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

Why You Should Not Take Nutritional Advice from a Pet Store

October 10, 2014 / (6) comments

I just had a disturbing conversation with a neighbor about his dog Maggie. Maggie is an elderly black lab who is doing surprisingly well despite suffering from diabetes mellitus, lumbosacral stenosis (causing extreme hind end weakness), protein-losing nephropathy (a disorder that causes her to spill protein into her urine), and allergies. She also recently recovered from a nasty bout of diarrhea, which her veterinarian suspects was a result of some changes she made in Maggie’s medication protocol.


My neighbor often asks for my opinion about his animals’ health, so I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary when he stopped me as I walked past his house… until he related the following story.


Maggie’s itching had recently worsened. She has never had a full work up for her chronic, intermittent itching, but all signs point to it being a seasonal allergy to something in her environment (e.g., pollen). Each summer her scratching intensifies, improves with standard, symptomatic treatment for allergies, and then fades when the cold weather returns. John told me that her itching in combination with the recent diarrhea is what sent him to the pet supply store for advice. I didn’t have the nerve to ask why he didn’t first reach out to his veterinarian.


Upon his arrival at the pet store, he was approached by a “very helpful” (his words, not mine) sales associate. John described his concerns at which point the sales associate told him that Maggie had a food allergy and should be eating a “limited ingredient” dog food. John bought the food and started feeding it to Maggie that night.


Thankfully, Maggie had a regular monitoring appointment scheduled later in the week. Her veterinarian checked her blood sugar level, which turned out to be dangerously high despite the fact that her diabetic control had been excellent in the past. When I replied that I wasn’t surprised Maggie’s insulin needs were very different after starting a new diet, John looked completely shocked. I proceeded to describe what a delicate balancing act diabetes management is and how a change in virtually anything (diet, exercise, insulin dose or type, health status, etc.) can upset the apple cart. Maggie’s doctor had quickly figured out what was going on and encouraged John to put Maggie back on her previous diet. It took a little while, but the old girl (the dog, not the vet) is now back to what constitutes normal for her.


Maggie’s story has a happy ending, but if it didn’t, there would have been plenty of blame to go around. Her veterinarian didn’t do a good enough job educating John on the intricacies of diabetic management. John should never have listened to the advice of someone with little training in canine nutrition. The pet store employee’s misdiagnosis of a food allergy and misunderstanding of her case almost cost a beautiful dog her life.


If you are responsible for feeding a dog with diabetes, or any disease for which dietary management plays a crucial role, please talk to your veterinarian before changing foods. Pet owners often complain that vets only recommend diets so they can make money off of selling them. If this is true, you shouldn’t seek dietary advice from a business that makes a much bigger percentage of its profits off pet food sales, you should look for a new vet.


Dr. Jennifer Coates


Image: Blend Images / Shutterstock

Comments  6

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  • Make new vet holistic
    10/10/2014 12:45pm

    You write: "Pet owners often complain that vets only recommend diets so they can make money off of selling them. If this is true, you shouldn’t seek dietary advice from a business that makes a much bigger percentage of its profits off pet food sales, you should look for a new vet." --- Well, that's a big "Duh!" But if nutrition is the question, that "new vet" should be an holistic one, because most conventional vets no nothing about nutrition that has not been drilled into them by vet school programs funded by the same pet food manufacturers that educate the pet store employees.

