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What is the best food to feed my pet?

Written By: Jane Davidson RVN

What we feed ourselves and our pets has never been a hotter topic. Should we humans be vegan? Should our pets be vegan? Should we feed our pets grain free diets? Is raw feeding the best option?

As a pet owner it can be overwhelming as you get a lot of information from many different sources, and the choices available to you can cause confusion more often than they offer real options. Those that are very ‘pro’ their chosen diet can be very persuasive about why you should also feed that type of diet.

“Did you know - Vets only get 3 hours of nutrition teaching…”

In the midst of all this we also have the ongoing argument against taking veterinary advice about nutrition as “vets only get 3 hours’ worth of nutrition training”. This “fact” seems to be bandied about rather a lot and, as we know from fake news and social media oversharing, ‘repetition makes it fact’. So is it really true vets only get 3 hours of training on nutrition? Are we really the least informed people about pet diets?

“And it’s all sponsored by pet food companies anyway…”

 I’ll start with a fact - continuing professional development (CPD) which we are required to do to maintain our place on the RCVS register can be provided by pet food companies. I have been to CPD provided by Hills, Purina and Natures Menu and use a water bottle sponsored by Royal Canin. Does this make me any more likely to recommend branded products over and above a pet’s needs?

I’m afraid to say that in one situation it did, so clearly I’ve been hoodwinked! The reality is that the surge in raw feeding sees many people attempt to create suitable diets by themselves and, from my vet nurse training, I worried that this was a very difficult thing to achieve. After attending a raw feeding evening by Natures Menu it confirmed to me how difficult it was to create a nutritious, varied and safe raw diet.

Therefore, if raw feeding is the client’s choice, and they will not consider other options, I would always advise to fully research the commercial raw diets and choose one of those. I wouldn’t advocate one brand above another, as that’s not my role in this situation, but I would encourage people who are keen on raw feeding to investigate branded options fully.

As a vet and vet nurse we need to abide by our code of conduct and that means maintaining independent advice for each patient that is in their best interest. A pen, a water bottle or some post-it notes do not sway our opinion. Trends or fads don’t generally sway our opinion either, so while I’m sure many people are disappointed that we often recommend the same or similar diets to the last time you needed some help and advice, that’s probably because that works for the huge majority of patients we see.

While there is always anecdotal evidence about new diets or nutritional supplements, they do need a strong scientific evidence base before they will be taught as part of proven nutrition in vet schools - regardless of how big a company produces it.

What is the truth behind a vet’s training and nutrition’s place on the curriculum?

I am going to speak from the vet and vet nurse point of view about our training on nutrition for animals. As you may know the vet course covers small animal, large animal and exotic species and the current vet nurse course covers small animal and exotic species. We are taught nutrition for all these species and I’m sure if you look at some timetables for teaching you might find the sessions titled ‘nutrition’ are few and far between - possibly this has led to the myth that vets only receive 3 hours teaching on nutrition.

In truth nutrition is embedded across the curriculum and is included under husbandry lessons, welfare, critical care, surgical care and many more areas. In my experience lessons titled ‘nutrition’ cover the basics to start you off in understanding nutritional terminology, so they aren’t the core of nutritional learning.  As it is such an important factor in preventing and treating disease, the nutritional aspect of a body system, disease process or impact of an injury is taught with that subject area.

What does veterinary nutrition mean to me?

 Core vet and vet nurse training does cover nutrition in detail and for me the most interesting part is how nutrition can cause or support the disease process in our patients. I have nursed the iguana with MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease, usually caused by a dietary imbalance in one or more of calcium, phosphate or vitamin D3 - Ed), the cat staying for prolonged care post bilateral thyroidectomy, the renal patient that’s a picky eater, the leptospirosis dog with off the chart liver enzymes. In each case I knew what was the best diet for them to eat and if they didn’t eat that I could work through all the other options to ensure that when they did eat it was the best nutritional option for them.

I try to keep my blogs jargon and ‘vet speak’ free but here is what I couldn’t do if I didn’t know nutrition:

  • understand the safety of post-operative care in bilateral thyroidectomies in cats
  • advise on safe puppy and kitten diets
  • help prevent MBD in reptiles
  • advise on diets for patients with renal disease
  • advise on healthy weight loss
  • advise on safe introduction of new foods
  • advise on safe feeding if a pet has vomiting or diarrhoea
  • feed wildlife casualties without understanding Ca-Ph ratios
  • understand and use body condition scores
  • decipher food labels
  • advise you on what complete and complementary foods are.

This list could go on and on but I’ll bring this to a close here as I’m hoping you get the message that we aren’t just given ‘3 hours’ of nutrition lectures for the whole of our careers. We have nutrition embedded in all relevant aspects of our courses and, while I appreciate that makes it harder for people external to vet education to see where our nutritional education, is I can assure you it is there and there’s a lot of it… and we are very happy to share what we know with you.

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