"Dude! Your cat is fat and you need to work on that."

It shouldn't be that difficult to have a conversation about feline obesity, but a University of Calgary masters student who clawed through the research says it all too often is.

"The complexity of these conversations between pet owners talking about their overweight patients, talking about pet food in general, is a really interesting and contentious issue with clients," Alexandra Phillips told The Homestretch.

"When you are adding the component of obesity to that, it is a really challenging topic to address."

Phillips co-authored recently published research on the topic, Feline Obesity in Veterinary Medicine: Insights from a Thematic Analysis of Communication in Practice, which involved reviewing video interactions between veterinarians and owners of chunky kitties.

While pet obesity has become an important issue — with up to 63 per cent of the canine and feline population in industrialized nations obese — too little is known about how veterinarians and pet owners are addressing the problem during clinic visits, according to the study.

 "We had an archive of some previously video-recorded veterinary consults. So imagine you are a fly on the wall in the veterinary office and you are seeing from beginning to end how that consultation goes," Phillips said.

Alexandra Phillips

Researcher Alexandra Phillips says conversations about feline obesity are important, even if they can be uncomfortable. (David Bell/CBC)

"We had 123 feline visits. We wanted to focus on cats for a couple of reasons. Cats outnumber dogs in a big way in North America, but generally in private practice, about 30 to 40 per cent of the clientele is cats as opposed to dogs or other pets. So why are clients not bringing their kitty to the veterinarian?"

The study also found that, out of 123 appointments for cats, only 25 were identified in which 12 veterinarians and their clients addressed the issue of obesity.

"In particular, in-depth nutritional history taking and clear recommendations of management rarely took place," the study said. 

Phillips says sometimes there is little interest in having that potentially awkward conversation.

"Sometimes maybe the vet danced around the topic of obesity, 'Maybe Fluffy is a little bit overweight,' and then there would be some resistance from the pet owner. We are seeing there is kind of resistance often on both sides."

Owners routinely underestimate pet weight

Other times, denial can be part of the equation.

"We know that pet owners routinely underestimate their pet's body weight. I think it is shocking, it's difficult. It's easy for people to get defensive about it. People don't necessarily recognize obesity as a health and welfare issue. Obesity is a slow burn, it creeps up over time," she said.

"So a lot of people just aren't recognizing it as an issue."

And Phillips adds, a structured weight loss program for your furry friend is a lot of work that requires the buy-in of everyone in the house, which is hard.

The next step, she says, is figuring out how to make that conversation more comfortable and results-driven.

"What can we say and do as a profession that really gets people buying into this. They are seeing the issue and then they are able and willing to do something about it."


With files from The Homestretch