Obesity: one of the most important issues facing pet population - Veterinary Practice
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Obesity: one of the most important issues facing pet population

Veterinary Practice reports on a recent day conference on aspects of companion animal nutrition.

MOULTON COLLEGE, in partnership with the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), held a one-day Companion Animal Nutrition Conference in June.

The conference attracted delegates from academia and the pet food industry as well as interested professionals including vets and  vet nurses. The aim of the day was to share some of the latest science in the field of small animal nutrition.

The keynote speaker, Dr Cecilia Villaverde Haro, who is board certified in veterinary nutrition by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) and by the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN), opened the day by speaking about causes and predispositions for obesity and the role of the human-animal bond.

She introduced many interesting aspects, including some recent research into breed disposition to obesity. .

A genetic link to the predisposition to obesity has been identified in Labrador Retrievers, with a deletion in the Canine POMC Gene involved.

Dr Villaverde Haro also described how three epidemiological studies found an association between home-prepared diets and pets being overweight.

There were three reasons for this:

  • increased energy density
  • increased palatability
  • and a lack of instructions on quantity to be fed.

Many other studies have demonstrated the connection between overweight/obesity and excessive treating and feeding of table scraps to dogs.

A number of facts linking body condition to physical activity were noted:

  • Indoor cats were more likely to be overweight compared to free-ranging cats.
  • Owners of obese dogs were more likely to rely on “self-exercise” in back yards than owners of lean dogs.
  • A recent study using pedometers showed that a higher step count in medium/large breeds was associated with a leaner body condition score.

The impact of owner education on pet body condition was discussed: one study compared owners’ perception of body condition with their vet’s assessment. Predictably, owners were more likely to disagree with the vet if their pet was overweight, with some owners being sceptical of the vet’s opinion.

Some owners felt that food restriction was linked with unhappiness in their pet, which clearly makes it more difficult to achieve owner compliance with dietary advice.

Dr Villaverde Haro noted several other significant characteristics about households with overweight pets:

  • Lower income households were more likely to have overweight dogs
  • Overweight dogs were more likely to have overweight owners.
  • Interestingly, overweight cats were not any more likely to have overweight owners than lean cats.
  • Owners of overweight dogs were likely to speak more often to their pets, and to sleep next to them, suggesting that a tendency to “humanise” dogs may be linked with excessive weight gain.

Following this address, presentations were given by speakers from a variety of backgrounds, each dealing with a different aspect of companion animal nutrition.

Lifestyle matters

John Lowe, a nutritionist and founder of Tuttons Hill Nutrition, gave a presentation on observations on energy and dry matter intakes of pet rabbits, pointing out that the lifestyle of a sedentary pet rabbit may be very different to the farmed rabbits which have traditionally been used to develop feeding recommendations.

The study concluded that free-choice, good quality hay with limited amounts (25-40g/kg body weight per day) was an appropriate model. Selective guinea pigs Wanda McCormick from Moulton College gave an overview of feed selection in guinea pigs, explaining that guinea pigs feed selectively when offered a commercial mix, with selection more based on the shape of individual feed components rather than colour, with the ease of manipulation of food items making ecological sense.

Alex Hawkins from the University of Edinburgh outlined the disorders recorded in reptiles attending primary care veterinary practices in England. His study had examined data extracted via the VetCompass Programme at the RVC, finding that decreased appetite, ocular problems and skin disorders were the three most common primary presenting problems. Katerina Nicola from Moulton College discussed food colour preferences in avian species.

She pointed out that psittacines have a wider colour perception than humans, with a theory that birds have evolved to choose coloured food based on their anti-oxidant levels. Canaries have not been studied in as much detail, and are not thought to have a general preference for colour in the same way.

A reported preference for undyed seed by finches and canaries may be explained by the fact that this is their regular diet in natural conditions. Jack James from Pontus Research discussed the use of insect meal as a protein source for gold fish. Insect larvae thrive on waste produced during food processing, and insects are a natural food source for many freshwater aquarium fish, so this seems like a useful, sustainable new way of feeding pet fish, rather than using the traditional fishmeal which has become scarcer and more expensive in recent years.

Trends’ sustainability

Jacqueline Boyd from Nottingham Trent University spoke about the sustainability of current trends in the feeding of dogs and cats, highlighting the fact that globally, the number of companion animals is increasing and owners are more aware of what they are feeding their pets.

Recent trends seem to be towards feeding raw or home-made diets but the majority of pets are still fed on commercially produced dry foods. Ms Boyd stressed that feeding choices are up to the consumer/ owner, but should be based on scientific knowledge, with manufacturers providing food that is convenient, acceptable to owner and pet, and affordable. Pet food should be ethically sourced, produced, marketed and transported. It should be sustainable, with awareness of its carbon “pawprint”. She stressed the importance of owner education to increase awareness of these aspects of pet food production.

Lauren Samet from the University of Northampton gave a presentation on a market review of pet food nutraceuticals for health and behaviour.

She pointed out that the pet nutraceutical market focuses on canine calming nutraceuticals, with popularity increasing over the past decade.

There were 15 products on the market in 2013, containing combinations of 32 botanical nutraceuticals, and there are even more products available in 2016.

She discussed some of the controversies over the use of these products, and asked delegates to complete her online survey at http://tinyurl.com/sametsurvey.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

Pete Wedderburn, a vet in practice, discussed vegetarian and vegan diets for dogs and cats. He explained that dogs are omnivores who have evolved with the ability to digest plant-based starch, and that studies have shown they can thrive on a properly balanced meat-free diet.

Cats, in contrast, are obligate carnivores, with specific needs for nutrients that are only commonly found in meat.

While it is possible for cats to be fed a carefully formulated vegetarian or vegan diet, there is a risk to the health of the cat, and close supervision by a vet with regular blood and urine tests is important if an owner decides to follow this route.

Treat feeding survey

Gavin White from the University of Nottingham gave a presentation on dog owner perceptions and motivations for treat feeding. In his survey, he found that most owners feed multiple types for treats, and a number of unsuitable foods were used as treats.

The survey showed that treats are integral to feeding behaviour among many dog owners, but there are clearly different attitudes and motivations for feeding them.

Mr White suggested that a better understanding of owner perceptions of treat feeding behaviour could play an important part in dealing with the growing pet obesity epidemic. A discussion session at the close of the conference saw a panel of speakers debating the obesity crisis in companion animals. Many useful points were made and it was agreed that this is one of the most important nutritional issues facing the pet population of the 21st century.

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