Your questions about veterinary nutritionists answered by an expert - Dr. Marty Becker

Your questions about veterinary nutritionists answered by an expert

Tuesday, Nov 22nd, 2016 | By Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have questions about veterinary nutritionists?

Since I’ve been doing some work with Purina, I’ve heard from many of you with questions about the role of veterinary nutritionists both at that company and in pet food manufacturing in general.

I decided to go right to the source, and spoke with Dr. Kurt Venator, a veterinarian and PhD, who serves as Director of Veterinary Strategy and Programs at Purina. I asked him the questions you have asked me, and also a few of my own.

1. In my years as a veterinarian, author, and on television, one of the things I hear a lot from pet owners is, “Veterinarians don’t study nutrition in veterinary school.” Could you explain what kind of training is provided to veterinary students in dog and cat nutrition?

It’s misinformation that veterinary students aren’t trained in nutrition. As with any medical discipline, from cardiology to pathology and more, the amount of nutritional education you receive can vary depending on the individual student’s interests and the offerings of the particular university.

Some veterinary schools have a boarded nutritionist on staff. In fact, some have a heavy focus on nutrition, such as UC Davis or Tufts, where they have multiple boarded nutritionists on staff at all times.

Some students go to universities that don’t have boarded nutritionists, but that doesn’t mean the students aren’t instructed in the subject. Some bring in nutritionists from other schools, while others provide training through specialties like internal medicine or cardiology, where you’re taught to use nutritional therapies to manage patients. There will be a minimum number of hours dedicated to the study of general nutrition, and at some schools there are electives where you can follow a deeper study of the subject, both on the clinic floor and in the classroom.

2. What is the process by which a veterinary nutritionist becomes a boarded specialist?

To become boarded by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) requires you have your DVM from an accredited veterinary school, then an additional year of training in an internship or clinical practice, now putting you at five years.

Next comes at least another two years of designated training in nutrition under the mentorship of a boarded ACVN member. You may also have teaching and research responsibilities. Some programs ask for additional course work, and some students get a masters or PhD as well, all of which can take another two years or more.

That’s not the end, however. Often, you have to do original research, in either a laboratory of clinical setting. In addition, you need to prepare three separate case reports outlining the effective nutritional management of patients. Once those are accepted, only then can you sit for your boards, which is a two-day written exam. If you pass, then and only then, are you a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

3. Why do so many boarded nutritionists go to work for pet food manufacturers?

Currently, we’re up to 100 boarded nutritionists, many of whom are in academia. But you’ll find a fair number at pet food companies, too.

I can easily understand why pet food companies want to hire boarded nutritionists. Boarded nutritionists have the highest level of training and knowledge in veterinary nutrition, so if you’re a forward-thinking company, you want those folks on staff.

I also understand why so many veterinarians work for pet food companies. I still do relief work about twice a month; it’s my passion, and I love working with dogs and cats in the exam room. But I love working for Purina because I think we have a profound impact on millions of cats and dogs, more than I could ever see in a private practice. I think many others feel that way as well.

4. What role do veterinary nutritionists play at Purina, in terms of dog and cat food?

Nutritionists at our company wear many hats – formulation, research, how functional nutrients influence the bodies of cats and dogs, quality control, safety – when you think of all the aspects, and the years of research, required to put together an efficacious pet food, it’s clear boarded nutritionists play a pivotal role in all the different aspects of making high quality foods.

5. What if any role do veterinary nutritionists play specifically in food safety and quality assurance at Purina?

Everyone at Purina works diligently, because safety and quality are our top priorities. We’re doing things like feeding trials and we meet or exceed all USDA, AAFCO, and FDA standards. Boarded nutritionists work hand in hand with our other 500 experts and scientists, in the United States and globally, to ensure we meet – and in many cases exceed – the most stringent standards. We perform over 30,000 quality checks in a 24 hour production period. That gives you a snapshot into the rigor that goes into this.

I work with other veterinarians to evaluate efficacy of the diets and bring nutritional innovations to life. For example, it used to be the belief that “protein is bad for older dogs.” One of our Board certified veterinary nutritionists and a PhD molecular geneticist, in original research conducted by Purina, found out that older dogs and cats in fact require more, not less, protein, in order to maintain lean muscle mass as they age. This was original research that not only influenced our products for older dogs and cats, but once we published, other companies and researchers utilized its findings to make sure they were on the cutting edge as well.

Applied nutrition, palatability testing, formulation, publication of science – there are vets involved throughout that process and playing a role in putting together the systems we have in place for testing and safety.

6. In terms of dog and cat nutrition, what do pet owners worry too much about?

Honestly, the biggest bucket is pet owners are relying on myths, misperceptions, and misinformation put out by non-credible resources. The power of the Internet is access to lots of wonderful information, but as pet owners, we need to be sure that information is coming from a reliable, credible, trained resource. A lot of pet owners jump online and search, and what comes up is often scientifically incorrect, not evidence-based.

