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Practice Management

How to Say . . . “Your Pet Is Fat!”

by Mary Ann Vande Linde, DVM
    Fat dog

    Mrs. Smith enters your hospital with her 4-year-old Boston terrier, Missy. Missy was the cutest puppy and such a bundle of energy. Today, she is breathing heavily with a turned-up tongue and panting with each step. “She has quite a little waddle,” says Mrs. Smith. You see a mature dog that is struggling to move and breathe. How are you going to tell Mrs. Smith that Missy is…fat

    An Engaging Conversation

    The answer is simple: you’re not. The topic of weight or being overweight carries a huge emotional charge for many people. Emotionally charged words can set off a response that immediately shuts down listening and evokes defensive behavior. Instead, keep your language neutral and nonjudgmental and take a path to engage Mrs. Smith in Missy’s condition. Engagement gives the client an opportunity to act. By directly involving Mrs. Smith in the physical examination, you can give her the chance to tell, see, and even feel that Missy is fat and to decide for herself that something needs to be done about it. What you need to convey is Missy’s health is at risk due to her excess weight.

    To start with, you’ll need some basic data about Missy:

    • Her weight and how it has changed
    • Her body condition score (BCS)
    • Her lifestyle with Mrs. Smith
    • Information on genetic risk of increased weight over time for the breed

    Having the following in the exam room will help you obtain and communicate some of this information:

    • A poster or laminated sheet with images and descriptions of body condition scores or access to a Web site that asks the client to evaluate the pet’s body condition (click here for an example). 
    • Access to appropriate Web sites (e.g., Association for Pet Obesity Prevention) that provide information about healthy weight ranges by breed and risks of excess weight for pets.
    • A whiteboard and markers

    Now, how can you engage Mrs. Smith in discussing Missy’s weight without making her feel guilty? Try the following techniques to encourage Mrs. Smith’s participation in “discovering” how overweight Missy is and why:

    • Draw a graph on the whiteboard to show the progression of Missy’s weight since she was a puppy. “Let’s see, today Missy is 30 lb. Missy’s weight is really changing. What do you think is causing Missy’s weight gain?”
    • Ask Mrs. Smith to tell you what Missy’s average day is like. Find out Missy’s favorite activity and food, the types of food she eats and how much, and how often and how long she goes out for walks. When you have answers to the questions, paint a picture back to Mrs. Smith of Missy’s day from her point of view.
    • Get hands-on to evaluate Missy’s BCS with Mrs. Smith.
      • Start with the “knuckle test.” The knuckle test is a quick way to assess if a pet is under- or overweight or generally on target. First, have Mrs. Smith make a fist. Tell her, “Run your other hand along your knuckles. A dog or cat whose ribs feel like that is too thin. Now, hold out your open hand, palm down, and feel those knuckles again. That’s what a fit pet feels like. Finally, hold your hand out, palm up. Feel your palm just below your fingers. If Missy’s sides feel something like that, she needs to shed some pounds.”
      • Next, have Mrs. Smith feel Missy’s sides and compare them to her knuckles. If she cannot feel the ribs (and you know she can’t), have her press again and ask her to assess how much pressure she needs to feel the ribs. As you can explain, “That means Missy has too much weight for her own good. If you have to press hard to feel her ribs, imagine how much harder she has to work to breathe and move.” Use the BCS visuals, and engage Mrs. Smith in how the extra weight may feel to Missy.

    From Talk to Action

    Now that Mrs. Smith is aware of Missy’s weight and the fact that it is excessive, you want to present the potential health issues to her to help her understand how obesity can affect the length and quality of Missy’s life (click here for a good illustration). You also need to establish an action plan with Mrs. Smith to change Missy’s day. Setting manageable, concrete goals will help keep Mrs. Smith—and Missy—on track. The following is a sample plan:

    • Set a goal to make Missy more comfortable. “We need to feel Missy’s ribs by [insert date].”
    • Increase exercise. For example, have Mrs. Smith walk Missy up and down the driveway 3 or 4 times per day.
    • Change Missy’s food gradually. Get her on a reducing diet and calculate the amount of food for daily consumption. Provide a measuring cup and chart for logging progress.
    • Follow up. Schedule regular weight checks, and set reminders to call and check in on feeding and activity progress.

    By engaging Mrs. Smith and helping her take small steps, you have made the goal of weight reduction a possibility. And you never had to say, “Missy is fat!”


    Did you know... A client who arrives with children in tow offers a perfect time to make your practice shine. Designate a "kid-friendly zone" for your youngest visitors and show your willingness to have the whole family join in the pet's health care. Read More

    These Care Guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions. They are formatted to print and give to your clients for their information.

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