The United States' obesity epidemic reaches far beyond adults and children to our pets, who share our homes and often our dietary habits and lack of exercise. To address this, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University has created the nation's first obesity clinic geared especially for pets and overseen by a full-time, board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
The clinic taps the strength of the Cummings School's nutrition service, a 15-year-old clinical, teaching and research service located at its Grafton, Mass., Foster Hospital for Small Animals and featuring three board-certified clinical nutritionists. Such experts are a rarity, since fewer than 100 veterinarians have been boarded by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Studies have suggested that up to 60 percent of dogs and cats are obese or overweight. A recent survey of client-owned animals at the Foster Hospital, one of the nation's busiest teaching hospitals for pets, put the number even higher -- nearly 70 percent.
Overseeing the clinic will be Deborah E. Linder, DVM, DACVN, a graduate of the Cummings School's Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program and its two-year residency in clinical nutrition.
"By employing sound, research-proven methods, Tufts' Veterinary Obesity Clinic will help owners achieve safe and effective weight loss for their pets," said Dr. Linder. "While the common perception leans toward overweight pets being happy, research has proven otherwise, and we hope to effect change in the obesity epidemic among companion animals."
Studies done both at the Cummings School and elsewhere suggest that obesity can be a complicated topic for pet owners. Although dogs and cats are not prone to coronary artery disease -- a leading killer of humans and a common side-effect of human obesity -- being overweight can lead to complications such as diabetes, orthopedic problems and respiratory complications, as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.
The clinic, which aims to see more than 600 clients per year by 2015, will focus on three areas: providing effective weight loss programs for pets deemed to be overweight and obese, especially hard-to-manage cases and pets with multiple medical conditions, educating veterinary professionals and the lay public on how to prevent, identify and combat obesity within pets, and conducting state-of-the art clinical research on optimal methods for its treatment and prevention.
Weight loss can be as tricky for pets as it is for people. A 2010 study done by Dr. Linder and Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, found a wide variety in calorie density and feeding instructions for foods marketed for canine and feline weight loss. Freeman's research on dogs and cats with medical conditions such as kidney or heart disease has shown that optimal body condition plays an important role in survival. This and other studies emphasize the importance of a carefully designed weight loss program, especially for pets with medical conditions. Tufts' clinic caters to these complex cases that require the attention and intensive intervention required for weight loss.
The clinic may offer hidden benefits, as well. A 2006 study conducted at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute suggested that overweight pets can encourage overweight people to exercise with them -- and lose weight simultaneously.
Dr. Linder's faculty appointment is funded by a grant from Royal Canin USA.
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