Our clients are becoming more aware of the importance of nutrition in their own health, and thus are demanding the same high standard of nutritional care for their pets. It is important that the veterinary healthcare team be the preferred, expert source of the best nutritional information for pets. In fact, nutrition has been recognized as the fifth vital assessment and a cornerstone of pet health through all life stages.1,2
Veterinary teams which understand and promote clinical nutrition and demonstrate in-clinic behaviors consistent with this conviction will benefit their clients, their practices and, most importantly, their patients. Proper nutritional management is one of the most important factors in maximizing pet health, performance and longevity, in addition to managing disease conditions.
Most veterinary healthcare teams recognize that nutrition is important to their patients’ health and want to make the best food recommendations. Additionally, clients want what’s best for their pets and for them to live long, healthy lives. Then why is communication around pet foods so difficult?
Addressing a Difficult Topic
The pet food category is a multi-billion-dollar industry with an overwhelming selection of pet foods available. The healthcare team may feel uncomfortable or lack confidence in having a conversation about specific pet food choices. Food can be a touchy subject, and clients may have very strong emotions about the food they prefer to feed and what they think is best for their pets. Additionally, there are multiple pet food myths and nutrition trends that have muddied the realm of pet food. There are massive amounts of information on pet foods on the internet, and it can be very difficult to discern fact vs. myth vs. trends, which can be dangerous to a pet’s health.
Making a pet food recommendation that best supports that particular pet’s health should not be a quarrel between what the veterinarian knows will support their patient’s health and what their client wants or believes is the best food for their beloved pet. Through consistent use of core communication skills and involvement of the entire healthcare team, you can connect with your clients, overcome some of the more challenging pet food barriers, build nutritional confidence in your entire team, and make the nutritional recommendations that you feel best support that pet’s health and respects your client’s preferences.
From every media outlet, as well as family members, pet stores, etc., clients are inundated with information about foods for their pets. So, when they come to the veterinary healthcare team with the question, “What should I feed my pet?” how does one answer? The healthcare team should embrace this question and be open to and encourage dialogue. The fact that this question is asked shows the owner is interested in proper nutrition for their pet and wants a recommendation from the veterinary team.
Know Your Resources
In 2011, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) published Nutritional Guidelines.2 And, in 2021, The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) published updated Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for veterinary practices.1 These guidelines were developed to support veterinary healthcare teams in the development and implementation of nutritional management protocols tailored to the individual needs of the patient.
Both associations, with the assistance of veterinary nutritionists, veterinarians, veterinary technician specialists in nutrition and credentialed veterinary technicians, have developed tools to help healthcare teams educate clients on what they should feed their pet. These tools were developed to assist the veterinary team in determining what the pet should eat as well as offering a resource to help make a specific nutritional recommendation.
As with any recommendation, the veterinary healthcare team must do the research. When investigating the question, “How do I distinguish one food from another?” look for answers to the following:
- Is the pet food manufacturer’s contact information available on the product for the veterinary team and pet owner?
- Does the pet food manufacturer employ full-time veterinary nutritionist(s), veterinarians and credentialed veterinary technicians?
- Where are the foods produced and manufactured?
- What are the specific quality control measures to guarantee product consistency and quality?
- Will the manufacturer provide a complete nutrient analysis for the pet food in question—above and beyond the guaranteed analysis?
- Has the product undergone research? And are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?
These initial questions aid the team in determining if the product is made by a reputable and knowledgeable company. They also help determine if the manufacturer follows strict quality control measures.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement by AAFCO
In addition to researching the quality behind products, the team should research the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)3 nutritional adequacy statement included on pet food labels to help determine the following important facts:
- Is the diet complete and balanced? All wellness foods should be complete and balanced.
- If the food is complete and balanced, for which life stage is the food intended?
- Nutrient profiles and feeding trial requirements for growth, reproduction and adult maintenance are provided by AAFCO.
- The healthcare team should be aware that foods listed as formulated to meet the AAFCO profiles for all life stages must meet the minimum nutrient levels for both growth and adult maintenance.
- What method was utilized to substantiate that the food is complete and balanced?
- AAFCO feeding trials:
- Were the products fed to the intended species and intended life stage?
- Does the product label state, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage(s)]”?
- AAFCO nutrient profiles:
- Do the foods meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation or by analysis of the finished product?
- Does the product label state, “[Product Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage(s)]”?
- AAFCO feeding trials:
Formulated foods are manufactured so the ingredients meet specified levels, either based on the recipe or on analytical testing of the finished product, without testing.
The healthcare team should be educated and proactive when discussing nutrition with clients. There are differences amongst manufacturers, products and life stages, and veterinary team members should not be afraid to ask the questions. This will allow the team to present a researched and educated nutritional recommendation, and be prepared to provide the best recommendation for each specific patient that visits the veterinary hospital. +
1. Cline M., Burns KM., Coe JB., et al. (2021) AAHA Nutrition and Weight Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. JAAHA 57:4, 153-178.
2. Nutritional Assessment Guidelines. (2011). WSAVA Nutritional Assessment Guidelines Task Force. J SMALL ANIM PRACT 52:385-396.
3. Association of American Feed Control Officialss, AAFCO Official Publication 2022.