Education Dispels Myths Around Nutrition’s Role In GI Disease

Owners fail to recognize that many GI disorders benefit from nutritional management.

GI problems can benefit from proper pet food.

Photo Courtesy of Hill—€™s Pet Nutrition

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Owners have a lot of choices when it comes to feeding their dogs, but they do not always make nutritionally sound judgments when selecting a pet food. This may be one reason why gastrointestinal problems are among the top 10 reasons that owners take their dogs to the veterinarian, according to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co.

“Often owners want recommendations for food,” said Davinne Glenn, DVM, co-owner of Veterinary Center of Liberty in Missouri. “Large retail stores have rows and rows of different foods, and owners can find many opinions about what makes a quality food from people who might not have any veterinary nutritional training. It can be overwhelming.”

Owners sometimes fail to recognize the role a bad pet food can play in causing GI problems, nor do they realize that a good pet food can prevent some of these problems or keep a dog from suffering exacerbations of a chronic condition.


“Gastrointestinal problems are the most common reasons owners bring their dogs to a veterinary hospital,” says Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, a veterinary technician specialist at Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc. in Topeka, Kan. “Owners fail to recognize that many GI disorders benefit from nutritional management.”

Some of these conditions include:

Pancreatitis, which can be acute or chronic, is often the result of a high-fat intake. Yves Tarte, VMD, remembers one early case when he was a practicing clinician. A young dog stole the Christmas ham and ate almost all of it before the owner discovered it. The dog was very sick, says Dr. Tarte, who is now a professional development veterinarian at Hill’s in Canada. Signs of pancreatitis include vomiting, lethargy, painful abdomen and diarrhea.

Hyperlipidemia can be a problem in certain dog breeds, such as miniature schnauzers, but can also be secondary to diseases like pancreatitis. High-fat foods contribute to elevated plasma lipid levels. Although many dogs are asymptomatic, clinical signs include recurrent seizures, depression, recurrent pancreatitis, vomiting and other problems.

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Malabsorption syndromes, such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, are also influenced by food intake. An animal with EPI has a partial or complete deficiency of pancreatic enzymes that are necessary to absorb nutrients. Clinical signs include diarrhea, inappetence and weight loss.

Although rare, some dogs suffer from protein-losing enteropathy, which is characterized by a loss of plasma protein through the GI mucosa. It can be triggered by inflammatory bowel disease, lymphangiectasia or food allergy.

These problems can benefit from the proper pet food. Hill’s Pet Nutrition has introduced Hill’s Prescription Diet i/d Low-Fat GI Restore Canine. The pet food includes  proteins that are easily digestible, ginger to soothe the stomach, omega-3 fatty acids to decrease inflammation and soluble/prebiotic fiber to normalize the intestinal microflora.

Because dog owners have many ideas about food, education is key to managing any GI disorder. Veterinarians and staff should take the time to counter some of the mistaken beliefs that owners have about feeding their dogs.

Myths and Reality

Five myths about diet and GI disease:

MYTH: There is nothing wrong with giving table scraps to a dog

People love to feed their dogs, but many people foods, are just too fatty.

“I am totally against table food,” said Tarte. “You never know what an owner will give the dog, and some foods are extremely dangerous. Table scraps can lead to obesity and if an animal is affected by a GI disease like pancreatitis, it can have a flare-up, which is painful and can be life threatening.”

Dr. Burns suggested that the healthcare team make a food recommendation, calculate the amount to feed, review this with the pet owner and write it down.

MYTH: The fat content of a food is not a concern because dogs need calories to maintain a high energy level

Unfortunately, most pets today are not very active.

“Every dog has different nutritional needs, just as every person does. If you have an adult dog that is very active, it is a working dog or goes for daily jogs with the owner, then it can use a pet food that is a little higher in fat and calories. But most of us have dogs that are more sedentary, and they don’t need that many calories,” says Dr. Glenn.

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Tarte said that many owners just do not understand that some pet foods are really high in fat to make them more palatable to the animal. They need education about targeting a food toward the pet’s lifestyle.

MYTH: Most treats are just fine to give to a dog or cat

It depends on the treat. Most people foods are inappropriate, although the occasional green bean or carrot can be beneficial. Even commercially made treats can be full of fat.

“Owners love to treat their pets, even those with GI conditions,” said Burns. “We need to tell them that the wrong treat may lead to prolonging a disease condition. Find alternatives that allow the owner to treat the animal while not causing any worsening of symptoms or disease.”

Glenn said treats should comprise less than 10 percent of the animal’s total dietary intake, and veterinarians should recommend appropriate treats that owners can give their pets.

MYTH: Dogs and cats need variety in their diets, and I can buy whatever is on sale that week

Unfortunately, most dogs and cats cannot handle abrupt dietary changes, which can lead to diarrhea and vomiting.

“The challenge that we face,” said Glenn, “is that many owners try to treat the diarrhea or vomiting on their own. They will make multiple pet food changes abruptly before they bring us the pet and that can complicate any GI issue.”

Glenn recommended against variety. If a food is going to be changed, the owner should gradually introduce the new food.

MYTH: I can feed the same food throughout the animal’s life

As dogs age, their nutritional needs change.

“Some people become absolutely set on a single food,” Glenn said, and “they keep the animal on it for its entire life.”

Burns suggested that veterinary staff talk about the animal’s pet food every time the pet comes into the office to make sure that it is right for that animal’s life stage and health requirements. 

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This Education Series article was underwritten by Hill’s Pet Nutrition of Topeka, Kan.


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