As a scientist you want to understand cause and effect, and ensure opinions and recommendations are based on science and peer-reviewed research. Pet owners love their pets, and I love the passion and the energy people have, but we want to make sure when they’re sharing information it’s grounded in fact, science, and evidence. Otherwise you may be steering people in the wrong direction, and making choices not based on fact or accurate information.

7. What do they worry too little about?

I think if you look at the incidence of obesity in our pets, it’s the most common disease we see in clinical practice. I think pet owners don’t worry enough about it.

Also, I’m not sure pet owners recognize the importance of looking at the company and the people who are actually producing the pet food to make sure they have the appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure safe, efficacious food. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has two great downloadable articles: The Savvy Cat Owner’s Guide to Nutrition on the Internet and the Savvy Dog Owner’s Guide to Nutrition on the Internet. These documents were written by global veterinary nutritionists and are not branded. They tell pet owners they should be able to call a company and ask questions and get answers. Questions like, who makes your food, where do you make your food, do you have boarded veterinary nutritionists, do you formulate based on nutritional profiles in a spreadsheet or have you actually fed the food to dogs and cats?

8. In addition to the research about protein levels in senior dogs, what nutritional research has Purina been involved in?

We invest a lot into innovation. We launched Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind 7+ dog food, which uses medium chain triglycerides. That’s based on what we published in the British Journal of Nutrition, and it’s a game changer. When people call you and say my Lab is now acting young again, going on walks, fetching again – that changes the lives of not only the dogs but the family.

We’ve also conducted a seminal study on lean body condition, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which found that reducing the amount of food you feed your dogs and keeping them lean can add years to their lives. That study took place over 14 years – a significant investment in time and resources – ultimately revealing that pet owners should feed less food, not more. After that, we made sure all the feeding recommendations on our bags reflected this new research, and changed our ideal body condition charts. It wasn’t about selling food, but furthering knowledge of pet nutrition to help all pets live long and healthy lives, whether they eat Purina or not.

9. There’s a lot of talk on the Internet about Purina’s Beneful food, and there’s been a lawsuit filed about it. Can you discuss changes recently made to the line, as well as the issues of its safety?

I answer a lot of questions about Beneful. There are no safety or quality issues with Beneful. This food is fed to millions of healthy dogs, in over 14 million homes. At Purina, we perform 30,000 safety checks in a 24 hour production period. Beneful is a safe, high quality food made in Purina-owned and operated facilities across the United States. At each facility, we have on-site quality assurance labs and staff to monitor our comprehensive food safety program and ensure quality and safety.

Anyone can file a lawsuit about pretty much anything in this country, but the one brought against Beneful is based on rumor, not fact.

Some people have suggested this drove the recent reformulation of our Beneful dry dog food line, but that has been in the works for more than two years. The reformulation was implemented because we heard from pet owners they wanted to see ingredients in the food that were more familiar to them. Having heard them over time and wanting to exceed their expectations, we decided to make these changes:

  • Meat is now the number one ingredient in all but Beneful’s salmon formula
  • There are no added sugars
  • We removed propylene glycol and replaced it with natural, U.S. sourced glycerin

Let me explain why we take owner preferences so seriously. I want to start with a story about my grandmother…

My grandmother grew up in the Depression. She loved her cats, but she was never going to spend $30 on a bag of cat food. Contrast that with my wife, who will spend any sum of money on our pups.

Many pet lovers can’t afford $70 for a bag of food, and should have a variety of choices of quality, nutritious pet foods that are affordable for them. We also need to consider pet owner shopping preferences. Many pet parents lead busy lives and want to buy food at grocery stores when buying their human family’s food. Other pet owners want to shop for their dogs and cats at a pet specialty store.

Preference also comes into play with what pet owners want to see in the food. Some have strong preferences on protein sources; some want lamb, some want salmon. Other pet owners have preferences on the type of food: some want wet, while others want dry. We also need to consider preferences, on the part of both the owner and pet, around texture or flavors. As long as the preferences aren’t contrary to good science, you can change the ingredients to meet the needs and desires of the pet and pet owner.

10. Yes, I always tell my colleagues, “It doesn’t matter how good a food is if the pet won’t eat it or the owner won’t buy it.”

Absolutely. In the exam room, I talk about five things:

  1. The food has to be complete and balanced.
  2. The food should be appropriate for the pet’s life stage.
  3. It needs to be appropriate for the pet’s lifestyle. I have three Labs, one is a couch potato, one is very active and never met a puddle he wouldn’t splash in or a ball he wouldn’t chase. Their nutritional requirements are different.

If you cover those three basics and feed appropriately – remember, lean pets lead a longer life! – then we come to the final two points:

  1. Consider the pet’s special needs and any health issues.
  2. Consider the owner’s and pet’s preferences.

Everything should be backed by science, and then we have the opportunity to address the preferences of the owner and the pet.