Veterinary Nutrition And You: Redefining The Future Of Pet Food

I’ve been to AVMA, NAVC, CVC and ACVIM and, after attending at least five of each of the above conferences over the past 15 years, I can attest that they’ve all got loads to offer. But that’s not to say there aren’t other international-level conferences worth your while.

Take WINSS, for example. The Waltham International Nutritional Sciences Symposium is arguably the world’s premier pet nutrition conference. Yet until Mars invited me to attend this year’s October meeting in Portland, Ore., I’d never thought to venture outside the confines of my own customary conference rotation.  

Which would’ve been a shame. Not only would I have lost out on some killer doughnuts (Portland’s VooDoo Doughnuts fries up the finest), this meeting established that attending smaller symposia treating niche-ier topics can prove even more rewarding than the usual suspects.

After all, there’s nothing quite so stimulating as some crisp non-tropical air, a fistful of fried dough, a huge conference hall teeming with veterinary nutritionists and three days chock-a-block with talks, presentations, hot topic sessions and even a bit of entertaining dissent. 

Most exciting of all, however, was not the banter that arose after one speaker attempted to dispel the "dogma” of the dog as omnivore (rather than the true carnivore that he suggests his lit review and research say it is). Nor was the exchange over the true incidence of obesity in dogs the high point.

Instead, the following five issues took center stage. They all debuted early in the three-day conversation and made serial appearances throughout. Consider …

#1 Microbiome matters

We know next to nothing about the microbiome, and we’re beginning to suspect that this vast ecosystem might just have a thing or two to do with how our food gets dealt with.

It therefore stands to reason that this arena would receive so much attention, but I had no idea that the interest in veterinary medicine was as keen as it currently is.

#2  Pet obesity issues.

It’s perhaps the most common cause of morbidity in veterinary medicine and yet we have very few strategies in place to handle this huge and growing problem.

Everything from the role of the microbiome to the ideal distribution of macronutrients in the diet was on the table, but interestingly, it was the psychology of pet-owner interactions at feeding time that was by far the most deeply treated aspect of obesity during this meeting. Read on …

#3   Zoobiquity.

Veterinary medicine is especially exciting for its built-in ability to compare and contrast the workings of one species to that of another. But comparing behavioral problems in pets with respect to feeding and obesity is most fruitful when domesticated animals are compared to another obesity-prone species: humans.

"Zoobiquity” is a newish term (based on the 2012 book) behind an emerging "one health”-style movement to further both human and animal lives via the power of comparative medicine. The twin childhood and pet obesity "epidemics” are an obvious magnet for comparative analysis, as we observed on the third day of the symposium.

#4  Power to the protein.

Protein is king when it comes to pet nutrition. If I had any doubt about this truism this meeting surely dispelled it.

Everything from handwringing about the negative perception of non-meat protein and the carnivorousness of canines to global protein resource allocation and the rise of the nascent insects-for-pets movement (to which I subscribe) was bandied about as proof positive that protein really does rule.

#5   Stricter regulatory environment.

It’s no longer good enough to slap a label on the side of a bag or can and claim it works for x, y, or z health issues without any evidence to show for it.

If the FDA has its way, all those therapeutic diets will be [expensively] reworking their packaging along with their marketing plans ASAP. And that’s just one of the many pet food industry-rankling regs the FDA has up its sleeve.

And if only the government were open for business and had sent the delegation it promised, we would’ve had a much more lively debate on this issue.

At this point, plenty of you will be asking yourself the following:
* Why should I care what’s up with the pet food industry? Sure, it’s interesting, but it can’t beat the ratio to breadth and depth ACVIM offers. Food is just one topic.
* After all, we don’t make the stuff, we earn only slim margins from its sales, and with each passing year our professional opinion on the subject seems to hold less sway with our clients than before. 
* With so many pressing issues in practice, you suggest I immerse myself in the arcane and profit-challenged world of pet nutrition? What’s the payoff for a practitioner?

Despite such practical dissent, progressive practitioners may nonetheless see the benefit of investing in nutrition education. This seems especially apropos to this field because animal nutrition is big-picture stuff designed to be employed as an integral part of every patient’s treatment plan—regardless of how it tends to be taught in veterinary programs. (But that’s the subject of another column.)

And who wants to abdicate nutrition know-how to the ivory tower and industry, anyway?

None of us should; less so given that it’s arguably this very detachment from the science of nutrition that’s led A) to our widely perceived status as middlingly educated middlemen and B) to the diminished profitability of clinical nutrition-based products and services.

Then there’s this to consider: If generalists don’t attend specialty symposia like this one, we’d be effectively failing to foster the symbiotic relationship with academia and industry that all stakeholders—especially our patients—deserve.

If nothing else, getting out of our collective conference comfort zone may be just the thing to jumpstart our careers. But wait … did I mention the doughnuts?  

Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at

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