Nutrition Through the Ages: Educate Your Clients on Nutrition as Their Pets Get Older

Many clients do not discuss pet nutrition with their veterinarian, but if they do, they typically ask, “What do I feed my pet?” This is never a one-size-fits-all answer, no matter the patient or the life stage. To effectively communicate the needs of each pet, veterinarians must ensure they are doing all they can to build trust with their clients, collecting information to assess each pet’s needs. 

“Individual assessments on the pet must be done, based on his individual needs, to see if he is eating the proper brand of food for his needs.”
—JOE BARTGES, DVM, PHD, DACVN

by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Many clients do not discuss pet nutrition with their veterinarian, but if they do, they typically ask, “What do I feed my pet?”

This is never a one-size-fits-all answer, no matter the patient or the life stage. “We say that they should be feeding the patient, not the age they are,” said Deborah Linder, DVM, DACVN, research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts, and AAHA-accredited Foster Hospital for Small Animals. “As patients get older, they should be getting individualized nutrition information, which makes our jobs as veterinarians a whole lot harder and easier at the same time.”

To effectively communicate the needs of each pet, veterinarians must ensure they are doing all they can to build trust with their clients, collecting information to assess each pet’s needs.

Establishing a Rapport Early Is Important

Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVN, professor of small-animal internal medicine and nutrition at the Veterinary Medical Center at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, said one of the most important things to do is to establish a rapport with your clients early. “One survey showed that only 15% of clients felt veterinarians were knowledgeable about their pet’s food,” said Bartges. “One of the reasons is that there is a higher ROI [return on investment] to talk more about vaccines.”

Bartges added, “That is unfortunate. We are very good at educating our clients about vaccines, yet nutrition is an important part of preventing disease. It’s important veterinarians communicate that to their clients and build a trust in talking to them about nutrition.”

The lack of communication in the first place is one of the reasons Bartges believes many clients aren’t comfortable asking their veterinarians about nutrition, so you must bring it up, he says.

Jennifer Larsen, DVM, DACVN, professor of clinical nutrition at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, and its AAHA-accredited Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, said if veterinarians are wary about bringing up nutrition because they don’t feel qualified to discuss it, they can take some online CE, attend nutrition presentations at conferences, call a diplomate at a university, or even call the advice lines at pet food companies that have pet nutritionists on staff. “Veterinarians have access to a lot of information and know more about nutrition than they may even realize,” said Larsen.

One of the most prevalent problems with pets after they reach adulthood is obesity, which can cause myriad underlying health conditions, including arthritis and heart disease.

Another reason Bartges believes clients don’t trust veterinarians on nutrition has to do with the retail store connected to their practice.

While veterinarians typically only sell brands of food they believe in, Bartges said there is a common misconception that veterinarians will only recommend products they sell. “They think veterinarians are beholden to a pet food company and they believe there is a conflict,” said Bartges. “I tell my students all the time not to stake their reputation on a company. It’s OK to have a comfort level in a food and tell them why you have that comfort level, but that requires some background and investigation on the company.”

The first step in establishing a rapport with your clients about nutrition, said Larsen, is to learn what is driving their pet food decisions. “Veterinarians should learn the client’s philosophy about feeding their pet. Is it cost? Availability of diet? Is it brand loyalty or a science-based approach?”

Many of these questions and more can be answered by giving your clients a detailed informational sheet they can fill out so you can open the conversation about the pet’s nutrition.

“It’s not just about what they are feeding,” said Bartges. “So much more goes into the proper feeding.”

Bartges recommends asking at least these questions:

  • What are you feeding and how much?
  • Do they always seem hungry?
  • Who is feeding them?
  • Are they leaving food behind?
  • Why are you feeding that brand?

Based on those answers, you have a beginning point at which to start helping the client research what is best for their pet and determining whether weight loss, weight gain, or other concerns may be related to diet.

No matter their philosophy, whether it is to feed a commercial diet, organic, homemade, raw, or any other reason, don’t roll your eyes, shift, or show disgust. “Just collect the information about the diet they’re feeding, and if you don’t know about the brand, do a little research before talking with them again,” said Bartges. “The first point is that a lot of people aren’t familiar with what makes a good food. Once you show your client you’re not familiar with the brand or you don’t think it’s good without concrete reasons, it will erode that trust you’re trying to build with them.”

What’s Important for Your Clients to Know at Different Life Stages

You clients should first know that the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) places labels on any manufactured pet food sold across state lines that meets or exceeds the AAFCO nutrient profiles for puppies and kittens as well as adult dogs and cats. There are currently no AAFCO nutrient profiles or AAFCO labeling for senior pets.

A common misconception, if pet owners even know about the label, is that it is a certifying organization. When your clients are selecting a food for their pet, they should be looking for the label that says the food is formulated to meet the AAFCO nutrient profile for their specific pet and for the life stage, or a label that says animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that the product provides complete and balanced nutrition for the species of pet at a life stage.

