Phillip Smiles

Lean or Not, Who’s a Good Dog?

Blame and shame for obesity, it seems, is not just for humans anymore. In fact, a new study in the International Journal of Obesity documents significant bias toward dogs with obesity and their owners. What’s more, these attitudes are strikingly similar to what humans endure. Who’s a good dog? According to some veterinarians, not a dog with obesity. And those vets are not to sure about the owners, either.

A Study of Veterinarians and Vets in Training

Rebecca Pearl and colleagues conducted two studies. First, they surveyed 205 practicing vets. Then, they repeated the research with veterinary students. Both the practicing vets and the students felt more blame, disgust, and frustration for dogs with obesity and their owners. By comparison, lean dogs get a free pass. Respondents also assumed that owners of dogs with obesity would not follow their advice. The expected more treatment failures.

And here’s the kicker. For a condition with an uncertain link to obesity, vets didn’t hesitate. They recommended weight loss first and foremost. This sounds just like the experience that many people have with their doctors. No matter what the problem, if you have significant obesity, many doctors will go straight to weight loss as the solution.

A Serious Real-World Problem

The result of these attitudes creates a serious problem for vets and their patients. The attitudes are real. But those same attitudes are quite off-putting to pet owners. As a practical matter, raising the subject of obesity can result in losing a patient. Shame a dog owner – even unintentionally – and they might never come back. So for many vets, obesity is a subject to avoid and perhaps a lapse in professional responsibility for a dog’s health.

The real solution is not to avoid the subject. Instead, it might help to address the bias and prejudice that poison conversations about this health issue. In fact, Muñoz-Prieto et al report that dog owners who understood obesity as a disease had dogs that were less likely to suffer from it. This is an observation that deserves more study. But surely, a health problem is easier to address when the conversation is about health – not shame and blame.

Who’s a good dog? The dog you love, respect, and care for is a good dog.

Click here for the study by Pearl et al and here for perspective on the perceptions European dog owners have about obesity.

Phillip Smiles, photograph © Peter Shanks / flickr

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July 9, 2020