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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Beware the Nutrition 'Specialist'

July 12, 2013 / (6) comments

Did you know that just about anyone can receive a certificate in feline (or canine, or equine) nutrition with just 100 hours of online training? I ran across this program recently and was shocked. 100 hours might seem like a lot until you do some math. At 8 hours a day, that’s just about 2 weeks of school. Two weeks and you’re an expert in feline nutrition … really?

My daughter recently asked me what grade I graduated from when I was done with school. After doing a little math (12 plus 4 years of college plus 4 years of veterinary school) I was able to tell her that I was a graduate of grade 20. I don’t even want to think how many weeks that covers, and sometimes I feel like I’ve just barely got a handle on how best to feed cats.

If you want real feline nutritional expertise, talk to a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). These folks did a whole lot more than take an online course of dubious distinction. As the ACVN website states:

Veterinary nutritionists are Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). They are veterinarians who are board certified specialists in veterinary nutrition. Training involves intensive clinical, teaching, and research activities spanning at least two years. Trainees also are required to pass a written examination in order to obtain board certification.

Veterinary nutritionists are specialists that are uniquely trained in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with one or more diseases. Nutrition is critically important to maintain optimal health and ensure optimal performance, as well as to manage the symptoms and progression of specific diseases. Veterinary nutritionists are qualified to formulate commercial foods and supplements, formulate home-prepared diets, manage the complex medical and nutritional needs of individual animals, and understand the underlying causes and implications of specific nutritional strategies that are used to prevent and treat diseases.

The residency training program in veterinary nutrition is extensive. After achieving a degree in veterinary medicine and completing at least 1 year of internship or clinical experience, residency training includes at least 2 years of study, with a focus on both basic and clinical nutrition as well as research and teaching. Trainees study under the mentorship of at least one boarded veterinary nutritionist and often with contact with many others over the course of the program. Some programs also require graduate level coursework and rotation with other specialists (such as Internal Medicine, Critical Care, and Clinical Pathology). Trainees must prepare and write up three case reports to qualify to take the board exam. The two day written examination is offered annually and covers a wide range of nutritional and medical knowledge.

Your primary care veterinarian is an excellent source of information about the fundamentals of feline nutrition, but when things get complicated, who are you going to turn to — a board certified veterinary nutritionist or someone who has far less training than the person who cuts your hair?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  6

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  • Certificate
    07/12/2013 10:38pm

    Getting a certificate in many things can usually be found online and take little effort to receive it.

    I've heard that you can hang a shingle as a "counselor" as long as you don't claim to be a psychologist with a doctorate.

    Getting board-certified in anything veterinary seems to be pretty daunting. First you have to graduate vet school which is pretty daunting in itself.

    Some years ago when I was taking a kitty to the veterinary ophthalmologist about once a month, the doctor opined that there just weren't many board-certified ophthalmologists. He had eye clinics all over the country and flew from place to place. The last time I was there, he had a couple of ophthalmologists-in-training so he was helping to train a new generation of eye specialists.

    When I look for a specialist, I look to see if they are board-certified. (Years ago I got burned because I took a kitty to a "specialist". The vet claimed to be a specialist, but it was just because he was deeply interested in the subject matter and his practice focused on a particular problem.)

  • Nutritionist Post
    06/23/2014 09:33pm

    I would think that you would have checked deeper into the information being offered on this so-called 100-hour nutritionist course before discrediting it. Someone who takes the time to study information on cat nutrition is, in my opinion, a person who wants to gain understanding and knowledge. This is far superior to the typical pet owner who merely receives advice about food from PetCo employees or some other pet owner who says, "Purina is great because my cat seems to love it." Before blasting away at people of good will (I suspect those who have interest in having healthy pets fit this category), you might want to compare what these "specialists" learn with what is taught at ACVN. You don't know...it may be the same basic information that is taught at ACVN! Maybe the online business or school is run by a graduate of ACVN. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in just 100 hours, we could learn the latest on pet nutrition and help keep our kids healthy. Dr. Coates, your professional ego seems to be trumping any honest research prior to your posting on this subject. Sorry, but that's the way it looks to this subscriber. How about checking into these online classes further and letting us know your findings. I would be very interested in what you come up with. Thank you.

