Picking Right Therapeutic Diet Is Hard With So Many Choices

The link between animal nutrition and health is fueling improvement in therapeutic and commercially available diets.


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The growing understanding of the link between animal nutrition and health isn’t fueling improvement in only therapeutic diets, but in commercially available diets, too. In fact, commercial foods are giving therapeutic brands a run for their money.

“Manufacturers are always looking for ways to make their current products better and meet new needs,” says Grace Long, DVM, director of veterinary technical marketing for Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. of St. Louis.

“Therapeutic diets can meet the specific needs of pets with diseases or uncommon nutritional needs that can’t be found in stores. But commercial brands are also offering foods that contain ingredients that will specifically help different life stages, breed needs and joint care.”

Matching the proper nutrition to the individual animal can speed recovery from sickness, help an animal stay healthy longer and respond efficiently to disease challenges. This is something manufacturers want to make more readily available to consumers.

“We have added colostrum to stabilize intestinal microflora in EN GastroENteric brand canine dry,” Dr. Long says by way of example.

“Probiotics are the new big thing to help intestinal flora, but vets should be cautious of manufacturers who make claims that viable probiotic organisms exist in dry food. We’re talking about living organisms that will die if exposed to improper heat, moisture or humidity. You need to have a guarantee before you believe what’s in the bag.”

Prove It

A valid manufacturer doesn’t have to make outlandish claims to prove its product works, nutritionists say.

“Make sure the bag can back the claim,” says Kathryn E. Michel, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVN, associate professor of nutrition in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Clinical Sciences. “Evidence-based medicine is more prolific in the industry than ever before. Manufacturers are showing more appreciation to doing prospective randomized clinical trials of products, and efforts are being made to show efficacy of products.”

More veterinarians than ever expect that nutrition claims and other aspects of medicine will be based on evidence. Recent veterinary graduates are getting more nutrition education in school and know the right questions to ask and what to look for before making a product recommendation to clients.

“The more sweeping the label claim, the more likely [the company is] to get into trouble because it cannot prove the claims,” says Nancy K. Cook, president of the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C. “Saying the product gives pets a shiny coat or extends an animal’s life puts the manufacturer in danger from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Even if the product has the potential for the claim–is there proof? Usually, if it’s not noted on the bag, there isn’t proof.”

Nutritionists say sales representatives for therapeutic diets will be eager to detail the latest study and discuss evidence of their products’ efficacy. But clients will often want a commercial brand recommendation from their veterinarian, too, and that is where the doctor needs to do a little leg work. Know what’s available, know patients’ needs and stay informed, authorities recommend.

“Vets are all working to create a climate that approaches health and disease solutions through diet,” Dr. Michel says. “There is a big concern about overweight pets, and veterinarians have to convey what an optimal weight means for individual pets. There is a skewed perception between owners and vets on what a healthy weight is.”

What’s in That?

“A lot of freaky stuff can end up in animal food,” Cook says. “Since supplements aren’t exempt from pet food, they make their way into the pot. Probiotics fall into this category.”

In an attempt to create foods with novel ingredients that can help animals with food allergies, manufacturers are adding ingredients to food dogs and cats haven’t likely been exposed to before.

“Novel protein sources for dogs include white fish, venison, duck and rabbit, and carbohydrate sources are potato instead of the more traditional corn,” says Brent Mayabb, DVM, technical services manager for Royal Canin. “For cats, we use venison, duck, rabbit and lamb instead of fish and use green peas as a carbohydrate source.

“It’s not that easy to find appropriate novel ingredients that will be available in the quantity necessary for mass production. We as a company could economically benefit to make these limited ingredient diets available commercially, but then these ingredients would no longer be novel, because they are widely available–for anyone to purchase at their own discretion despite the existence of a valid allergy.”

Unless you are dealing with an animal with multiple diseases or other medical issues, you’ll likely find a nutrition solution commercially or through a veterinarian, says Sean Delaney, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVN, chief nutrition officer at Natura Pet Products.

“We create foods using only natural products,” Dr. Delaney says. “These appeal to holistic vets, owners who want to feed their pet natural products and animals with allergies.”


“Probiotics are the new big thing to help intestinal flora, but vets should be cautious of manufacturers who make claims that viable probiotic organisms exist in dry food."
- Grace Long, DVM


Breed-Specific Diets

Creating breed-specific diets allows owners to feed a diet that answers breed specific problems before they surface. “One breed specific diet is formulated for Labrador retrievers,” Dr. Mayabb notes. “This breed is predisposed to excessive weight gain because it was bred to have a layer of fat insulation as a dog trained to retrieve game from water. Joint issues and skin problems are also a concern, which is all addressed with this formula.”

Royal Canin recently released a new pug diet that in addition to the special formulation is shaped to better fit in pugs’ mouths.

Just Eat It

“Owners slip on compliance when they don’t visibly see the problem or the benefits of a diet,” Long says. “You have to convince them with evidence of why and how the food will help the patient.”

Owners often say their pet doesn’t like the therapeutic diet the veterinarian prescribed or the weight management over-the-counter product, which can decrease compliance. But sometimes there is a simple explanation for finicky eaters.

“There is inferior pet food just as there’s inferior human food,” Cook says. “Healthier foods can taste like, well, healthy food, which might not be as fun to eat.

“Dogs don’t care if you’re feeding them a more calorically dense food, they just know they want more of it–and owners give it to them. Another reason for lack of interest in a therapeutic diet, especially one made for weight control, is [related to how you] don’t feel the amount of fullness after you eat an 800-calorie salad or 800 calories of ice cream as you do when you eat 800 calories of steak—and the same goes for pet food. All food isn’t created equal.”

Owners are happy when their pets are happy—and food plays an intricate role in the human-animal bond. This role has its faults, which contributes to additional health problems.

“People feed their pets the way they feed themselves, which is why the pet population’s weight isn’t in check,” Cook says. “The behavior of pets is a big determinant of whether they’re overfed. Whining and meowing train the owner to feed on demand. The owner would rather feed the pet more than deal with the consequences of noisy, complaining pets.”

Nutritionists say the rule of thumb is that no more than 10 percent of an animals’ daily caloric intake should be from treats or extras and feeding in at least twice a day portions helps animals process and digest food more efficiently.

Fighting Obesity

The American College of Veterinary Nutrition wants AAFCO to require food manufacturers to include on the label the calorie content per measured cup of food. Currently, this is required only of foods that make claims of being “light” or “diet.”

“Some companies are very resistant to including this [calorie] information on their bags,” says Sally Perea, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVN. “The companies claim consumers will judge their product by the caloric content and not the nutritional value.”

Nutritionists urge veterinarians to speak as specifically as possible and not use general terms.

“What does ‘some’ mean and how much is a cup?” Cook asks. “Specify that you mean one measured cup—not heaping, etc., and be as detailed as possible with the number of times a day to feed the animal.  Give the client brand options for food and treats.”

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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