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InFocus

A heavy burden: weighty resolutions needed to open the dialogue

There are multiple reasons why nutrition may not always be top of our discussion list – but it really needs to be to tackle the obesity crisis

Working in a busy veterinary practice, with time constraints a constant pressure on us all, it’s hardly surprising that we can struggle to find the time to discuss the importance of nutrition with clients. It’s easy to give ourselves reasons – or excuses – for not talking about the matter, but the reality is that at least 50 percent of pets in the UK are currently clinically overweight or obese. As members of any veterinary healthcare team, it’s vital we take action to tackle this epidemic.

We know that the best way to deal with the issue is prevention and yet, according to an AAHA study, only 15 percent of pet owners say they receive nutritional recommendations from their vet. We’re simply failing to have these discussions early enough: often leaving it until it is too late. As such we end up with having to fix a problem which may have been prevented with early intervention. This very much highlights the importance of engaging with the pet owner and making a life-stage nutritional recommendation in order to prevent obesity from becoming an issue in the first place.

With 10.1 million dogs and 10.9 million cats currently owned in the UK (PDSA, 2020), it is such an important part of an owner’s duty of care to feed their pet healthy and nutritious food which will benefit their growth and their development and keep them at their optimum levels of health at each life stage. These are conversations that we, as veterinary professionals, need to be having from the very first appointment.

The latest PAW report from PDSA states that 45 percent of new owners would like an appointment with a veterinary pro­fessional prior to even getting an animal, to talk about what is needed and duty of care. Only 3 percent of pet owners in the UK stated they had been able to do this; disappointing when you consider the opportunities this would create to connect with owners from the offset and build that trust.

With 52 and 44 percent of veterinary professionals identifying obesity as one of the top five welfare issues that needed to be addressed in dogs and cats respectively this year, and moreover with a 78 percent (in dogs) and 34 percent (in cats) rise in obesity in the last five years (PDSA, 2020), it is paramount we open up the dialogue at the very beginning of the vet–owner relationship so that we can prevent these numbers rising even further.

Many veterinary professionals avoid discussing nutrition with their clients, not wanting to open up a can of worms, or fearing upsetting their client. There are many reasons why we feel apprehensive about discussing this incredibly important topic and many ways we can overcome them. Let’s take a look at the most common justifications we make.

1. There simply isn’t time

We know that finding time within the appointment can be difficult, particularly if the animal has come in for a specific reason – it is naturally best to spend the time on that topic. And yes, nutrition and diet can be a tricky conversation to have, especially concerning those pets who are overweight. It is a team effort and practices must rally together to give the best care possible. If you do not have the time to devote to discussing this with the owner, then perhaps find someone in the practice who does. Someone who has an interest in nutrition, is approachable and can have a good, open conversation with the pet parent.

Education is essential to help owners understand what is best for their pet. This knowledge would be insightful for many pet owners, and by arming them with the correct information, they will avoid going on to Google and researching conflicting advice. We must be the leading advocates for animals and be the accurate advice provider, not the internet.

This is no more important than right now, with virtual appointments on the rise and time in the practice extremely sparse. The relationship between a veterinary professional and pet owner needs to be stronger than ever. There must be an open and honest dialogue about nutrition and diet.

2. Owners aren’t interested in nutrition, they think we’re just trying to sell them stuff

A shopper survey revealed that 91 percent of pet parents visiting the vet clinic want and expect a nutritional recommendation. Only 15 percent say they get one. We know it isn’t always the most exciting topic to talk about and we don’t want to come across as pushy or patronising, but we can discuss nutrition from a place of authority. This is where the trust and rapport with the pet owner is crucial.

The majority of pet owners do not have the education or the recognition to make these informed decisions themselves, and also when it comes to their pets, owners can often have their blinkers on.

In addition, whilst the internet is an amazing resource, it is full of confusing and conflicting misinformation. It’s really not surprising that pet owners can get things very wrong.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped the matter, with 8 percent of dog owners stating their pet put on weight during lockdown and 6 percent of cat owners reporting the same. Worryingly, 84 percent of dog owners and 73 percent of cat owners think their animal is an ideal weight, when we know from our own clinics and recent research that obesity is drastically on the rise. It’s clear there is a massive discrepancy between what pet parents believe an ideal weight looks like and what an ideal weight actually is.

This is where we, as veterinary professionals, can step in to really educate them about the preventative measures that can be taken early in their beloved pet’s life to make sure they are correctly nourished at each stage of their lives.

3. It’s not the vet’s job to talk about food. I leave it to my nursing team

This is a great way to delegate this subject to your skilled and interested nursing colleagues. However, we know that veterinary recommendation is the strongest driver to owner behaviour (63 percent), so be sure to make it clear that you recommend the food but that your nurse is the “nutritional champion” in your practice and they’ll be giving them more detail about your recommendations. It is all about teamwork. Pet owners need to feel safe, cared for and able to trust the information provided.

We must ensure that every animal in our care receives the best level of care and service we can provide, and education and information is part of that too. It is important for vets to be involved in the process.

4. I can’t compete with online retailers so what’s the point of talking about food. My clients will just buy it elsewhere

We understand your frustration, and we know that many veterinary recommended products can be found at a lower cost online. This is a prime example of where you as a professional need to be an advocate, not a seller.

When it comes to therapeutic diets, tying in your expertise and services (for example using senior/weight/OA/diabetes nurse clinics) with a nutritional sale will help encourage loyalty, further build on the relationship and trust between vet, nurse and owner, and ensure your patients receive the very best level of care.

We live and breathe what is best for the animal and once that rapport and trust is built with the pet owner – and nutrition discussions become more frequent – it will not come across as “selling”, but as a recommendation from a trusted source.

5. I don’t think nutrition is important enough to spend time talking about. All foods are the same anyway, aren’t they?

Looking at human nutrition we know this can’t be the case – everything we put into our bodies will have an impact on our long-term health and longevity, including the impact it has on conditions such as obesity.

Looking at veterinary nutrition we are all too familiar with what can happen if the wrong life-stage diet were fed to a growing puppy. All foods are not created equal and owners need our guidance, support and expertise now more than ever.

That’s why the WSAVA recommends a nutritional assessment as part of every consultation, for every pet, every time.

We also know that 16 percent of dog owners and 17 percent of cat owners fed more treats to their animals during lockdown. We all know the feeling of over-indulging during these challenging times! Furthermore, 24 percent of dog owners and 11 percent of cat owners regularly feed their animals scraps or leftovers. As veterinary professionals, we understand that these things happen, but we also know if we don’t tackle bad habits like this early on, then this could very well lead to obesity.

Obesity is a disease which we as a profession need to tackle urgently. Being a healthy weight should be regarded as being just as important as annual vaccinations. We absolutely recognise this isn’t something that can be fixed overnight and is a lengthy journey that requires commitment by everyone who plays a role in the welfare of every pet: be that the owner or us, the veterinary healthcare team. We need to kick-start that education process before it gets too late, and there’s no better time to start than now.

References

PDSA

2020

PAW Report 2020

Michael Unsworth

Veterinary Affairs Manager at Hill's

Michael Unsworth, BVetMed, MRCVS, has 12 years of clinical experience in small animal practice and five years in industry. Clinical roles in the UK and Australia included working at the first opinion teaching hospital at the RVC and leading a team in a large small animal group based on the South Coast.


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