How to Talk About Pet Obesity With Your Veterinary Clients

One tip? Don’t say “obese.”

FLICKR: Cat BY Jan-Erik Finnberg IS LICENSED UNDER CC BY 2.0.

Obesity can lead to a range of medical conditions for pets if not addressed properly, but even with the possibility of dire consequences, many vets still struggle to effectively address obesity with clients. Pet obesity is rapidly becoming an epidemic; an estimated 54 percent of pets in the United States are obese. The result is millions of pets with diabetes, joint pain and even organ failure.

In fact, according to a 2014 study from Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that:

“Out of 1,421 animals put to a veterinary assessment last fall, 57.6 percent of cats and 52.6 percent of dogs were classified as overweight or obese. Owners of the obese pets overwhelmingly considered their cat or dog to be of normal weight.”

Fortunately, more effective communication with your veterinary clients can make a big difference.

Avoid Using the Word “Obese”

According to Wendy Myers, owner of Communications Solutions for Veterinarians many of her clients worry about having the conversation because their clients are also obese, but they’re not helping their clients or the pets that way. Instead, she suggests making it about the medical consequences instead.

“You may be worried that the client will be offended by the word obese,” she says. “Instead, use the phrase ‘healthy weight’ and the end result is we’re going to be able to prevent arthritis and heart disease.”

By focusing on a healthy weight rather than using words like obese, which may be emotionally loaded for some clients, veterinarians ensure clients are able to focus on addressing their pets’ health.

Include Body Condition Scores Every Exam

Body condition scores are an easy way for clients to understand how their pet is doing — some clients may not even be aware of what an ideal weight looks like for their pets.  Assessing a pet’s weight on the office can also be a great way to teach clients how to monitor their pet’s weight between visits. Veterinarians should explain how to assess their pet’s body condition by running both hands across their pet’s ribcage with the thumbs running down the backbone. It’s important to remind clients that fur can make it difficult to get an accurate body condition assessment, and physically touching their pet will help ensure an accurate read.

Myers also suggests that vets use their hands to illustrate what an ideal weight feels like so that clients clearly understand what they’re noticing when they assess a pet’s weight at home. Here are some simple examples you can give them:

  • If a pet’s ribs feel like the knuckles on a closed fist, the pet is underweight
  • If it feels more like the palm-side of a flat hand, the pet is overweight
  • If a pet’s ribs feel like the top of the fingers on a flat hand, the pet is fairly close to an ideal body condition.

Having a basis for comparison can make a huge difference in getting clients actively engaged in maintaining a healthy weight in their pets.

Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary

Heart disease and other obesity related conditions are expensive to treat.

Address The Expense of Treating Obesity-Related Conditions

Some clients may struggle more with understanding the gravity of obesity related medical conditions like arthritis, heart problems and diabetes. Those same clients may be more likely to take action if their vets talk about maintaining a healthy weight as a relatively easy way to avoid expensive care in the future, especially since many obesity-related health conditions will require ongoing care to address.

It may not be your favorite way to convince a client to change behavior, but sometimes money talk is the only thing that gets through.

Bring Prescription Diets Into the Exam Room

Sometimes getting clients to take information seriously can be as simple as changing where the conversation happens. When clients first get a new prescription diet through reception area rather than in the exam room, they are less likely to follow through on actually purchasing the diet.

As Myers explains, “I always want to get the technician to bring the diet into the exam room because then it’s part of the medical conversation. I think too often people assume that the pet foods that are in the lobby are readily available in any retail or pet specialty store.”

This simple change gets the client to think about their pet’s food the same way they might think about medication to address any other condition, and that shift in thinking can make all the difference.

call your clients

FLICKR: Phone BY Sam Glover IS LICENSED UNDER CC BY 2.0.

Regular follow-up calls help remind clients to adhere to their pet’s care plan.

It’s All in the Follow Up (Call)

Once you’ve talked to your client about their pet’s weight and developed a plan to reach a target, it’s important to call your clients to encourage them to follow through. Myer recommends a monthly follow-up call between office visits to see how the pet is doing.

In her article, How to talk with Confidence about Pet Nutrition, Myers recommends this script when calling clients:

"Say, 'This is with <your name> with <your veterinary clinic>. Dr. <Doctor's Name> asked me to call to confirm that you’re making the transition from Ollie’s previous food to the new therapeutic diet <diet name here> for kidney disease. When switching foods, you should be mixing the two foods, gradually increasing the proportion of new food over one week and reducing the amount of the previous food. Have you begun the transition to get Ollie on his new kidney diet? Is he eating it? Eating this diet is the cornerstone of Dr. <Doctor's Name>’s treatment plan and will help us better manage Ollie’s kidney disease. Research shows pets with kidney disease can live twice as long after diagnosis if they eat a therapeutic diet. I will give you a courtesy reminder to refill Ollie’s food, which should be in three weeks. Would you like me to contact you by email or call?'"

Regularly scheduled phone calls can also be a great opportunity to remind clients to either do a body condition assessment with their hands or use a scale to see if the pet has made progress toward the target weight. Sometimes, these check-ins will also encourage clients to make an appointment for another condition or to reassess the plan if their pet isn’t making the expected progress.

No matter how you choose to talk to your clients about their obese pets, it’s important to make sure they understand how important it is for their pets to maintain a healthy weight. Many pet owners will feel overwhelmed at the prospect of helping their pets lose weight, but an engaging conversation with a clear plan and a veterinarian who shows they care can go a long way toward getting clients to make necessary changes.

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