Pharma for Fat City?

Featured Blog by Denni O. Day

My first dog was a Springer Spaniel named Bonzo. When we picked him up from the breeder, he was a chubby 10-week-old ball of energy. Once home, Bonzo bounded around the kitchen as we poured a 40-pound bag of puppy chow into a 30-gallon container, snapped on the lid, and pushed it into a corner. We then played with Bonzo until he dropped from exhaustion. Sensing our opportunity, we quietly closed the kitchen door, and left to go shopping for more “pet stuff” before Bonzo’s first veterinary exam that afternoon.

We arrived home, tip-toed into the house and slowly opened the kitchen door, expecting to see our new baby still snoozing. Instead, we saw a very full Bonzo atop a mound of puppy chow. He somehow had managed to topple the container, pry the lid off, and gorge himself on its contents. Hysterical with laughter, we grabbed Bonzo and rushed to the clinic.

“What a belly!” exclaimed Dr Williams, as he petted Bonzo. Dr Williams told us that, recent feasting aside, Bonzo was fat. He explained that, while chubby puppies are cute, they too often grow up to be overweight dogs. Once fat, they suffer many of the same ailments that afflict overweight humans, like arthritis and diabetes. Carrying those excess pounds can shorten a dog’s lifespan by as much as two years.

Thus warned, we moved the food container, banned table scraps, limited treats, and scheduled walks every day. I am proud that Bonzo maintained a body condition score of 3 (on a 5-point scale) throughout his life and was fifteen when he died in his sleep. I have followed the same regimen for all of my dogs.

Apparently, many owners don’t because, in 2010, 55% of U.S. dogs were either overweight or obese. Why? For the same reasons so many people are overweight or obese. If we and our dogs eat more calories than we need, and don’t burn them off, they eventually turn to fat. It’s a simple equation. Unfortunately, the solution is not always so simple.

One solution focuses on diet, and another on exercise. An even better one combines a shift in diet with more physical activity. However, each of these solutions requires commitment… a trait difficult to muster when little faces are begging for more. That’s why many folks seek an easier answer in medication.

Ernie Ward, DVM, founder and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and owner of Seaside Animal Care, told me that obesity is one of the biggest health threats… often owner-induced. Over-feeding, excessive treats, and table scraps all contribute to the caloric load. If we combine those with an inactive lifestyle, lifetime obesity is almost guaranteed. Barring a causative medical condition, Dr Ward first recommends lifestyle changes, including a restricted diet and regular exercise. If a pet has not lost weight after several months, he may prescribe an appetite suppressant. However, if owner behavior does not change during medication, the pet’s weight usually returns to its former level after medication is discontinued. For many owners, medication is “easier” than change. Dr Ward notes that, shortly after a new human obesity-related drug hits the market, he gets calls from owners asking if their pet could take it. “The safest, cheapest, and easiest cure already exists,” sighs Dr Ward, “eat less, eat healthier, and exercise. Put down the biscuit and pick up a carrot.”

Scott McComb, DVM, owner of Crossroads Veterinary Hospital, follows a similar process with his clients. Dr McComb’s biggest challenge is convincing an owner-in-denial that their pet is overweight. Even when he prescribes an appetite suppressant, owner behavior often does not change until the pet’s weight loss is obvious. Only then will the owner reduce their pet’s food and increase their exercise. Dr McComb warns, “The most important time to pay attention to weight loss is after it’s lost.” His hospital follows each client monthly to ensure that weight loss is maintained.

In 2007, two new products were introduced: Slentrol (dirlotapide) by Pfizer Animal Health and Yarvitan (mitratapide) by Janssen Pharmaceutica. Today, Slentrol is the only approved appetite suppressant available for overweight dogs since Yarvitan was withdrawn from the market. Slentrol helps owners control their pet’s weight, if they follow their veterinarian’s recommendations regarding diet and exercise.

I would like to think that more owners see the risks obesity presents for their pets and adopt healthier lifestyles. However, with 68% of Americans either overweight or obese, I fear that their vision may be blurred. Which probably means that there is a large market for new drugs to treat this growing problem.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Ernie Ward, DVM, and Scott McComb, DVM, for providing their thoughts on this topic.