Making Nutrition Decisions Individually

Veterinary nutritionists strive to individualize patient diet plans.

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One point veterinary nutritionists agree on is the need to develop an effective diet plan for the individual patient instead of one for its breed, disease or age.

The subject of nutrition can be complicated, and its less-than-sexy debut in veterinary school means students often prefer to focus their studies on drug therapies and surgical interventions.

But trends to eat more naturally or holistically mean the newfangled approach to using food as part of disease prevention and overall good health and quality of life is getting a second look in universities and veterinary practices.

“Raw diets for pets are growing in popularity as a direct response to owners investigating healthier lifestyles for themselves,” says Laura Duclos, Ph.D., the director of research and development at Nature’s Variety of Lincoln, Neb. “There’s a disagreement within the industry regarding the safety and benefit of raw diets, but like many dietary considerations, ask questions to ensure efficacy.”

When inquiring about a manufacturer’s raw diet, Duclos suggests that veterinarians ask:

• Whether the ingredients are natural or supplements.

• About the sanitation, safety and storage of hte product.

• Whether federal and state feed laws are followed.

• Whether it is considered complete and balanced.

• How long hte company has been in business.

“Some companies are selling ground meat, which isn’t going to cut it as far as meeting all nutritional needs,” Duclos says. “Just like any other diet, owners and veterinarians who begin a raw-diet feeding regimen should use the package guidelines as a starting point, then alter it to accommodate each patient.”

Veterinarians who do not recommend raw diets say the potential for miscommunication over safe feeding practices, plus possible parasite and bone ingestion, isn’t worth the risk.

“Dogs and cats have survived a long time on eating whatever they could get hold of,” says Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University. “The fact that pets can survive on scraps doesn’t mean that is the best feeding method, and it isn’t.

“There has been an evolution in nutrition, especially over the past 10 years, and we treat pets like surrogates. Clients want to know the answer to the best diet for their needs.”

Dr. Wakshlag says dogs are “obligatory beggars” and will eat even when they aren’t hungry.

“As veterinarians we have to sift through the marketing genius that manufacturers present and be sold on evidence of the dietary benefit,” Wakshlag says. “Some countries are appalled that we let pets into our homes, and now we carry them in our purses. Owners have a strong love for the pets, but veterinarians can talk to them until they are blue in the face about diet and they won’t listen.

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“We just have to be very specific about our recommendations and know why we are making them.”

New in 2010

Dog and cat foods accounted for $17.8 billion in U.S. spending last year, according to the Pet Food Institute, an industry trade group. Today, owners are checking their product options closer than ever, so veterinarians need to stay abreast of what’s new.

Nature’s Variety has added separate canine and feline grain-free products to its Instinct line. These diets were developed for pets allergic to grain but can serve as a maintenance diet as well.

“The Instinct Salmon meal for dogs and Instinct Duck and Turkey meal for cats offer new sources of protein for dogs and cats,” Duclos says. “It is best to offer pets a variety of protein sources throughout their lives. Feeding canned and raw foods decreases the amount of water intake necessary for pets, which is a benefit considering that cats can sometimes refuse to drink an adequate amount of water.”

Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. Inc. of Wheeling, Ill., tests its products’ palatability on shelter animals for instant results, President Holly Sher says.

“We can immediately see which foods dogs and cats enjoy most,” Sher says. “All of our products are kosher, and 95 percent are grain-free. The meats used in the pet food can and have been eaten by myself and staff, and we like it.”

Royal Canin USA of St. Charles, Mo., released six retail canned feline products based on the company’s macro-nutrient profile research.

“In feeding trials, cats prefer foods high in energy, which comes from specific percentages of fat, carbohydrates and protein,” says Brent Mayabb, DVM, the company’s technical services manager.

“We’ve defined these ranges and tested them in long-term feeding trials. We’ve found that cats will go back to foods that have the right amount of fat, carbs and protein over others, which gets rid of the idea that flavors matter. Although flavor can have a short-term effect called neophilia, the novelty wears off.”

Dr. Mayabb says the study results call for a new way of thinking about pet nutrition. Food flavors, he says, are overrated.

“A package labeled as a specific flavor doesn’t mean that is the only meat included in the product. It means it is one of the ingredients,” Mayabb says. “This also means changing flavors of pet food daily within the same brand isn’t a big deal. What the animal needs is the nutrients, proteins and amino acids in the foods, which weighs heavier than the ingredients they are coming from.”


