Thursday, February 19, 2009

We can guess or we can know – body condition scores

I recently saw a nice golden retriever whose owner was utterly surprised when I broke the bad news that he was overweight. She had no idea, because he hadn’t gained weight in recent years, no one had mentioned it before, and because he weighed what the books said he should.

In a perfect world, all golden retrievers would stand 21 ½ - 24 inches at the shoulder and weigh 55-75 lbs. However, I’ve seen taller goldens that are fighting weight at 82 lbs, and I’ve seen obese goldens weigh 70 lbs. If we try to determine the right weight for any dog, we can’t just refer to the breed standard, or even to the dog’s history – we need to know the amount of fat being carried by that dog. Hence the advent of the body condition score that I’ve mentioned previously. Body condition scores tell us the pet’s ‘fat content’.

A study by a nutritionist at the veterinary school at University of Liverpool examined medical records of dogs referred to the school over a period of 9 months (German 2008). The hypothesis being studied was that general veterinary practitioners commonly assess body weight and body conditions of the dogs seen in their practices. In the 148 dogs included, the average duration of medical history to examined was 333 days, and since these were dogs being referred to a university, most had been seen multiple times by their general veterinarians – on average, 10 times.

Surprisingly, 30% of the dogs had never had their body weights entered into the medical record. Of those whose weights were noted, the record had a weight entry only 1 time in every 4 visits. Only 29% of the dogs had a body condition of any kind noted in the record (for example, the practitioner noted that they were underweight/thin or overweight/obese). In these dogs, the body condition score was noted only 1 time in 7 visits, on average. Disappointingly, only 1 dog of the entire group of 148 had a body condition score noted.

The authors concluded that local practitioners rarely weighed or assigned body condition scores to the dogs in their care. It is essential that body weight and condition be assessed and monitored throughout a pet’s life. Obviously we want to intervene if they are becoming overweight. More importantly, if drugs are being prescribed, it is vital to have a recent body weight on record to accurately prescribe a dose.

Of the 148 dogs, only 15% were assessed as overweight or obese, which is significantly less than published estimates of dog obesity prevalence (more like 34-52%). Particularly worrisome is the possibility that general practitioners don’t recognize when some dogs are overweight, or worse, don’t consider obesity a disease worth treating. A previous study showed that veterinarians in general practice scored 34% of dogs overweight but recorded obesity as a diagnosis only 4% of the time. In one practice where I’ve worked, I actually had to enter ‘obesity’ as a diagnostic code to the practice management software – the program included every code you could imagine, from medically treated cruciate ligament disease to seizure disorders – but not obesity.

Keeping your dog lean (i.e. you can see the last rib!) will save you money – chances are better that you won’t need to deal with arthritis, expensive cruciate ligament surgery or recurrent pancreatitis, or in your cat, the trouble of treating a diabetic. Most importantly, obesity reduces life expectancy – by an average of 2 years in large dogs!

Body condition scores are still somewhat subjective when estimating fat content in a dog or cat’s body, but with some practice, most people can obtain a body condition score. From that score, we can actually estimate the ‘fat content’ and predict how much weight should be loss to achieve ideal body condition.

By the way, this study concentrated on dogs, but cat owners should not remain complacent – obesity is every bit as common in the cats I say as in the dogs!

German AJ, Morgan LE. How often do veterinarians assess the bodyweight and body condition of dogs? Vet Rec 2008;163:503-505

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