Explaining to pet owners the difference between a therapeutic diet and one found on a store shelf can help boost sales and improve compliance, experts say.
The average client may not realize that diets found in pet and grocery stores lack the benefits offered by therapeutic diets sold only in veterinary offices.
Industry nutritionists say veterinarians need to convey that therapeutic foods are comprised of ingredients developed and tested by researchers producing the diet. While many pet food companies producing maintenance diets perform clinical tests for palatability, digestibility and nutritional value, therapeutic diets are tested using cell cultures and evaluating individual ingredients in animals with spontaneous disease.
“Therapeutic diets are formulated for use with specific conditions, therefore the formulations are more defined and quality control is typically higher than over-the-counter foods,” says Joseph W. Bartges, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVN. “For example, diets designed for kidney failure or diabetes mellitus use specific ingredients and have a nutritional profile that is based on the condition and are designed to help in managing a patient with that specific condition.”
Do therapeutic diets extend the life of an animal? Conclusive evidence is lacking, but Dr. Bartges, a professor of medicine and nutrition at University of Tennessee, and other veterinarians say such diets can improve the length and quality of life of animals suffering from certain disease conditions.
“It’s a pretty aggressive claim to say a diet can extend an animal’s life, but I believe that is true, especially in certain conditions,” says Grace Long, DVM, director of veterinary technical marketing at Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. “Diets can also make animals more receptive to other treatments.”
Compliance is improved and extends past the initial purchase if the client understands the reason for a therapeutic diet, experts say.
“Therapeutic diets for animals are treated like prescriptions for people, although they do not contain pharmaceuticals,” says Nancy Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute. “Veterinarians can honestly tell clients that there is no way to directly compare a therapeutic diet to one offered at a pet store.”
A 2009-10 pet owner survey published by the American Pet Products Association found that 8 percent of dogs and 14 percent of cats were consuming a special diet.
“While ‘special diet’ is a subjective term, it does give us an idea that out of the 45,000 people who participated in the study, those percentages are not simply eating regular maintenance diets,” says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. “We’ve found that there is a similar amount of confusion with animal therapeutic diets as what’s found in human medicine. Some of the wording on [pet or grocery store] food labels is similar and through clever marketing can confuse a pet owner into believing the products are at the same level.”
Therapeutic diets are more expensive because the ingredients are high quality and the science behind the production is costly. In addition, the foods are not produced in mass quantities like mainstream diets.
“One way to approach the cost of feeding a therapeutic diet is to consider that the benefits of the diet and improved pet health may mean fewer veterinary visits and bills for the related medical issue,” Dr. Long says. “Purina’s HA Canine Formula for pets is a costly diet, but it works. A successful therapeutic diet means a healthier pet, and it makes up for its cost in reducing veterinary expenses.”
For a typical diet to work, experts say, the animal must consume the food for at least 12 weeks. The ease of making a food purchase at a store can often stymie even well-intentioned owners.
“We often see a higher compliance rate for therapeutic diets depending on the severity of disease,” Long says. “But lack of compliance has many causes: price, the animal gets better and the client stops feeding the diet, thinking it’s no longer needed, or the client just doesn’t realize feeding a specific diet is a long-term commitment.
“In some situations in which a dog gets into the trash and has a GI flare-up, a therapeutic diet can be temporary, but most are for continued use.”
Sometimes the first therapeutic diet chosen isn’t the most successful and clients become discouraged, nutritionists say. Dedicated owners are willing to continue different diets upon request but may need a little encouragement.
“The only thing that works 100 percent of the time when used correctly in veterinary medicine is the euthanasia solution,” says C.A. Tony Buffington, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University. “I’ve seen success and failure when I’ve prescribed therapeutic diets, and failure does not always mean it’s the product’s fault.”
How frequently veterinarians prescribe a therapeutic diet can depend on their medical ideology. While some veterinarians live by a preventive approach, others tend to navigate toward pharmaceuticals.
“Just like in human medicine, veterinarians’ decisions to prescribe a prescription diet depend on how they feel about using food as a preventive measure,” the American Pet Products Association’s Vetere says.
Nutritionists say an educated technician can serve as a practice’s nutrition liaison, helping to field client questions after a diet has been prescribed by the doctor, following up with the client and helping chart patient successes and failures on a diet. This could improve compliance and provide greater accessibility when veterinarians are busy.
“There should be a liaison,” Long says. “After a veterinarian’s initial recommendation, the technician could follow up with the client, something many veterinarians do not have time to do personally.”
The difference between helping a pet owner navigate the nutrition options and turning the client against a therapeutic diet can be as simple as giving a diet comparison scenario.
“Novel protein diets containing ingredients such as venison are sold in stores,” says Brent Mayabb, DVM, manager of education and development at Royal Canin US. “By law, the product must contain venison, but it could also contain beef or chicken—the same ingredients the animal is thought to be allergic to. These additional meats may be properly listed on the label, but if the ingredients aren’t listed as a main source, it might be overlooked.”
How manufacturers conduct research varies, Long says. While Nestlé Purina does some of its research in-house, the company also partners with universities and on clinical trials. When assessing the need for a therapeutic diet, manufacturers often track diseases thought to be influenced by diet.
“We recently released the canned formula of J/M for joint care in dogs and E/N for cats with GI problems,” Long says. “We also added colostrums to the dry E/N diet to help stabilize intestinal flora in canine and feline formulas.”
Nestlé Purina offers a therapeutic treat to complement every diet. This summer, a low-calorie, chewy, meaty treat will become the fourth in the line that includes Gentle Snackers, Lite Snackers and Dental Chewz.
“I think some veterinarians resist prescribing therapeutic diets more frequently because they don’t want to be seen as a salesperson,” Long says. “Some just don’t realize their power and assume a client will resist.”
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News