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Using human-behaviour change principles to improve canine obesity and exercise levels

Project Description

Obesity is arguably the most common welfare problem of pet dogs. In addition to excess weight predisposing to many chronic diseases and shortening lifespan, low exercise levels in dogs is also a wider welfare issue that may contribute to poor quality of life and development of behavioural problems.

The aim of this project is to investigate how dog owners and key stakeholders in the pet industry conceptualise and tackle canine obesity, and use these insights to develop and test the effectiveness of dietary and exercise interventions. This project will draw on expertise in human behaviour change to tackle key welfare issues in dogs of over-feeding and insufficient exercise. In order to do this, we will explore the contributory factors to obesity in dogs, including owner attitudes and beliefs, the influence exerted on dog owners by others (including veterinary surgeons, other owners, and wider society, including media) and the responses of owners to these pressures. We will also identify what feeding and weight management strategies exist, both in the minds of owners and of other stakeholders.. We will use qualitative research methods to develop new strategies to improve weight management and exercise levels in dogs through better communication and owner engagement based on human behaviour change principles. We will then design a randomised-controlled trial to pilot test the intervention on the wellbeing (including weight and physical activity levels) of the dog, and physical activity of the owner. Ultimately, we hope to better understand the causes of obesity and improve options for prevention and treatment. Expected outcomes include novel practical behaviour change strategies targeting owners and other professionals, and potential changes to policy that can be widely applied to increase canine exercise levels and reduce the prevalence of obesity.

Specifically the successful candidate will use:

• Qualitative interviews, focus groups and observations of dog owners and veterinary/animal professionals.
• Human behaviour change principles to design an intervention tool.
• Experimental epidemiological methods (clinical trial) to test the effectiveness of behaviour change intervention tool.

Specific training will be provided in:

• Social science approaches and thematic analysis using NVivo.
• Taught course in qualitative research methods.
• Epidemiology; clinical trials.

The position would suit an applicant with qualifications and experience in an area of veterinary or animal health sciences, social sciences, or human behaviour change.

The project will be based at the University of Liverpool’s Leahurst campus as part of larger research groups exploring human-animal interaction and animal welfare (Westgarth) and pet obesity (German). The project will involve collaborators from Dogs Trust. The Institute of Infection & Global Health is fully committed to promoting gender equality in all activities. In recruitment, we emphasise the supportive nature of the working environment and the flexible family support that the University provides. The Institute holds a silver Athena SWAN award in recognition of ongoing commitment to ensuring that the Athena SWAN principles are embedded in its activities and strategic initiatives.

To apply please send a CV, covering letter and the names and contact details of two referees to Jill Hudson-Browne

Funding Notes

This three-year post is funded by a Dogs Trust Canine Welfare Grant, which includes student stipend of £16,000 per year (tax free) and all necessary postgraduate fees for a UK/ EU student, and further conference attendance/training budget.


CHAPMAN, M., WOODS, G. R. T., LADHA, C., WESTGARTH, C. & GERMAN, A. J. (2019) An open-label randomised clinical trial to compare the efficacy of dietary caloric restriction and physical activity for weight loss in overweight pet dogs. The Veterinary Journal 243, 65-73
WESTGARTH, C., CHRISTLEY, R. M., MARVIN, G. & PERKINS, E. (2017) I Walk My Dog Because It Makes Me Happy: A Qualitative Study to Understand Why Dogs Motivate Walking and Improved Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health 14

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