"Every pet, every time", Nutrition Alliance urges

On the five year anniversary of the melamine pet food recall that led to sickness and death in thousands of animals, veterinarians are emphasizing the importance of nutrition and its affect on the health of pets.

"The 2007 recalls were devastating to the pets and the people it affected," said Kate Knutson, DVM, AAHA president-elect. "Nutrition is the single most important environmental influencer we have on our pets."

Knutson and a team of veterinarians emphasized the importance of nutrition to consumer and veterinarian alike at a press conference held by the Pet Nutrition Alliance at the AAHA Yearly Conference in Denver, Colo.

The Alliance highlighted the message of "every pet, every time," referring to the idea that every pet receive a nutritional assessment every time it comes to the clinic. The Alliance recommends asking clients what their healthcare goals are for their pet, and working with clients to communicate the importance of good nutrition.

How can veterinarians best communicate with their clients about the importance of a nutritional assessment?

Donald Ostwald, DVM, said that two levels of assessment are necessary for evaluating a patient: A screening process involving history taken from the client, as well as a physical exam including looking at the animal’s coat and body weight.

Ostwald demonstrated a proper nutritional evaluation of several visiting cats and dogs during the press conference. Ostwald said it is important to evaluate the coat, look at the body condition (should be an hourglass shape from the top), do a rib check (should be able to feel the ribs, but not see them), and check the spine, which should be able to be felt but not seen.

Ostwald estimated that one of the dogs, a 4-year-old Labrador named Lady, was about 10 pounds overweight.

Ostwald says humans have become too accustomed to having pets that are overweight.

"We are too used to seeing animals overweight and thinking that that is normal," Ostwald said.

Lady’s owner said she had no idea that her dog was carrying more pounds than was healthy.

"We were surprised that she looked overweight, because we thought she looked fabulous," said Lisa Sigler. "Friends would tell me ‘No, she’s not fat, she looks good!’"

Sigler said she received no advice from her veterinarian as to what she needed to be feeding her dog.

"I want a specific recommendation. As a pet owner, you have no idea what you should be feeing your animal," she said. "PetSmart and PetCo are overwhelming as a pet owner. I spent 45 minutes reading labels – I don’t have the time to do that."

Sigler said she would do anything for her dog if she knew what to do.

"I never got a lot of advice other than ‘stay under x amount of carbs’," Sigler said. "I would go to the ends of the earth for my animals, all I need is a specific brand, and a specific aisle to walk down to get that brand."

Properly communicating the importance of good nutrition requires effort from the entire clinic, said Kara Burns, president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians.

"It’s up to the technicians to make sure that that message is getting across," Burns said. "Nutrition is part technician as well."

Burns also recommends asking clients to determine goals for their pets, and to stay away from shaming or scolding them.

Knutson said that even though veterinarians think they may be giving clients nutritional assessments and a specific recommendation, clients aren’t always getting the message.

Every time they walk into their veterinary office, they need to have a nutritional assessment done

"We really want to help them navigate the world of nutrition," Knutson said. "Make a strong recommendation; don’t just say ‘premium pet foods’. Do the research and make a recommendation. Pet owners want recommendations, but they’re not really getting the message."

Clear communication about what a pet needs nutritionally can enhance quality of life for both pet and owner, Knutson said.

"They’re paying us not to be their friends; they’re paying us for a specific medical recommendation," Knutson said.