I've been a vet for many years, and sadly pet obesity is now one of the major issues affecting pet health in the UK. It's often unrecognised by pet owners, who may not notice gradual weight gain, or may simply regard a chubby pet as cuddly and well-fed. Yet, as with us humans, obesity is linked to serious problems such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and a shorter life expectancy.
So how does the PDSA tackle the issue? For various reasons it isn't a straightforward matter. Once a pet has been identified as being overweight, bringing about the actual weight loss can be a challenge from a vet's point of view, as both the owner and the pet need to take part. Not only do bad habits often need addressing, but we often need to show owners that pet weight loss is actually possible.
One of the ways we do this is through our annual slimming competition, Pet Fit Club, which helps groups of obese pets from around the UK reach their ideal weight. First and foremost it directly helps these pets slim down to a healthier weight, with careful monitoring and guidance by veterinary staff at our PetAid hospitals. In addition, the campaign provides PDSA with a platform to raise awareness of pet obesity among a wider audience. This encourages many other owners, potentially millions, to take a closer, more honest look at their own pet's body shape.
When dealing with an overweight pet one frequent hurdle is the emotional aspect; for many owners food is intrinsically linked with happiness. However, when pets beg for attention they can be just as happy with a game, a cuddle or a walk - it is humans that can interpret this as a request for food. This not only becomes our way of 'showing our love' for our pets, but giving them treats in response to begging simply reinforces this behaviour - it is a learned response.
This is where things can get difficult, as ignoring pleading eyes, strictly rationing the food and going out for a walk, whatever the weather, takes dogged determination and motivation.
However, this is the most interesting consideration from my point of view; identifying the motivational factors that lead to owners really committing to their pet's weight loss, and following this through to completion. Pet Fit Club obviously has quite a solid incentive as the pets compete to be the slimming champion. This year's winner is a Spaniel, Jack, from Middlesex, who lost 31% of his bodyweight since being adopted by his new owner in January.
But apart from this tangible reward, what else induces pet weight loss? Many of the owners taking part in the competition stated that the chance of winning was simply an added bonus - for them the real prize was improving their pet's health, quality of life and overall life expectancy. The willingness was there, but they simply needed to know how to go about it.
The Pet Fit Club Highly Commended awards this year went to Billie, Billy and Bobby - the 'three Bs'. The cat, dog and rabbit have all done exceptionally well, and their owners report that their pets are much happier, healthier and more active.
Billie's owner tells us how her cat now 'plays like a kitten', and Billy's owner that her Cocker Spaniel now 'has a spring in his step' and enjoys long walks without getting out of breath. Bobby the bunny now plays much more frequently, gets on better with her rabbit playmate, and regularly does 'binkies'.
Fifi's owner was desperate to help her lose weight to increase both the likely length and quality of her life, and she is delighted that the sassy cat is now more able to get around and 'be a proper cat'.
The owners of formerly fat dog Molly admit that they were previously in denial about her size. But they can now clearly see the benefits of her weight loss, saying that she is so bouncy and healthy now that she's like a different dog.
And while Deco the newly-slimline Labrador is now much healthier, and also better behaved, his owner has shed three stone herself too - talk about a win-win situation!
Together our Pet Fit Club pets have lost a staggering total of 68kg, or 13 stone and 7 pounds. This is particularly commendable when we factor in that cats and rabbits must lose weight very gradually, as losing weight too quickly can be dangerous for them.
Although an improved standard of life for their pets was a primary motivation for the owners, another strong incentive was the frequent check-ups - the pets were weighed monthly and the owners also had the opportunity to ask questions, or raise concerns. This appointment is as much for the owner's benefit as the pet's. Many veterinary practices now run weight-loss clinics, and I would highly recommend finding one in your area if your pet is on the porky side.
Sticking to the diet is essential, and while many owners admit to feeling guilt when they start to ration their pet's food, they quickly realise that pushing through this is in the best interests of their pet in the long run. Many comment that, after a couple of months, their pet no longer begs or craves treats.
We know people love their pets, and want them to have long, healthy and happy lives. But if the important issue of obesity is ignored then their pet's future could be very different.
PDSA's Pet Fit Club participants show other pet owners that, with persistence and a strong resolve to resist those puppy dog eyes, weight loss is achievable and will eventually result in a much happier, healthier pet.