Food that is fed as the main meal should not have a label that states it is for intermittent and supplemental feeding only.

Linder said it’s also important to advise your clients on the questions to ask when choosing a pet food, no matter the life stage. “There is a handout from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association that we print out that tells pet owners the questions they should be asking of their pet food manufacturer,” said Linder. “The questions allow them to get to know the manufacturer.”

The handout recommends asking many questions, including:

  • Asking the manufacturer where the food is actually produced
  • How the food is tested
  • Learning whether there is a full-time veterinary nutritionist on staff for the company, as opposed to having a consultant

Download the handout here.

If pets are breeding, they will have specific nutritional needs based on breed, and clients may be advised to go back to giving them growth food or to give them nutritional supplements.

What Your Clients Should Know About Feeding Puppies and Kittens

Linder points out that there are more than 30 essential nutrients that pets need, no matter their stage. The key is finding the right balance that fits the needs of your pet at its particular stage of growth.

Typically, Linder said, kittens and most puppies should be fed a growth stage of food until they are at least 12 months of age. “Most growing puppies and kittens need more protein and calcium at this stage,” said Linder.

Linder said one of the most common questions clients ask at this stage is about the protein and calcium ratios. “Any food that has the AAFCO statement on that bag that meets the guidelines for growth is generally OK,” said Linder. “They want to make sure it says ‘growth,’ rather than ‘adult maintenance.’”

If the client has a large- or giant-breed dog who will weigh more than 70 pounds at adult weight, Linder said clients will need to look for the additional AAFCO statement on foods to ensure they meet additional guidelines for large- and giant-breed dogs. “Giant- and large-breed dogs are a little more sensitive to the amount of calcium because their bones grow over a longer period of time,” said Linder. “The range of calcium is more narrow.”

As a result of their bones growing more slowly, Linder said, large- and giant-breed dogs can remain on growth food that meets those specific guidelines for 15 months. “What seems to be important is to keep them on the puppy food until they stop growing.”

Adult Maintenance

“There are literally a thousand foods on the market [from which] to choose,” said Larsen. “This is where you should be helping advise them based on the owner’s philosophy, what is driving their food choices.”

One of the most prevalent problems with pets after they reach adulthood is obesity, which can cause myriad underlying health conditions, including arthritis and heart disease. “The most important thing we need to communicate to our clients about their adult pets is the key to feeding an adult dog is feeding to the ideal body weight and keeping them healthy,” said Martha Cline, DVM, DACVN, veterinarian with AAHA-accredited Red Bank Veterinary Hospitals in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

Although all foods that have “adult maintenance”’ and the AAFCO label have the nutrition amounts that meet the requirements, brands will vary on protein. “There is a lot of play with the amounts of protein and there are also no carb requirements,” said Bartges. “Individual assessments on the pet must be done, based on his individual needs, to see if he is eating the proper brand of food for his needs.”

Cline said knowing the breeds that have a tendency to be low energy and develop weight issues will help you communicate to the client about calorie intake, which may be lower than the recommended doses on the bag.

If there are changes in body weight, Cline said that’s where using the diet history you’ve been collecting on the pet, as well as clinical exam information, such as routine blood panels, body weight history, and, as they get older, muscle condition score, will help assess and advise clients on feeding amounts.

If pets are breeding, they will have specific nutritional needs based on breed, and clients may be advised to go back to giving them growth food or to give them nutritional supplements. “The most important thing as a veterinarian is to know whether they plan on breeding their pets so they can advise the client about nutrition before they become pregnant,” said Larsen. “One mistake pet owners make is waiting until pregnancy is confirmed before doing anything about diet. Important things happen early and they need to start planning for nutritional needs before they are bred.” Larsen added that it’s also important to advise clients that their pet should be at the ideal body weight, not too heavy or too thin, before breeding.

“Assessing the nutritional needs of a senior pet is a moving target, based on the individual animal.”
—DEBORAH LINDER, DVM, DACVN

The Misnomer About Senior and Geriatric Pets

If your clients are confused about what qualifies a pet as “senior” or “geriatric,” they are not alone. Information about necessary dietary changes at these life stages is equally murky for most clients.

“There is no AAFCO label for seniors; it’s a marketing term,” said Linder. “Generally, if a dog is doing well on his food and remains healthy, he can stay on the adult dog food for the rest of his life.”

Cline said when pets start to age, clients will typically ask at what age they should be considering their pet a senior. Cline points to the 2019 AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines, which identifies the last 25% of the pet’s estimated lifespan as the senior life stage.

“It’s like asking, ‘What’s an old person?’” said Bartges. “The change doesn’t really come down to the age, but the overall condition of the pet.”

