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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
July 14 - July 20, 2005 Edition
Web Comments - Email Submissions

Visiting Vet
July 14, 2005

There is no new Visiting Vet column this week.

Fat is fat
July 7, 2005


By Michelle Gerhard Jasny, VMD

Now don’t be shocked. I’m gonna get personal. Ready? I have spent most of my life as a fat person. People often look embarrassed when I describe myself this way. “Oh, you’re not fat,” they demur. Sure, I am. When an animal, human or otherwise, takes in more energy than it expends, the result is a persistent energy surplus that is stored primarily as adipose tissue. In other words, fat. If you are 10 percent above your recommended heft, that’s defined as overweight. At 20 percent over ideal, you get the lovely moniker of obese. It’s a physical description, I remind people, like tall, or blonde. It’s not a value judgment. We’re not bad, or gluttonous, or lazy, or stupid. We’re not even undisciplined. The reality is just that some of us have genetic predispositions and/or emotional constitutions that make weight control more challenging. Odds are that you, gentle reader, are fat too. OK, maybe not here on the Island of Beautiful People, but nationwide, studies indicate that 60 percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese. What does this have to do with veterinary medicine? It’s a common scenario at my office. Moby may be a stubby-legged Dachshund or a long-limbed Labrador. Whatever breed, he’s a whale of a dog. Over 25 percent of pets in the United States are also overweight or obese. As Moby waddles in, his owner waddles after him. Fat dog, fat owner. No surprise. Now comes the hard part. What do I do when this pair arrives in my exam room?

I have had clients tell me they were afraid to bring their fat, four-legged furballs in for fear that I would yell at them. This is exactly how I feel about the dentist and flossing. OK, yelling at people rarely leads to weight loss (or flossing.) I could gently but firmly lay out the basic principles of weight loss. In fact, that’s what I should do, what I often do. But sometimes when faced with a persistently fat dog, especially one accompanied by a chubby owner, my little inner voice sighs “Save your breath.” Lectures never helped me, and experience tells me they’re not likely to inspire Moby’s owner either. I could ignore Moby’s obesity entirely, but is that being a good health-care provider? I don’t know. For decades my doctor has not mentioned my weight, even when I came in with complaints of back pain, joint problems, and gastrointestinal upset. Initially I appreciated not being browbeaten and saw his reticence as a form of acceptance. Now I’m not so sure. I think for health-care providers, human or veterinary, it may be more a sense of resignation, combined with already hectic schedules, that precludes us from pursuing discussions of weight control, especially when we doubt our words will make a difference.

So here’s the good news. A bunch of doctors led by Dr. Robert Kushner, Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Medical Director of the Wellness institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, got together with a bunch of vets and scientists from Hill’s Pet Nutrition, the maker of Science Diet and Prescription Diet brand pet foods. They did a one-year study entitled People and Pets Exercising Together ( P-PET). The purpose of the study was to see how a weight-loss program in which people and their pets enrolled together compared to programs for people-only or dogs-only. We know that people do better making behavioral changes when they have a buddy or a support system. Look at Weight Watchers. Look at Twelve Step programs. Could dogs and people team up as fitness partners?

The study had three groups. The first, dubbed People and Pets (PET), was made up of 35 fat dogs with 35 fat owners. The second group was 53 Dogs Only (DO.) The third group was 56 People Only (PO). Overweight dogs were put on specified amounts of Hills Prescription Diet Canine r/d (reducing diet) until they reached their ideal weights, then maintained on Hill’s w/d (weight control diet). They were given an exercise plan of 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity at least three times per week and a regular weigh-in schedule. Overweight people were given meal plans, behavioral strategies for controlling calorie intake, and exercise suggestions. Over one year, everybody lost weight. People averaged about 5 percent loss, i.e., a 200-pounder lost 10 pounds. Some lost more, with one individual dropping a whopping 51 pounds! Dogs averaged around 15-percent loss. (That’s like that 200-pound person losing 30 pounds.) Some lost more, with the maximum canine loss being 35 pounds.

Now here’s the most important point for Moby and his corpulent companion. Participants in the combined PET group did better keeping with the program. The Dogs Only group had a 32-percent dropout rate by the end of the year. The PET group had an attrition rate of only 14 percent, with 86 percent sticking with it for the full 12 months. The PET group did most of their increased physical activities together. Let’s face it. It’s more fun running around with your dog than exercising solo. Another reason the P-PET approach may be successful has to do with bonding. Portly owners may sit and snack with their pets while doing sedentary things like watching TV. Sharing that pepperoni pizza feels like love. By substituting exercising together for binging together, all parties benefit. Moby and his owner spend quality time walking, jogging, and playing frisbee. Love for Moby helps keep Mom or Dad motivated. How many of us are able to quit smoking or cut out other unhealthy habits for the sake of our children when we can’t do it just for ourselves? It’s the same dynamic.

“People really enjoy spending time with their dogs, and our P-PET study demonstrates that dogs provide the companionship, social support, and motivation to stick with the program until the pounds come off and stay off,” says Dr. Kushner. “This just might be the ultimate buddy system for winning the battle of the bulge.”

So I’m not going to lecture you. I’m going to encourage you to pair up with your pudgy pooch and take an extra walk this week, if you’re so inclined. Remember, it’s not about being good or bad. It’s not even about being fat or thin. It’s about making healthy choices and doing the best you can for yourself and your dog. Hey, you might even see me out on the bike path getting some exercise myself.
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