  • 06/23/2014 10:04pm

    So you know, I'm a retired reading teacher. Since I love dogs and cats, I took a weekend job with a pet food company, promoting their products in PetCos and PetSmarts. I get asked all the time about nutrition. Since my knowledge is not vast, I was considering taking an online class to enhance my understanding of pet nutrition. Thus, I would be honestly interested in what you can say...after giving due diligence to the subject. Thank you.

  • Valid Question For You
    10/07/2014 04:39am

    How come... the only ones qualified to study small animal nutrition are vets or vet techs? It isn't required that human nutritionists be MD's or previously in the medical field, why should small animals be different?

    I am a twice bachelor graduate. The first time around it was pre-vet, but I didn't have the GPA (only had a 3.75) to get into Cornell, my home state school. Second time around, I took applied biological sciences, with an emphasis on large animal nutrition. But I am not an "appropriate individual" for a career path education specializing in small animal nutrition.

    According to the ACVN, the only ones qualified to study small animal nutrition are a) vets (I get it) and b) vet techs.

    To get into vet tech school, all a student needs is a GED. A GED and 18 months of tech school training qualifies the individual to study and receive a 'valid' small animal nutrition certification.

    But an individual with the same undergraduate experience of a vet, one who graduates with honors, who then graduates again in a related field (large animal nutrition) with even higher honors, is simply not qualified to get 'valid' training from the ACVN.

    I don't think I'm the only one who believes it would be easier to get into the Illuminati than to get training from the ACVN and I don't understand why. Perhaps you can explain it?

    While I agree that there are some programs out there that are scary dangerous, there are others that are quite good. Indeed, 2 actually spend more 'class time' on nutrition than the 14 vet schools I have spied on so far, and they use the exact same text books as are used in the vet schools.

    It may be time, rather than to blanket slam all non ACVN programs, to get involved and make better ones available to the general public.

    I leave you with this: Hand et al. 5th ed. (the most prominent text book on small animal nutrition used in the 14 vet schools I have stalked so far) at page 229 states: "high-income individuals were less knowledgeable about food hygiene, and performed higher risk, cross-contamination practices more often..." Taken in context with the entire discussion of human grade foods (in the text), this says to me that I should never accept an invitation to my vet's home for dinner. If a vet, by his or her own "bible's" definition is barely able to feed his or her self safely, why then are they the only ones worthy of an education which can lead to a career in small animal nutrition?

    Valid question, don't you think?

  • I must disagree
    01/25/2016 08:03am

    The other commentors are spot on. Before completely discrediting someone who has taken 100 hours (That IS a long time, whether you like to admit it or not) to study up on nutrition may have something to add when it comes to pet health.
    Yes, veterinarians spend years in college - and they are fantastically brilliant at diagnoses, prescribing medication, performing tests and physical check ups, and even surgery. However, many vets have been operating off of old information (80's and prior) and these traditional vets did not get even 100 hours in nutrition education. I have asked a few local vets and vet techs and many have admitted to their nutrition course being mainly how to prescribe science diet.
    Furthermore, anyone who is willing and determined to spend several hours a week learning what is best to feed their pet clearly has the same goal as yourself, posting on this pet blog - to better the lives of animals and do it while operating on correct information.
    Granted, yes, there are certainly more in-depth ways to learn, and much longer courses by much more accredited organizations and I get that. I totally do.
    The fallacy here however is your argument from authority. The title veterinarian does not = knowing everything about dog and cat nutrition. And the ACVN focuses on a wide spectrum of nutrition, mainly from texts published in the early 90's, 80's and many of the reading material they require you to study before applying is so out of date the books are no longer in print. That's not to say the information is invalid, but it's not up to date and it's certainly not necessary to spend four years learning about the nutrition of swine, dairy cattle, sheep, goats, and basically any other livestock you can think of to be an expert in canine and feline nutrition!
    To make the claim that the ACVN, as you've done here, is the be-all, end-all pet nutritionist learning path and nothing else will suffice, you need to prove it - and it will take more than a paragraph explaining the hoops one must jump through to complete their degree.
    All one needs to feed their dog and/or cat a truly healthy food is to take an interest in their health, and learn about the pet food industry, it's history, the actual role that the AAFCO and the FDA play regarding their pet's food, and some internal biology of their pets. Knowing the basics can go a long way, and it doesn't hurt to spread that knowledge along to help loving, well intentioned pet owners make even small changes for the better.
    It may be hard to give up the driver's seat - it's tempting, for some, to limit other's credibility for the primary purpose of becoming the master guru, but the fact is you cannot reach everyone by yourself. Backing up the nutritionists who are getting it right in trying to learn and empower others with that knowledge, instead of blanket discrediting them in one sweeping motion and doing the exact opposite, is much more beneficial to pets as a whole.

