The importance of proper pet nutrition, long understood and preached by the veterinary community, is catching on among pet owners as well.
“Veterinarians are being approached by clients on a more regular basis for recommendations on what their pets should be eating,” says Amy Dicke, DVM, technical services veterinarian for The Iams Co. in Dayton, Ohio.
“Owners are becoming more concerned about their pets’ diets, so veterinarians have to be more comprehensive in dealing with the topic of nutrition.”
A key trend driving nutrition for dogs and cats is the shift toward a preventive model of veterinary medicine.
“Prevention is much easier than treatment,” says Brent Mayabb, DVM, technical services manager for Royal Canin Veterinary Diets in Saint Charles, Mo. “Many conditions in pets can be prevented through proper nutrition, and the veterinary community overall is becoming more savvy in this area.”
Obesity in pets is one example of a condition that can often be averted with preventive nutrition and treated with specialty diets as well.
As pet owners become aware of the need to manage their pets’ weight, they often invest in the growing number of veterinary diets for dogs and cats on the market as a means of not only helping already obese pets lose weight, but also preventing animals from developing a weight problem in the first place.
“Obesity in pets is at an all-time high,” Dr. Mayabb says. “In addition, veterinarians are seeing secondary issues associated with obesity, such as diabetes. By treating and preventing obesity through nutrition, you also prevent the [related] diseases.”
In addition to preventive nutrition, canine and feline diets are becoming increasingly specialized.
“Nutrition has become more customized in recent years, with diets formulated specifically for pets based on breed, life stages and life styles,” Dr. Dicke says. “In the future, there will likely be even more customization and fine-tuning of diets, particularly in terms of breed specialization.”
“In dogs, we know that larger breeds have different nutritional needs than smaller breeds,” Mayabb says. “Different breeds are predisposed to certain diseases, and customized diets can take that into consideration. Even the shape of the kibble can be developed to best suit the shape of a certain breed’s face.”
Mayabb notes that the customization of feline nutrition is taking a slightly different path than that of canine nutrition.
“With cats, there’s not as much variation in body type, though there is some breed variation,” he says. “Therefore, nutritional advances are focused more on lifestyle. An example is diets for indoor cats versus outdoor cats. These cats have different needs based on their activity levels.”
In addition to customized diets, probiotics have emerged as a growing trend in pet nutrition in recent years.
“Probiotics are a hot new thing right now,” says Grace Long, DVM, director of veterinary technical marketing for Nestle Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis.
“Probiotics are given mainly to animals with diarrhea, as a complement to dietary change. They help re-establish the microflora of the intestine, creating a balance between the good and bad bacteria. A lot of things can upset that balance in pets, even stress.
“The quest for something new and innovative in nutrition is always there,” Dr. Long adds. “And that’s the appeal of probiotics.”
While the nutritional needs of pets is the primary driving force behind innovations in small-animal nutrition, much of the information regarding these needs is conveyed to pet food manufacturers through their veterinary clients.
For example, Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s Veterinary Consultation Service provides nutritional counseling and case management to veterinary hospitals worldwide.
The company reports that the service’s staff received more than 70,000 incoming calls in 2005, averaging 280 calls per workday. During that year, more than half of all veterinary hospitals in the U.S. and Canada used the consultation service, Hill’s officials report.
Most pet food manufacturers offer consultation services to their veterinary clients. And although the majority of calls are related to general nutritional questions or specific case management, the companies also receive significant feedback from veterinarians about the pros and cons of their diets, as well as nutritional offerings in general.
“Feedback from veterinarians can be both positive and negative, but no matter which type, all feedback is an opportunity to improve,” Dicke says. “The requests might be as simple as a kibble size change or a change in the size of the bags we offer. Veterinarians sometimes request a canned version of a food that’s available only in dry. We pass all this input along to the appropriate people.
“Other times, veterinarians might identify a specific medical condition for which no nutritional solution exists,” she adds. If the veterinary community’s cry grows loud enough—and a feasible nutritional solution can be found—these suggestions may manifest in a new product offering, she says.
Long attributes the development of Purina’s current weight management formula for cats to a need voiced by the veterinary community. Following the introduction of the company’s diabetes diet, Purina heard from many veterinarians who were looking to use the food as a weight loss solution because of the food’s high protein content.
However, the diabetes diet was also high in calories—not an ideal attribute of a weight management food. The company then reformulated the product into a high-protein, lower-calorie food designed specifically for weight loss.
In addition to incorporating veterinarians’ insights into product research and development, food manufacturers are also developing more educational resources for veterinarians and their staffs, Long says.
“More clinics are focusing on training their staffs to better understand nutrition,” she says. “Therefore, manufacturers are developing programs for veterinarians to encourage such training.”
Long says weight-loss certification programs are a good example of this trend. “Follow-up is extremely important in these cases,” she says. “It’s not as simple as just handing a client a bag of food to take home. A better-educated staff will produce better results for the client.”
As awareness of the importance of proper nutrition continues to rise among pet owners, veterinarians can expect to answer more questions about their patients’ diets.
Likewise, new nutritional options will continue to hit the market as research findings manifest themselves in the form of new veterinary diets.
For example, Dicke expects to see a greater focus on antioxidants in pet foods in the future.
“We’re going to be discovering a lot more about the applications of antioxidants in nutrition,” she says. Research will continue to shed light on their role in preventing, controlling and treating multiple conditions—perhaps even certain cancers, she says.
Mayabb agrees that antioxidants will continue to be an area of interest in the future. In addition, he says that he expects an increasing amount of research to be conducted regarding the role of pet foods in dental disease prevention.
“Dental disease has become a big issue, particularly regarding how it affects the overall health of a pet,” he says.
“Foods are used to combat dental disease only through the shape and texture of the kibble. But now, we’re uncovering nutrients that can help bind up oral calcium so it can’t be incorporated into the formation of tartar.
“The trend now is toward feeding pets a diet to promote optimal health, not just meet their nutritional needs,” he adds.
“Our company is always looking for ways to innovate on our products in the most important categories,” Long says. These top categories include weight loss products, formulas for gastrointestinal conditions and feline urinary diets, she says.
“But we’re also always looking for a new need that can be met nutritionally—the ones that create entire new categories,” she adds.