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Behavior, Psychology and Sociology

Who’s a good boy? Effects of dog and owner body weight on veterinarian perceptions and treatment recommendations



Weight bias against persons with obesity impairs health care delivery and utilization and contributes to poorer health outcomes. Despite rising rates of pet obesity (including among dogs), the potential for weight bias in veterinary settings has not been examined.


In two online, 2 × 2 experimental studies, the effects of dog and owner body weight on perceptions and treatment recommendations were investigated in 205 practicing veterinarians (Study 1) and 103 veterinary students (Study 2). In both studies, participants were randomly assigned to view one of four vignettes of a dog and owners with varying weight statuses (lean vs. obesity). Dependent measures included emotion/liking ratings toward the dog and owners; perceived causes of the dog’s weight; and treatment recommendations and compliance expectations. Other clinical practices, such as terms to describe excess weight in dogs, were also assessed.


Veterinarians and students both reported feeling more blame, frustration, and disgust toward dogs with obesity and their owners than toward lean dogs and their owners (p values < 0.001). Interactions between dog and owner body weight emerged for perceived causes of obesity, such that owners with obesity were perceived as causing the dog with obesity’s weight, while lean owners were perceived as causing the lean dog’s weight. Participants were pessimistic about treatment compliance from owners of the dog with obesity, and weight loss treatment was recommended for the dog with obesity when presenting with a medical condition ambiguous in its relationship to weight. Veterinarians and students also reported use of stigmatizing terms to describe excess weight in dogs.


Findings from this investigation, with replication, have implications for training and practice guidelines in veterinary medicine.

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Fig. 1: Veterinarian ratings of emotions and liking.
Fig. 2: Interaction effects of dog and owner body weight on perceived causes of dog weight among veterinarians.
Fig. 3: Veterinary student ratings of emotions and liking.
Fig. 4: Interaction effects of dog and owner body weight on perceived causes of dog weight among veterinary students.


  1. To reduce the number of comparisons, sensitivity analyses were also conducted by dividing emotion ratings into two categories of positive and negative emotions. Results were consistent with those presented here and were not included due to less specificity in emotion ratings.


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R.L.P. is supported by a K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH (K23HL140176).

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Correspondence to Rebecca L. Pearl.

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Pearl, R.L., Wadden, T.A., Bach, C. et al. Who’s a good boy? Effects of dog and owner body weight on veterinarian perceptions and treatment recommendations. Int J Obes 44, 2455–2464 (2020).

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