In what should really be unsurprising news, the stigma of obesity is not exclusively targeted at humans, but pets, too. That’s right: animals also get shamed for having a larger body, by everyone from ogling strangers to loved ones to veterinarians.
According to a June 2020 study in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers discovered that veterinarians feel “more blame, frustration, and disgust” toward dogs with obesity and their owners than toward lean dogs and their owners. Not only that, but dog owners with obesity were perceived as causing their pet’s obesity, while lean owners were perceived as causing their lean pet’s weight.
“We know from decades of scientific research that obesity is highly stigmatized in humans, including among healthcare professionals,” says Rebecca L. Pearl, lead researcher of this study, and assistant professor of clinical and health psychology at University of Florida. “People with a higher weight are assumed to engage in stereotypical unhealthy behaviours, such as overeating junk food and always staying sedentary. It is possible that pet owners with obesity are assumed to engage in these behaviours for themselves and for their pets (e.g., overfeeding or never exercising their pet). Thus, the blame placed on people for their own weight in human healthcare settings could extend to blame for their dog’s weight in veterinary care.”
It’s an incredibly difficult pill to swallow — that ‘fat phobia’ is so rampant that it affects animals, but also that it is rooted in the perception of — and perhaps subconsciously aimed at — pet owners. What’s especially disheartening is that medical professionals are meant to be people we can trust as we very literally put our health in their hands.
“In our society, the one group of individuals which it is permissible to discriminate against, which nobody worries about, is overweight people,” explains Stanley Coren, a B.C.-based dog expert (and lover), and psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “It’s even become part of our language. And so, as a rule, overweight people are treated less respectfully.” He adds there is no denying that doctors have a bias, one that can lead them to believe that “all you have to do is to stop eating, it’s just a matter of willpower.”
In these instances, and this is also noted by the 2020 study, vets tend to use stigmatizing terms to describe the dogs’ excess weight, and will even suggest weight loss as treatment for a medical condition not at all related to weight. That’s incredibly common for larger humans, too. In fact, it’s been cited that healthcare providers often hold “strong negative attitudes and stereotypes” towards them, which can influence treatment and reduce the quality of care. It can also cause stress and avoidance of care, mistrust of doctors and poor adherence among larger bodied patients.
As Coren describes it, “Now you have this heavy person who comes into a veterinarian’s office, a veterinarian is likely not going to think very much of that person to start with. And then they look at this dog, which is overweight, and they presume that the same lack of self-management, lack of willpower, disregard of health concerns is what has led to the dog’s problem. For that reason, very often, the veterinary professional will overlook other things.”
In our society, the one group of individuals which it is permissible to discriminate against, which nobody worries about, is overweight people.
Which means you may very well have a dog who has, for example, an irregular heartbeat, but the veterinarian is more likely to give only a cursory exam and put your dog on a diet. Just as the case might be for a person with a larger body visiting a doctor for unrelated concerns: no one is receiving a fair degree of care.
By the way, as Pearl notes, “[it] is a widespread misconception that weight is entirely within an individual’s control, despite strong evidence of powerful biogenetic and environmental factors that interact to determine individuals’ health behaviours and body weight. In our society, obesity is viewed as a moral failure of personal responsibility.”
So how can we begin to understand how even a trained medical professional cannot escape such associations? Coren points to the halo effect, which is what happens when our general impression of someone (typically, our first impression) can influence any other thoughts we have about them — for better or worse.
When it comes to weight, this effect has been observed in a series of studies over the years comparing and surveying a person with obesity and one of average weight by having them do, for example, a questionnaire about their daily lives and routines.
“In one of these studies, the questions were about how they discipline their children, and what they found was if the evaluator was looking at the fat person, they were much more likely to evaluate that person as a bad parent, and in some, even classify them as almost engaging in child abuse,” says Coren. “And it’s simply because of the fact that they look at this overweight person and this halo effect occurs.”
What’s interesting, too, is that, as a society, we are generally more inclined to look at pets with larger bodies and gush over how “cute” they are, to the point of tons of internet memes. And that’s while not lending the same kindness toward their larger owners.
But when it comes to vets, it’s important to know how to deal with such a dynamic, because your pet’s health is on the line.
“What a pet owner can do in this instance is ask additional questions, ask if there are additional tests that might be needed and whether there are specific concerns beyond the dog’s weight that might need to be addressed,” says Coren. “The purpose of that is if you can focus the veterinarian on the task’s demands, you can sometimes get a partial breakthrough.”
As for what you shouldn’t do in this situation? Give an excuse for your pet’s size and hold the focus there. This will also make the conversation less of a confrontation.
It helps to remember, Coren adds, that “yes, the vast majority of doctors have the biases of everybody in the population, but they are also professionals.”
One can only hope.
This story is part of Healthing’s series, The Shape of Us.