The number of grain-free, fresh and other commercial pet food options leaves more questions than answers for pet owners and veterinary professionals alike. As premiumization and humanization are two popular trends driving the ever-expanding pet food market, more pet owners are turning to their veterinarians for recommendations.
One veterinarian professional who is dedicating his career to pet nutrition is Jonathan Stockman, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition). His experience includes stints as a senior researcher at the Waltham Center of Pet Nutrition in Walham, England and establishing a new clinical nutrition service at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Colorado State University.
Dr. Stockman is presently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences at Long Island University where his current projects include studying the effect of grain-free diets on cardiac function and health biomarkers in dogs; exploring the benefit of fish oil supplementation in dogs with cancer; and valuating the urine amino acid composition in ferrets to understand further why some ferrets develop urinary stones.
In addition, he aims to dispel the myths and misinformation that surround pet nutrition: “I feel that many pet owners have a strong interest in nutrition but are led astray by misinformation that is so widely available on the internet and other media,” Dr. Stockman shares.
For example, one common misconception many pet owners have is that commercial pet food is less healthy than natural food. In response to this, he says, “The perceived benefits of natural/less-processed foods do not outweigh the importance of having nutritionally complete and balanced foods and providing all the needed essential nutrients in sufficient amounts.
“Furthermore,” he continues, “the desire to avoid processed foods may lead owners to choose foods that are less safe for their pets, such as raw foods that may be contaminated by harmful pathogens.”
Dr. Stockman chose to specialize in pet nutrition because he saw the interaction of food and health in the animals he encountered in his training. “During my specialty training,” he says, “I worked with many exotic pets (birds, reptiles, small mammals), as well as dogs and cats, and found that often medical problems in these animals had much to do with husbandry, and specifically with nutrition. This connection inspired me to learn more about nutrition and physiology.”
When asked what he wished pet parents knew about commercial pet food, his reply was, “I wish pet parents understood that that grains are not harmful to pets, nor are they indicators of low-quality foods or used as ‘fillers.’ Most pets tolerate grains well and don’t show any adverse effects from grain consumption. The desire to avoid grains and maximize animal protein intake is not based on scientific data and is not environmentally sustainable in the long run.”
Dr. Stockman explains that there are parallels between the nutritional needs of different animals; some species rely on their gastrointestinal microbiota to produce several nutrients, whereas others require these nutrients in their diet. Dogs and cats need Vitamin D in their diet, but rabbits, horses, cows, sheep, etc. rely on both the diet and the gut microbiota for many nutrients. As a result, he says you can’t make assumptions about one species based on a different species.
“For example, I would caution pet owners not to give dogs and cats human supplements without veterinary supervision as dogs have a narrower safety margin for Vitamin D than people,” Dr. Stockman advises.
Commercial pet food ingredients and marketing materials often mention that they contain needed vitamins and minerals, but Dr. Stockman has this say on that subject: “There are a few minerals presently being investigated for their potentially harmful effects on pet health if their intake is high. One example is copper; Labradors who eat a diet high in copper are highly susceptible to liver disease.
“Unfortunately, pet owners have limited ability to evaluate products for the content of these minerals as these are not always declared on the label,” he continues. “And if they are, they may be listed as minimums. The change should be done on a regulatory level.”
As more studies are done to find connections between pet health and nutrition, the discoveries will better equip veterinarians and pet parents to feed their pets a diet that best supports them to endure a long, healthy life.
“I see teaching veterinary nutrition as a huge contribution to the readiness of recently graduated veterinarians for clinical practice. Having meaningful and well-informed discussions with pet owners about nutrition is a vital skill for any veterinarian, and owners are looking to their vets for this important input. Where vets fail to provide helpful advice, owners opt to use other less reliable sources of information, and may ultimately make nutritional decisions that may not help, or even harm, the health of their pet,” Dr. Stockman concludes. +