is a very important approach to therapy. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition, American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, as well as pet food manufacturers in general – all those groups are doing what they can. Could we be doing more? We probably should.

We should attempt to prevent obesity, because it's not so easy to treat. Our approach to therapy for obesity includes variable combinations of diet, activity, stress reduction and rehabilitation therapy.

DVM: How do you think we got to this place of rampant obesity among pets?

Buffington: It's probably not one factor. It's partly the result of the increasing complexity of life, which can be stressful to people and animals. When it's stressful for humans, it's stressful for animals. As kids, we all knew when our parents were having a fight; our animals know that, too. Additionally, there's an enormous amount of readily available, calorically dense food, and it's really hard keep these pets active. Many neighborhoods do not have good places to walk. It is difficult to find the time in many people's lives for activity. So I think every case is going to be a little different. Those are the general features contributing to this situation.

DVM: What's the indoor-cat initiative, and how does it impact the practice of veterinary medicine?

Buffington: Since the late 1970s or so, as people have moved into more urban environments and taken their cats and other animals with them, our animals are being exposed to different environments just like we are. That may call for different approaches to animal husbandry.

In the university practice here, for example, a number of owners didn't grow up around animals. They didn't have lots of animals as pets, so maybe they don't know as much about how animals behave as people who have had those experiences.

The cat initiative effort was designed to try to educate people on how to be a good animal owner. What do cats really need, and how can owners help meet those needs?