By guest blogger Ananya Ak
The concept of weight bias or “fatphobia”, the social stigma around obesity, has been around for quite a while. Studies have shown that such stigma is present even among medical professionals, which negatively impacts quality of care for patients with obesity. Over the years, there have been several instances of doctors attributing medical symptoms to obesity when the symptoms were actually caused by something more serious, like a tumour.
But what about social stigma towards obese pets? Over 50% of cats and dogs in the USA are obese and, like humans, pets with obesity have a higher risk of metabolic, respiratory and other diseases. A new paper in the International Journal of Obesity examines whether the same weight bias that affects the delivery of healthcare in humans is prevalent among pet doctors as well.
The investigation, conducted by a team led by Rebecca Pearl at the University of Pennsylvania, involved two online studies exploring the attitudes of the participants towards obese and lean dogs, and the treatment recommendations they gave the dogs for hypothetical symptoms. One of the studies was conducted on 205 veterinarians and the other on 103 veterinary students, with the methodology remaining identical for both the studies.
The studies were done in two parts. In the first part, the participants were each randomly shown one of four images featuring either a lean dog and lean owners, an obese dog and lean owners, a lean dog and obese owners, or an obese dog and obese owners. The dogs and owners in each of the vignettes were identical except for their weight status. The participants were then asked questions to determine their emotional response towards the dogs and owners, and perceived causes of the dogs’ weight (e.g. biology/genetics, environmental factors, the owners’ feelings of responsibility, and their behaviours). They were also asked whether they had ever recommended weight loss treatment to the overweight owners.
In both the studies, the participants reported stronger feelings of blame, contempt, disgust and frustration towards the overweight dogs and their owners (irrespective of the owners’ weight) compared to the lean dogs and their owners. They also felt that the owners of the obese dogs were less likely to comply with weight-related treatment recommendations.
Moreover, the participants also seemed biased against the heavier owners. They saw the obese owners as more responsible for their dog’s weight if it was obese than if it was lean. Similarly, the lean owners got the “credit” if their dog was lean, but weren’t seen as so responsible if their dog was obese. So, the veterinarians appeared to make the stereotypical assumption that the overweight owners had poorer health behaviours than the lean owners and were transferring their own bad behaviours to their dogs, making them obese as well. Across both studies, 7-10% of participants also reported that they had previously recommended that pet owners seek weight loss treatment. This might seem like a small number, but, as the authors say, “It is surprising that any participants reported counseling owners about weight, considering that veterinarians are not trained to give health advice to humans.”
In the second part of the study, the participants were told that the dog they had seen was presenting at their clinic with respiratory problems. They were first asked to recommend diagnostic procedures. Then, after being told that the dog was diagnosed with a collapsed trachea, they were asked how they would treat it. The participants gave similar diagnostic recommendations for the dogs irrespective of their weight. But when asked for treatment recommendations, the participants were more likely to recommend weight treatment for the obese dog than the lean dog. This is an acceptable treatment, of course, since weight is one of the causes of poor respiratory health. But focusing on weight may lead veterinarians to miss other potential causes of illness.
This investigation had its limitations, including that all participants were either students or alumni of the same veterinary school. The sample size was thus quite limited. The focus was also solely on dogs vs. other pets like cats. A larger study with a wider selection of participants and more variety in pets is required to be able to truly generalise the results.
But even with the limitations, this study provides empirical evidence of weight bias among veterinarians. This is significant considering that unlike humans, pets cannot voice their concerns and a wrong diagnosis or treatment recommendation could prove dangerous to our beloved animal friends. Thus, just as interventions are put in place to reduce bias among doctors, steps may need to be taken to ensure that veterinarians remain mindful of their biases while diagnosing and treating pets.
Post written for BPS Research Digest by Ananya Ak. Ananya is a long-time reader of the Research Digest, studying to be a clinical psychologist. As a freelance copywriter, she’s also interested in the psychology of bias, persuasion and communication. You can find her on LinkedIn and read about her personal life and the books she reads on her blog.
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