Food for thought about pet nutrition

How to become the go-to source on pet nutrition for your veterinary clients

Clients relying on internet sources and word of mouth get confused about pet nutrition and health, but veterinarians can be a trustworthy voice of reason.

“Dr. Google, by so-called experts, is rampant, and we are no longer the only opinion on animal nutrition and health,” said Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN, Dipl. ACVSMR.

“We can get drowned out by the white noise on the internet,” he said of veterinarians. “We need to re-establish ourselves as the authority in animal nutrition.”

Dr. Wakshlag is chairman of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition’s Board of Regents and an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Despite the proliferation of nutritional data at consumers’ fingertips, Wakshlag believes veterinarians can position themselves as the experts.

“I think we will continue to be the No. 1 [source] recommended for nutrition but will be questioned much more often, and we need to be properly educated to answer the complex questions regarding nutrition,” he said.

Go-to Source

Laura Pletz, DVM, scientific services manager at food maker Royal Canin USA, thinks the internet’s fast lane will lead befuddled pet owners to their veterinarians for nutrition advice.

“Veterinarians can play a key role in helping pet owners understand the unique nutritional needs of cats and dogs,” Dr. Pletz said.

That’s why she believes offering a variety of nutritional choices and advice is important for veterinarians who wish to better serve clients.

“Veterinary staff members see many cases that require a nutritional recommendation,” Pletz said, “and having multiple options is key to providing the proper solution for each pet.”

Pletz believes that finding the right food formula for each pet is important. She advises veterinarians and their team to first decide whether the pet requires more fiber, reduced fat or higher energy density.

“While multiple options can sometimes feel overwhelming, it is absolutely key to providing optimal nutritional support for each pet,” she added. “Each case is unique, and having multiple options ensures the best possible solution for each pet.”

Misinformation poses a big problem, said Jason W. Gagné, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, senior manager of veterinary technical marketing at Nestlé Purina PetCare Co.

“The field of nutrition is continuously dealing with misperceptions regarding the quality of certain ingredients, such as grains and byproducts,” Dr. Gagné said.

“Much of this is fueled by inaccurate information on the internet and by advertising that portrays them as negative. It is important to remember that grains and byproducts provide essential nutrients and help complete and balance the nutrient profiles of cats and dogs.”

Au Natural

One source of growing information and increasing sales is the natural food category. Natural food was the second most-often purchased dog food in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2015-16 National Pet Owners Survey.

In addition, organic and natural pet food sales are projected to increase by 14.6 percent annually through 2019, according to the market research company Packaged Facts.

Veterinarians need to understand that pet owners feed natural diets for different reasons, Gagné said.

“Some pet owners feel that natural products provide health benefits, and some of them have a lifestyle where the whole family eats a natural diet,” he said. “While a wide variety of natural products may exist in the market, it is important for a veterinarian to feel comfortable recommending a natural product that comes from a company with many years of experience as well as excellent quality assurance and food safety protocols.”

Regardless of the food type, Ellen Lowery, DVM, Ph.D., MBA, director of U.S. professional and veterinary affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, warned against being caught up by marketing-speak.

“Veterinarians should caution their clients to be wary of terms such as ‘gourmet’ or ‘human grade’ on pet food labels,” Dr. Lowery said. “Marketers use these terms to make the product appear healthier and appeal to human appetites, but they don’t have any meaning in regards to safety or quality of the pet food.”

Instead, she advised veterinarians and staff members to encourage pet owners to look for “clinically proven” foods.

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission control the use of this phrase, which means the claims are backed by science and research,” Lowery added.

She, too, said the internet is jam-packed with bad nutrition information and is a haven for misleading catchwords.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there, such as dogs being strict carnivores or cats not tolerating carbohydrates,” Lowery said. “[Clients] also need to understand what terms like ‘organic,’ ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’ mean or don’t mean.

“As a result of this misinformation,” she added, “we’ve seen pet owners drifting toward the grocery store for seemingly natural products that don’t provide the balanced nutrition found in the veterinary clinic or pet specialty store.”

Questions to Ask Food Makers

Gagné, believes that veterinarians must boost both their knowledge of pet nutrition and their efforts to share that know-how with clients.

Not all questions will be easily fielded, Dr. Gagné said.

“Veterinarians will play a more active role in nutrition due to pet owners seeking clarification about nutritional information and recommendations of products due to an ever-growing market of pet food options” Gagné said.

To help, he recommended tips from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, which has documents that help veterinarians and clients choose food from a reliable company.

WSAVA notes that all pet food labels must contain factual information, but clients should be alerted that the label also serves as a promotional tool. That means some label information, such as the use of unregulated terms such as holistic, premium and human grade, “is of little practical value in assisting nutritional assessment” WSAVA states.

The organization advised that veterinarians contact a pet food manufacturer if they have questions. WSAVA recommends asking:

  • Do you employ a full-time qualified nutritionist, and what is the nutritionist’s name and qualifications?
  • Who formulates your foods, and what are their credentials?
  • Where are your foods produced and manufactured?
  • Are your diets tested using Association of American Feed Control Officials feeding trials or by formulation to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles? If the latter, do they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation or by analysis of the finished product?
  • What specific quality-control measures do you use to ensure the consistency and quality of your ingredients and the end product?
  • Will you provide a complete nutrient analysis for the dog or cat food in question?
  • What is the caloric value per gram, can or cup of your foods?
  • What kind of product research has been conducted? Are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?

For the full set of questions, visit the website.

Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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