Weighing in on weighing less

Nutrition research reveals paths to weight loss and the secret life of fat

Americans are getting fatter and so are their pets. Following rising trends in human obesity, nearly half of pet dogs and cats weigh too much, and it’s taking heavy tolls on their health. Cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and other bone and joint problems disproportionately plague overweight animals. Nutrition clinicians at Cornell’s Companion Animal Hospital are helping downsize this growing problem by creating knowledge and solutions that could help humans and pets reach healthy weights.

“Obesity is the number one preventable health problem in veterinary medicine today,” said Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, head of Cornell’s nutrition and obesity management services. “Food equals love; people give treats, pets get fatter. Education and prevention are the only real tools against obesity.”

Dr. Wakshlag’s team of two resident trainees and one nutrition technician offers personalized nutritional support and weight-management planning for pets. Their clinical research has attracted sponsorship from Nestle Purina, a pet-food manufacturer that values new nutrition knowledge, resulting in three papers this year and several studies in progress.

The first proved pedometers attached to bungee cord collars can accurately count a dog’s steps and used the technique to show that dogs that walk more stay fitter. The second paper used their pedometer methodology to demonstrate for the first time that exercising dogs could help them lose weight, and determined how many calories dogs can eat per 1,000 steps of walking while still trimming down.  Dr. Wakshlag uses his findings to develop intervention plans based on dog walking to prevent canine obesity.

The hospital’s nutrition residents are expanding on Dr. Wakshlag’s third study addressing a new finding that is changing the way veterinarians and human doctors look at fat.

“Historically people saw fat tissue as inert energy deposits,” said Dr. Jason Gagne ’09, second-year resident in the nutrition service. “Recently we’ve realized it acts more like endocrine tissue, releasing proteins called adipokines that activate the immune system and cause chronic inflammation. This can exacerbate many disease processes and lower insulin resistance, leading to diabetes. We’re trying to learn which cells in fat tissue produce adipokines.”

First-year resident Dr. Renee Streeter studies how heavy hounds handle hidden health hazards from pro-inflammatory proteins. Her research compares dogs’ adipokine levels to their body conditions and the levels of anti-inflammatory omega three fatty acids in their blood. While most adipokines increase with body score (higher is fatter) and harm the body, one kind does the opposite.

“Adiponectin is the single beneficial thing released from fat,” said Dr. Wakshlag. “Unlike other adipokines, it’s an anti-inflammatory insulin sensitizer. An injection of adiponectin will make your insulin work better. When you’re lean, you release a lot of it, when you’re fat, you release a lot less. That’s why you have to lose weight to become more sensitive to insulin.”

In the nutrition team’s clinical trials, inflammatory responses decreased due to lowering levels of bad adipokines after dogs lost weight.

“While most adipokines fell, we were surprised to find that canine adiponectin levels stayed the same. Dogs have much more adiponectin than cats or humans, no matter if they’re fat or thin. This may be one reason why dogs are less prone to Type-II diabetes than other species.”

Cornell’s headway on the obesity battlefront owes its success largely to corporate sponsors investing in the future of healthy pets.

“Nestle Purina has been phenomenally generous,” said Dr. Wakshlag. “They funded our pedometer-based weight-loss studies, Renee’s study, and Jason’s entire two-year residency. Proctor and Gamble, who makes Natura Products, IAMS, and Eukanuba, recently stepped up to fund Renee’s 3 year residency program, with plans to make this a continual position for the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

“These partnerships meet the rising demand for nutrition knowledge in the private and corporate sectors. Two Cornell veterinary alumni– Dr. Kurt Venator ‘03 of Nestle Purina and Dr. Susan Giovengo ‘91 of Proctor and Gamble – helped make our residencies possible.  These pet food companies know the value of having nutrition experts in hospitals and hope to help fight the obesity epidemic these future clinicians will face.”

‘Scopes Magazine
October 2011

New Lyme disease test for horses and dogs will help improve treatment

Bettina WagnerRomping through summer fields seems like a harmless pleasure for dogs, horses and humans alike. But just one bite from the wrong tick can rob an animal of that pastime. The bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi catch rides with certain species of ticks and can cause Lyme disease in animals the ticks bite. Catching the disease early is paramount because it becomes progressively harder to fight as the bacteria conduct guerilla warfare from hiding places in the joints, nervous tissues and organs of their hosts.

A new test for Lyme disease in horses and dogs, developed by researchers at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell, will improve our understanding of the disease and pinpoint time of infection, opening possibilities for earlier intervention and more effective treatment plans.

