Bretaigne Jones, DVM, MS, Fear Free Certified
Nutritional status may not be sexy, but it’s vitally important. We can not only help to prevent disease through proper nutrition, but also treat existing disease, sometimes to remission, and often to control. One of the tools to evaluate where the pet is nutritionally is to review what they are eating through the pet food label. Just as we don’t want to make assumptions about blood work or imaging before seeing the results, we need to make sure we don’t assume we know the facts about what they are eating before reading the label.
Finding the Correct Information
What do we need? We need a label. Many times, the client knows the brand of food but doesn’t recall the actual product name. We veterinary professionals are not immune to making assumptions based solely on the brand of food the pet eats. We have biases, too. There’s no room for guesswork here. Find the correct information and document it.
Labels contain a principal display panel (product name and brand, whether for dog or cat, and if it’s a food, a treat/snack, or topper), and the information panel. The information panel consists of the guaranteed analysis, ingredient panel, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guidelines, calorie content, and manufacturer particulars.
What are the five things you should always check?
- The product name and brand – is this really the food they are feeding the pet?
- Is it a complete food, or a topper (enticement to eat a dry food that’s boring)?
- What lifestage is this product formulated for? If growth, is it large-breed appropriate?
- Is it complete and balanced?
- What is the calorie content?
Checking How Much Your Clients Should Feed
If the label indicates that the food is appropriate for the pet, where do you go next? Use the body weight and body condition score you have noted in the record and figure what the target kcal/day for an ideal body weight should be. Use the kcal/cup or can information found on the label and determine how much the client should be feeding. There are many daily feeding calculators available to help with this. Compare to the amount your client reports they are feeding.
Don’t forget to consider treats, toppers, or people food the pet may be receiving when making your calories/day recommendation. Tell the client a specific limit on non-food calories (treats, toppers, etc.) to help maintain or achieve a good body condition score. Typically, up to 10 percent of the daily kcals can be provided with treats. Giving the owner the knowledge of a total kcal/day and how to maximize the use of treats gives them the tools they need to make smart choices. Prevention is always better than treatment after the fact.
To Change or Not to Change
Other than a potential need to modify the quantity of food fed, if the pet looks good, is healthy, and the product meets the pet’s needs, do you need to recommend a different food? If the owner is happy with what they feed and the diet is performing well, why change? Think twice about making a change just to make a change. Now, if there is a problem with the food being fed — if it’s not complete and balanced or is not appropriate for the life stage of the pet – make your recommendation and give your reasons. Some clients will be resistant to change to a new diet if they perceive your reason for making a change is based solely on brand, especially if your clinic carries the recommended food. We are often frustrated when a client won’t follow veterinary recommendations, but we ourselves may not be respecting their choices or reasons. When they feel heard and respected, they are more likely to hear and respect you in turn.
In a situation where nutrition can help manage a particular disease, it only makes sense that you would recommend a specific therapeutic diet that you would have available at your clinic. There are several brands that responsibly and reliably manufacture therapeutic diets. Palatability may drive which diet the owner ends up buying again, and options are important. As long as the diet is designed for that disease state with credentialed expertise in development and appropriate testing, you’re good to go and the owner will appreciate being offered a choice.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.