This is the ninth part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through eight can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog.
I’ll be straight with you- I’ve been procrastinating writing this blog for a long time. Every time I think about it, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach. It’s not because I don’t think it’s reasonable for you to discuss your pet’s nutrition with your veterinarian. It’s super easy for your vet to advise you when to transition from puppy/kitten formulas to adult foods, and if your pet is too fat or too thin and what to do about it. It’s the question of what to feed your beloved four-legged family member that has prevented me from getting excited about sinking my teeth into this blog (pun intended). For many veterinarians, myself included, this has become a complicated issue and, in some cases, a no-win situation. Consider the following factors and you’ll understand my “dis-ease” with this topic. When it comes to pet nutrition many people, veterinarians included, hold tenaciously to one or more of the following convictions:
• Processed pet foods (kibble and canned foods) are the best way to ensure balanced nutrition.
• Processed pet foods are the devil incarnate.
• Home-cooked diets are the best way to feed a pet.
• Home-cooked diets are not nutritionally balanced.
• Raw diets promote the best health.
• Raw diets have the potential to transmit serious infectious diseases not only to the pet, but also to the human handling the food and the feces.
• Dogs and cats should eat the same foods every day.
• Dogs and cats should eat a variety of foods.
Now here’s the icing on the cake. Most veterinarians, myself included, are not nutritionists. Yes, we understand the benefits of altering diet content to treat disease (a low protein diet is best for kidney failure, novel protein diets may benefit animals with food allergies, avoid salty foods for patients with heart failure), but show us the label from a can of Aunt Hattie’s Healthy Hound Hash (I hope and pray there really is no such product!) that has miraculously enhanced your dog’s vim and vigor, and we won’t be able to tell you with 100% certainty that Aunt Hattie is making a good product. An AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) seal of approval on the label is reassuring, but not all manufacturers of well balanced diets have gone through the AAFCO approval process. And there are those who believe that AAFCO labeling is meaningless in terms of assuring good quality. We can enlist help from a board certified veterinary nutritionist to review the label, but this can be an expensive and cumbersome process. To make matters more complicated there is a constant and steady stream of new pet food manufacturers all vying for your pet’s grocery money.
Now can you understand why even thinking about this blog gives me a headache? Truth be told, I believe I’ve seen examples of the good and the bad that can accompany every genre of pet food. Dogs and cats have been eating processed foods for decades, yet we all recall the 2007 melamine pet food recall. Do you remember how shocked we were to learn that so many different brands of processed foods were manufactured in the same location? I’ve seen damage caused by raw diets- infectious diseases and gastrointestinal bone foreign bodies. I’ve also observed profound improvement in patients’ symptoms in response to the introduction of raw food (when I certainly couldn’t figure out how to make the symptoms disappear by other means). I’ve seen pathologic bone fractures because of unbalanced homemade diets. Likewise, I’ve met animals who appeared overtly healthy in spite of eating nothing but an unbalanced homemade diet for years.
So, what’s the answer here? What is a veterinarian supposed to say when their clients ask, “What should I be feeding my dog?” and “What should I be feeding my cat?” As tends to be my style, this blog has gone on a bit too long (you supposedly lose your ability to concentrate after 400-500 words). So let’s do this- let me know how you think a veterinarian should answer the question of what to feed your pet and I will post a follow-up blog letting you know how I work with this complicated question. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.