  • Wait just a minute, here
    06/30/2016 12:48am

    I realize this is an old post, but I signed up with PetMD just to respond to it.

    You make me angry, Dr. Coates. The implications here are (1) that no one who doesn't possess a veterinary degree is capable of possibly grasping the fundamentals of feline nutrition, and (2) that anyone with this certification is bound to proclaim himself an expert and use his dangerously-amateur non-veterinary background to replace his vet (or perhaps even con others into doing so). The first is so ridiculously false I can't even, and the second is possibly the slipperiest slope I've ever seen.

    Let me tell you a story, Dr. Coates. When I was younger, I had a cat who began drinking excessively. Just how excessively I hadn't realized until I went to scoop out his litter box and found a *pool* of urine. Panicked, I called the vet who tested his glucose, among other things; I'm sure it surprises no one that his diagnosis was diabetes. I won't get into specifics because I can tell this comment is already going to be too long, but the vet gave me some insulin, some boilerplate advice, and a suggestion for a new cat food.

    As someone with some (human) medical knowledge of my own, I began researching feline diabetes and discovered not only that the treatment plan I was given was designed for the sort of pet owner who prioritizes "easy" over "optimal", but that the cat food suggestion wasn't particularly well-suited to a diabetic cat. I was surprised by this and kept researching both diabetes specifically and feline nutrition in general, only to see more and more people disagreeing with my vet. There was such a large disconnect that I ended up getting a second opinion from a different vet with solid credentials (though not board certified in nutrition, to my knowledge) and — surprise — the conclusions drawn by my amateur research were confirmed. It was still very frightening to disregard much of my own vet's advice — I had trusted her, and my cat was my best friend; his well-being was my highest priority — but I did. Do you know what happened? In two and a half months of micromanaging his diet and sugar, he lost his dependence on exogenous insulin. It wasn't just a honeymoon, either. He lived another four years after that without ever needing another insulin shot — and you can believe I tested him regularly — all because I, without ever taking a single accredited course in veterinary medicine, made the effort to expand my knowledge. (And before you say it: yes, I realize that this was an unusual outcome, even for someone who does everything right. But still.)

    There are two morals to this story. First is that as a vet, you should never discourage people from learning how to better care for their animals and prevent the sorts of conditions a bad diet can induce. The second is that vets can themselves slide down the very slippery slope you're so afraid of...except it's all the scarier because the "DVM" following their names is often enough to stop owners from questioning them. They're the experts, after all.

    Vets are not infallible, Dr. Coates, and lay people are not automatically stupid.

    I now know quite a bit more than the average cat owner about both metabolic disorders and nutrition, and you'd better believe I share what I've learned with other cat owners. I don't want anyone to have to go through the guilt I felt knowing that my own lack of knowledge (and blind trust in the fact that any cat food on the market must be designed for optimal nutrition) was squarely to blame for my cat's getting sick. And you know what? Never have I suggested to anyone that my hard-won knowledge is a substitute for veterinary care; the very idea of doing so actually turns my stomach. What I suggest instead is that people use my experience and self-taught knowledge as a wake-up call to take the initiative to learn enough to know when to argue and ask questions.

    I honestly don't think you were trying to suggest anything more than fear that someone would take this course and think he knew all there was to know. But frankly, I don't think you give pet owners enough credit. I'm operating under the assumption that the material being taught is actually correct, but I'd think that for every person to see this as a way to stop going to the vet or earn some fast cash as a dietary consultant, you'd find 999 better and smarter pet owners with healthier cats. You're forgetting that the average pet owner isn't going to go to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for assistance in selecting exactly the perfect cat food. They're going to pick what's most convenient, or has the snazziest commercial, or maybe what their friend or neighbor or pet store employee feeds his cats, or [*shudder*] the food that's cheapest. That, to me, is the more serious threat.

    There's a lot of room between "blithering idiot" and "graduate degree." Maybe next time you should rail against the *content* of a course, assuming it deserves it, instead of chiding people who want to learn for not learning enough.