Cline said she starts looking at pets who are 7 years of age or older as mature and pets over 12 as geriatric, although there is really no defined age for geriatric pets.

Once a pet reaches the maturity stage, Linder said, clients should be increasing their pet’s veterinary visits as well as having panels run to check for organ function. Linder said some patients will balk at the cost, but it’s important to communicate to the client that they can either pay now or possibly pay more later.

“If we catch diseases, such as kidney disease, early on, the pet may not need medication,” said Linder. “If we monitor and modify the diet, it’s been shown through studies we can slow the progression and the pet owner can have their pet longer and improve their pet’s quality of life.”

Whether the pet stays on the adult maintenance food also depends on other factors, such as muscle mass loss and weight gain or loss. “Assessing the nutritional needs of a senior pet is a moving target, based on the individual animal,” said Linder.

Linder said she doesn’t typically prescribe a senior diet just because a pet has reached senior status. “Each company has a different idea of what a senior needs,” said Linder. “I do like that there are many choices of senior diets out there for pets who do need to be changed from their regular adult maintenance diet.”

Linder points out that there are senior diets with more controlled protein, which can assist pets in the beginning stages of kidney disease. In addition, there are foods with more protein, which could work well for pets who are experiencing muscle mass loss.

Raw foods remain a controversial topic, especially given that there isn’t any hard data to support a raw diet.

Special Diets

One of the most common questions now, at any stage of a pet’s life, is about special diets, specifically homecooked meals, raw food, and grain free. This is due to the study that showed a possible link between grain-free diets and heart disease in some dogs.

Larsen said that homecooked meals may be the only way to ensure pets with health conditions get the proper nutrition, but she also said recipes shouldn’t be taken off the internet or from books, where she has even seen some ingredients in the recipes that are toxic.

Linder said homecooked meals should only be prepared from recipes developed by a certified veterinary nutritionist. “It’s more of a science than an art,” said Linder. “It takes me several hours to develop a recipe, and I couldn’t have done it without specialized training.”

Raw foods remain a controversial topic, especially given that there isn’t any hard data to support a raw diet. The AAHA and American Veterinary Medical Association recommend against a raw diet, said Larsen.

“This falls into my ‘Do we have enough information?’ [category],” said Linder. “Some animals can get really sick and we can’t tell which ones, so people need to know there is a potential risk.”

Moreover, senior animals, animals with compromised immune systems, and even people in the household may become sick from bacteria. Bartges said this falls into the area where more education should be given. He said there are commercial raw diets that have to adhere to the same labeling practices for AAFCO guidelines. “They aren’t really that much different than processed,” said Bartges.

Still, he cautioned that clients should be advised that the food should be prepared using utensils, bowls, and space that are separate from those used for human food. “If there is a pregnant person in the house, it may not be a good idea,” he said.

The jury is still out on grain-free diets, it seems. Bartges said there were issues with the study. “Grain-free foods have been around for decades,” said Bartges. “If you have a high-risk breed for heart disease, I advise against feeding grain free from the companies used in the studies.”

Larsen agrees there just isn’t enough information on grain free yet to make a determination. “It might be a formulation issue,” said Larsen. “We should have more information on that soon.”

Birds and Reptiles Have Special Dietary Needs

Jennifer Graham, DVM, DAVBP, DACZM, associate professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said the most common mistake pet owners make with birds is feeding an all-seed diet, which can lead to a calcium deficiency. “Bird owners think they’re always doing well, [but] they don’t realize they’re not feeding a complete diet,” said Graham. “A seed-only diet can also lead to vitamin deficiencies.” Most birds need to have a diet that also contains pellets.

The needs change as birds age, but it depends on the species as to when that occurs. “Parakeets may only live to 9 years, but parrots can live to 50,” said Graham.

One of the most common problems with birds is not unlike that with dogs and cats, which is obesity. Graham said owners should be advised to have a scale that measures in grams and provide activities for the bird that keep it moving, such as rope climbing and toys that help mimic foraging.

Reptiles are another special exotic pet whose nutritional needs must be selected carefully. “There’s a lot more to caring for a reptile than people realize; they are really not ‘starter pets,’” said Graham. Generally, she said, reptiles need more calcium when they are younger. Oftentimes, if the pet owner is getting the diet right, based on the species, they may not be offering the right full-spectrum lighting the pet needs for vitamin D.

Reptiles can also be subject to obesity if they’re getting too much protein, said Graham.

The bottom line is that it may take more research to ensure that exotic pets are receiving proper nutrition, and owners should be consulting a veterinarian who has a specialty in advising on the nutritional needs of their pet.

 

FivecoatCampbell_Kerri.jpg
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance writer living in Arkansas.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/Moyo Studio, ©iStock.com/ablokhin, ©iStock.com/AntiGerasim, ©iStock.com/Nils Jacobi, ©iStock.com/KalebKroetsch

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