Corn is an ingredient some people do not like seeing on pet food labels, specialists say, despite its amino acids and beta carotene content, which can be broken down into two types of vitamin A.

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“Corn is thought to put too much weight on animals, but the fact is more calories consumed than calories burned equals obesity,” Mayabb says. “It’s not much more complicated than that. Veterinarians often think if high protein and low carbohydrates is good, then the opposite of that is bad, but that is not true. It’s a balance that must be accomplished.”

Wheat gluten can be up to 99 percent digestible in dogs and cats, which is a higher rate than some meat protein, depending on the grade, Mayabb adds. The higher the grade of meat, the higher the digestibility. Often the grade isn’t listed on the packaging but may be perceived as higher quality based on name alone.

Owners Surveyed

A May 2009 survey of 800 cat and dog owners found that packaging and overall veterinary opinion were the biggest contributors to a product’s favorability. Forty-six percent of respondents said they decide based on the package information, and 32 percent based their nutrition decisions on veterinarian recommendations.

The study, conducted by Edge Research on behalf of the Pet Food Institute, also revealed that in the past year, 58 percent of owners switched their pets’ food brand. Twenty-eight percent said the change was made because the pet stopped showing interest in its food.

“Pet food manufacturers are a lot like weight-loss diets—they all have a different philosophy but they have good intentions of getting you to the end point,” says Nancy Cook, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the Pet Food Institute.

“There is so much discussion about what needs to be added to the label of pet foods—like caloric content—but how much do people know about their own daily caloric content needs, let alone their pet’s?” Cook says. “In our survey, 58 percent of owners said they did not know how many calories would be necessary in a 60-pound adult dog or an 8-pound adult cat. We don’t think mandating caloric content per serving on each bag will improve pets’ nutrition. What is needed is a better understanding of how pet food works.”

Obesity a Big Problem

Many pets aren’t active enough because of their owners’ lifestyles, experts say.

“About 50 percent of the patients I see are overweight,” says Luci T. Dimick, DVM, an assistant professor with Ohio State University’s small-animal community practice team. “I’ve found that owners are more likely to ask the unqualified person behind the counter of a pet store questions about their pet’s diet than their veterinarian.

“As vets we need to offer nutrition advice in a way that encourages owners to actively work toward keeping pets healthy through diet.”

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When a pet’s diet is discussed with the owner, veterinarians should hand out written directions for reference, nutritionists say. The directions should include specific food brands, exact measurements and a feeding frequency based on the pet’s activity level, physical condition and medical needs.

“Vets come out of school with about five nutrition credit hours, which are spread between companion and food animals,” Cook says. “So feeding pets isn’t a big part of the total education, leaving veterinarians to perform some research on their own. Much of this comes from manufacturers, which are the ones doing the trials and testing.”

Nutritionists say their specialty promotes preventive care over fixing what went wrong. Though it’s not  news that nutrition is important to health, it isn’t a focus at many practices.

“Veterinarians get trapped into drug treatments and are crammed for time,” says Lisa Weeth, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, a nutritionist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J. “It pays off in the long run to educate clients about nutrition. Veterinarians shouldn’t be afraid to recommend that clients offer pets different shapes, textures and consistencies of food, which is beneficial if done correctly. This can prevent food preferences and lets the owner keep food options open.”

Sending a Message

A 14-year study published in 2002 by Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. looked at 48 Labrador retriever puppies divided into two groups at 8 weeks of age. The group fed 25 percent less food each day lived healthier, longer lives.

“Dogs fed 25 percent less of the same diet lived a median increase of 1.8 years, and onset of clinical signs of chronic disease was delayed significantly,” says Grace Long, DVM, MS, director of veterinary technical marketing at Nestlé Purina PetCare.

The company expects to debut a new weight-management program this summer.

“We will be releasing a reality series this summer called ‘Project Slim Down,’ featuring eight overweight dogs of different breeds, genders and lifestyles,” Dr. Long says. “All dogs are using the O/M weight management diet and are weighed regularly to chart progress.

“Purina is following the dogs for three months and will present each animal’s plight in a sort of ‘Biggest Loser’ format, except there are no eliminations.”

Every participating animal will be presented and filmed in its home environment. The goal is to show how diet management can be accomplished and help a range of dog breeds.

“Animals are like people,” Long says. “Some owners have to watch everything they feed their pet, and other pets can eat all day without weight-gain concern.

“Veterinarians have to tell clients a list of tricks that can help their individual pet stay healthy through diet.”

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.


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