Are Veterinarians Biased Against Fat Dogs and Their Owners?

Overweight dogs and overweight owners are stigmatized in the veterinary clinic.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Taylor Bourgeous
Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Taylor Bourgeous

If the data from a new study are to be believed, the social stigma of obesity, or what we might call "anti-fat bias," not only affects people in many social aspects of our Western societies, but has also worked its way into the veterinary clinic. It appears that overweight dogs, especially when they have overweight owners, are viewed negatively by veterinarians and that this may affect the quality of treatment that these pets receive.

To put this in context, a number of studies indicate that overweight individuals face discrimination in employment and educational settings: They are less likely to marry, have fewer friends, and, on average, have lower incomes than normal-weight individuals. Other than the obvious psychological stress and pain caused by being stigmatized, this bias can also harm people's health and longevity because it carries over into the medical realm. There are numerous accounts of obese individuals who have been misdiagnosed or mistreated in other ways by the medical establishment due to the assumption that any health problem they have is a direct result of their weight and can be solved by dieting. Failure to lose weight is viewed by medical professionals as a lack of willpower on the part of the patient and thus patients find themselves being blamed for what physicians view as their psychological weakness and noncompliance. It is for this reason that many obese individuals report that they avoid medical care whenever possible because of the negative treatment they receive from their doctors.

A team of researchers headed by Rebecca Pearl of the Department of Psychiatry at the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania decided to see if that same anti-fat bias was found among veterinarians. A number of estimates have indicated that around half of all dogs in North America may be classified as being overweight or obese. Dogs that carry too much weight, much like humans, are at a heightened risk for metabolic, osteoarthritic, and other diseases.

This new investigation involved two studies that were conducted online. The first involved 205 practicing veterinarians while the second involved 103 veterinary students. The methodology was identical for the two studies.

Each participant was presented with one of four images featuring either a lean dog and a lean owner; a lean dog and an overweight owner; an overweight dog and a lean owner; or an overweight dog and an overweight owner. Then a series of questions was asked to determine the veterinarian's response to the dog and owner.

The emotional response of the veterinarians was assessed by asking them to indicate how they felt about the dog and owner separately, rating each using a number of emotional labels. In addition, they were asked how much they liked the dog and its owner. Both the practicing veterinarians and the veterinary students reported more negative emotional responses when the dog was obese (including feelings of disgust, frustration, blame, and contempt). This was directed toward both the overweight dogs and their owners.

This negative emotional halo clearly affected the tone of their clinical interactions. If the dog was overweight, the veterinarians reported that they liked the owners less and they were very pessimistic about the owner's likelihood of complying with weight-related treatment recommendations.

The veterinarians and students indicated a clear anti-fat bias toward the dog owners. Thus when the owners were overweight, both students and veterinarians perceived that it was the owners' personal relationship to food and health habits which caused the dog to be fat. In other words, they made the common stereotypical assumption that heavier individuals had poorer eating habits and health behaviors than lean individuals. In their opinion, these overweight owners were foisting their bad eating behaviors onto their dogs and making them obese as well. Because of this pre-judgment, the veterinarians tended to ignore the possibility that genetic, physiological, or environmental factors might be responsible for the dog being overweight.

This anti-fat bias in veterinary practitioners is quite strong: This research team reports that "seven to ten percent of students and veterinarians reported that they had counseled a pet owner to seek weight management from a human health professional. It is surprising that any participants reported counseling owners about weight, considering that veterinarians are not trained to give health advice to humans."

Finally, each of the veterinarians and veterinary students were presented a vignette in which the dog and owner they were viewing were described as having come to their clinic because the dog was having respiratory problems which included a collapsed trachea. They were then asked which diagnostic and therapeutic procedures they might recommend for this dog. It is here that the negative health implications of their anti-fat bias showed most clearly. If the dog was overweight both the veterinarians and veterinary students were more likely to recommend weight loss than they did for the lean dog. They were also less likely to recommend further diagnostic tests. This caused the authors of this study to warn, "Weight is one of many factors that can cause respiratory problems in dogs, and practitioners who focus on weight loss in their recommendations may miss other potential health issues that require treatment."

If we accept the results of these two studies at face value, we can conclude that veterinarians have the same anti-fat bias that the rest of Western society seems to have; only theirs generalizes to fat dogs as well. A fat dog, especially if it is accompanied by a fat owner, is less likely to be regarded positively in the clinic. The overweight owner is more likely to be blamed for any problems their pet has than is a lean dog owner. Thus the knee-jerk response of the veterinarian is likely to simply be a recommendation that the dog lose weight without considering other alternatives. The veterinary practitioner seems to allow his or her anti-fat bias to close off consideration of other potentially useful diagnostic tests and to stop further consideration of the possibility that there might be other causes for the dog's medical problem other than its obesity.

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Pearl, R.L., Wadden, T.A., Bach, C., Leonard, S. M. And Michel , K. E. (2020) Who’s a good boy? Effects of dog and owner body weight on veterinarian perceptions and treatment recommendations. International Journal of Obesity.