  • 10/10/2014 03:30pm

    I have to agree with your comment. When my dog was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the first thing that I asked her specialist - a vet with many years of training past vet school, was whether or not changing her diet would help her. He said to me and I quote "no, changing her diet really won't do anything for her." Fortunately, I changed it anyway and it helped live almost two years after her initial diagnosis, along with additional treatment. If your vet ever tells you that diet doesn't play a part in a dog's well-being, run the other way! As humans we benefit from a good diet, so why wouldn't dogs??? That way of thinking makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  • 10/11/2014 01:11am

    No doubt the vet clinic makes money off the food that I buy there. So does the grocery store where I buy food for myself, and where I would buy the ingredients for a raw, or any home prepared food for my dog, if I prepared his food myself.
    Someone is making money from everything that I eat.
    My dog is on a prescription diet. Maybe a specially prepared home made meal would work too. I don't know and do not want to rock the boat to find out. He is doing amazing on the scrip diet. No one believes me when I tell them he is 12. Most people guess 9 or 10. A big difference for a 60 lb dog.
    I trust his vet, and my dog's health is more important to me than the vet's profit margin on the food.
    I look at the incremental cost difference between his current and former food. It's not much.
    Why not let the vet clinic make a profit as well as the pet store and grocery store?
    (I have no connection whatsoever to the veterinary industry other than I am a pet owner.)

  • 10/12/2014 11:33pm

    I think you're being a little harsh implying vets have 'no' nutritional knowledge. Little knowledge is more accurate.

    But you have to give a little mercy to the vet student: They have a lot on their plates during their training, their primary nutrition textbook (Hand, et. al 2010) is pretty antiquated in it's denial of any forward movement in the science of dog nutrition, and they are beaten with the commercial brand flags all through their education.

    Not so sure holistic is the way to go either. A dog fed correctly, to his or her individual needs, should not require the trunk of supplements pushed and sold by holistic vets.

    The foods pushed by traditional vets vs. the supplements pushed by holistic vets, at least in my opinion, cancel each other out in the long run.

    I think the focus of this article, back to the "only your vet can talk to you about nutrition" is the problem.

    Can the writer (of the article) really blame the pet store employee for doing his or her job? It appears the discussion between dog owner and pet store employee was about itchy skin - I saw nothing about the dog's owner mentioning diabetes or other health problems. In the instance of 'diagnosing' itchy skin, the journals are filled with studies showing food insensitivies and other health problems connected to feeding a single food, forever. We're not talking Susie's Personal Web Site here, we're talking vet and other peer reviewed research. Changing foods is usually the logical course of action, even when acting under a veterinarian's direction.

    I think rather than making the subject of this article another notch in the "It's impossible for anyone outside the veterinary or pet food industry fields to possibly know (or have the capacity to learn) about dog nutrition, it should have been directed at the dangers of trying to take shortcuts in the treatment of serious medical conditions. That the dog's owner went to a pet store (cheaper) than his vet for food was clearly a move on his part to find a cheaper alternative to a portion of his dog's treatment.

    Don't blame a pet store employee because the dog's owner wanted to save some money!

  • Advice
    10/10/2014 09:10pm

    When it comes to our pets, it's my belief that the first place to go is the veterinarian. If you feel uncomfortable with the information, get a second opinion.

    And when it comes to nutrition, find a veterinary nutritionist.

    Luckily, my regular vet takes a great interest in nutrition and has always provided sound advice from which my kitties have benefitted greatly.

  • This is important!
    09/01/2015 04:23am

    Bravo! I am very concerned about pet owners getting nutritional advice from pet store owners and employees, and other hocus pocus new age practitioners without any degree or license to practice veterinary medicine or technology.

    Veterinarians vary in their knowledge of nutrition. I have found that nutrition and behavior are two subjects usually neglected in veterinary school, but that doesn't change the fact that veterinarians are the only ones licensed to diagnose and prescribe treatment for animals, and this includes nutrition. They have the educational background to understand the physiology, pathophysiology, and more to know what an individual animal's dietary needs should be.

    I am an RN and have taken courses in human nutrition in my nursing program, and a course in pet nutrition at an accredited U.S. university. I am a certified professional dog trainer, and I wouldn't dream of prescribing dietary changes to my clients. What I do with certain cases, such as aggression is share what I know the literature says, and suggest that my client consult his or her veterinarian for specific recommendations for his/her pet.

    If the veterinarian doesn't know, at least s/he has the educational preparation to understand and know how to apply what s/he learns in her/his research.