Last year a cat named Cinder-Block from Bellingham, Wash., broke the Internet when a video of her weight-loss routine appeared all over social media. In the clip, Cinder-Block paws at the edge of an underwater treadmill, getting accustomed to the moving belt one foot at a time. The compelling video and its adorable star became an instant sensation. But consider, for a moment, the underlying beliefs about weight that led so many viewers to laugh at a cat with obesity who would not exercise. Would this video have gone viral if it were not socially acceptable to make fun of weight? How would viewers react if Cinder-Block’s owners also had obesity? Would people make assumptions about the owners’ health habits or criticize them for failing to take care of their pet?
Studies have shown that individuals with obesity face negative judgment, derision and blame because of their weight. Yet few scientists have investigated whether this prejudice extends to other animals, including pets. In a recent study, my colleagues and I decided to examine this question in the case of dogs. We found that veterinarians reported subtle differences in their feelings toward dogs with obesity, compared with lean dogs, independent of their owners’ weight. In addition, owners with obesity were viewed as causing their pet’s obesity while leaner owners were not, indicating that weight bias may affect veterinary science as well.
Individuals with obesity are often seen as lazy, incompetent and undisciplined. This weight bias—defined as negative attitudes toward people with a higher body weight—is both pervasive and pernicious. Weight-based teasing, bullying and discrimination take a serious toll on the mental and physical health of those targeted. In health care settings, negative judgment, blame and disrespect toward patients with obesity can impair the quality of care provided and prevent patients from seeking out health services, undermining their overall well-being as a result.
Like human obesity trends, rates of obesity in dogs have risen in recent years. No previous research, however, had investigated how veterinarians perceive dogs with obesity or their owners—or how those veterinarians’ treatment plans might change based on the animal’s or human’s body weight. To address this open question, my colleagues and I conducted two experimental studies online with more than 200 practicing veterinarians and more than 100 veterinary students.
In our experiments, all participants were randomly assigned to view one of four images of dog-owner pairs with varying body weights. In one image, a dog and two owners (one male and one female) were all lean. In another, the dog and owners had obesity. The last two images featured a dog and owners with mixed body weights (the animal was lean while the humans had obesity, or vice versa). After viewing one of these images, participants reported their emotional responses to the dog and owners pictured and their best guess as to the causes of the pet’s weight. The subjects also read fictional clinical vignettes—one indicating that the dog presented with respiratory problems, for example—and were asked to provide their diagnostic and treatment recommendations based on the image and description. Finally, the participants reported the terms that they use to describe excess weight in dogs and indicated whether or not they believed that dog obesity was a disease.
When we compared responses across images, the results showed that the veterinarians’ feelings toward the dog and its owners depended entirely on the weight of the animal, not that of the humans. Compared with the lean dogs, the dogs with obesity prompted more feelings of frustration, blame and disgust toward both them and their owners, regardless of the owners’ weight.
Veterinarians did factor the owners’ weight into their assessment when evaluating the causes of a pet’s weight, however. When both the dog and its owners had obesity, veterinarians tended to view the animal’s weight as less biologically-based but instead related to the humans’ own health behaviors. Lean owners, on the other hand, received more “credit” for a lean dog’s weight and were not seen as causing a dog’s obesity.
Despite these signs of weight bias, the average ratings for some of the negative emotions were generally low across the board (e.g. 2.5 or less on a seven-point scale for disgust), and both the veterinarians and students expressed feelings of respect toward all dogs and owners. Additionally, more than 75 percent of the veterinarians and students considered obesity to be a disease in dogs, which suggests that they take the condition seriously.
In the end, the veterinarians suggested most of the same diagnostic and treatment recommendations regardless of dog or owner weight, although the dogs with obesity were given more weight-loss recommendations, to which participants expressed pessimism that the owners would comply. Common terms used to describe excess weight in dogs included “morbidly obese” and “fat,” which are typically perceived as stigmatizing when applied to humans. More than one in four veterinarians also reported using objectifying terms to describe dogs with a higher weight, such as calling them a “coffee table” or “ottoman.”
This research is by no means conclusive. Directly observing these clinical interactions, rather than studying them online, could help provide more information about the possible effects of weight bias in veterinary care, particularly for dogs and owners with a higher weight. For those with or without canine companions, it’s worth reflecting on your own snap judgments about weight and how your words and actions may impact the people (and pets) around you.