“We’ve offered Lyme disease testing for years,” said Bettina Wagner, the Harry M. Zweig Associate Professor in Equine Health and lead developer of the test, “but we have recently been able to improve our techniques with the multiplex testing procedure. The new test exceeds its predecessors in accuracy, specificity and analytical sensitivity.”

The multiplex procedure, which can detect three different antibodies produced in response to the bacteria associated with Lyme disease using a single test on the sample, eliminates the need for separate tests. In addition, it requires smaller samples and answers more questions about the disease. Multiplex technology has been used for the last decade, but the AHDC is the first veterinary diagnostic laboratory to use it to test for Lyme disease.

Different kinds of antibodies can be found in the body at different stages of infection. The new test can distinguish and measure these differences, giving more information about the timing of the disease.

The bacteria that cause Lyme disease are particularly difficult to detect, according to Wagner, because after infection they tend to hide where they can’t be found. They bury in the joints of dogs, causing arthritis or lameness. Serious kidney disease has also been associated with Lyme infections in dogs. In humans and horses, they also burrow into the nervous system, in the spine or the brain, causing pain, paralysis or behavioral changes. By the time such clinical signs appear, the bacteria are usually not in circulation anymore.

Horse“Now we can distinguish between infection and vaccination and also between early and chronic infection stages,” Wagner said. “That was not possible before. You were able to say whether an animal was infected, but not when it was infected, or how far the infection had developed.”

The test and information the test provides can help veterinarians make advanced decisions about treatment. After the long treatment period ends, veterinarians usually conduct follow-up testing to see if it was successful.


Cornell Chronicle: June 16, 2011

Cooper’s caper

Barn cat brain surgery highlights hospital’s emergency mettle


When a Good Samaritan brought a cat hit by a car to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, no one knew the cat was one of our own. Bleeding and shocky from a powerful blow, the cat began a journey through some of the most advanced emergency techniques and intensive care the Hospital has to offer.

“We had no idea who he was but we had to act fast,” said Dr. Jenefer Stillion, resident in the Emergency and Critical Care service (ECC). “He had severe head trauma and a ruptured lung leaking air into his chest cavity, making it difficult to breathe. We stabilized him and tapped his chest periodically to remove the air leaking around the lungs.”

The next morning they discovered the cat was Cooper, the Large Animal Hospital’s resident barn cat. “When we learned this cat was found on Route 366 near our hospital, we asked Large Animal staff if they were missing any barn cats. They came over and quickly identified him,” Stillion said.

Cooper was worsening; air continued leaking into his chest and he was growing less responsive, indicating a significant ongoing brain injury. The ECC doctors eased his breathing with a chest tube and took a CT scan of his head. . “We found an upper jaw fracture, blood in his nasal passages, evidence of a skull fracture, and several areas where he was bleeding into his brain,” said Dr. Gretchen Schoeffler, ECC specialist.

“With injuries that bad the only way to relieve increasing intracranial pressure and stop ongoing damage is intensive surgery to the skull,” said Schoeffler.

cat54Brain surgery is no light task, but neurosurgeon Dr. Curtis Dewey from Clinical Sciences was up to the challenge. On Friday evening, February 11th, he performed a successful craniotomy, removing part of Cooper’s skull. The ECC team and Intensive Care Unit technicians are managing Cooper through recovery.

“He’s shown improvement every day. It’s amazing how cats can recover,” said Stillion, with Cooper purring happily in her lap. “He responds to bright lights and sounds, and purrs or chirps when he’s handled. He can even walk around a little. It will take time to know if he’ll return to normal kitty life, but his chances are strong. With months of therapy, many head trauma survivors make full recoveries.”

Survival is unusual for animals with trauma as bad as Cooper’s. “Many owners decide not to operate on cases with head injuries this severe,” said Schoeffler. “It’s invasive and requires a big commitment to helping an animal through recovery. Knowing we have the resources to do that, we decided to go forward.”

“We need to care for our own,” said Hospital Director Dr. Bill Horne, who made that call. “This cat is a pet of the hospital, and it is our obligation to care for him.”

Back in the barn, the Large Animal staff feel Cooper’s absence. “He was a useful mouser and a good friend,” said Wendy English, Client Service Manager for CUHA, whom Cooper greeted every morning.

Stillion recalled a story in which Cooper befriended a recovering horse that had to be walked every day. “Cooper would run ahead and wait, the horse would walk toward him. They would sniff, and Cooper would run ahead again, encouraging the horse to follow.”

Cooper won’t be returning to the barn while on the mend, but in the meantime he has found a good home. Large animal surgery technician Katie Howard agreed to take Cooper as a foster kitty. He spends evenings with her and returns to the Intensive Care Unit during the day for nursing care.