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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 Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Therapeutic Dog Food: Is Your Sick Dog Getting the Right Kind of Food?

September 27, 2013 / (1) comments

I recently ran across a couple of troubling statistics that relate to pet nutrition. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, only seven percent of pets that could benefit from a therapeutic food are actually fed one. Therapeutic diets include foods that are designed to aid in the management of specific diseases including obesity, urinary stones, osteoarthritis, kidney, liver, and heart disease, etc.

Also, the Pet Nutrition Alliance reports that 90 percent of pet owners want a nutritional recommendation from their veterinarian, but only 15 percent feel like they’ve been given one.

I don’t have a good explanation for the first of these findings. I’m sure I’ve missed making appropriate nutritional recommendations for some of my sick patients, but not 93 percent of them. The second statistic, though more extreme than I’d expect, makes more sense, and I think owners and veterinarians have to share the blame. Let me explain.

I have found that when pet owners say they want guidance as to what food to feed, they want a very specific recommendation. For example, Mrs. Smith wants to hear, “Variety X of Brand Y dog food is the best food you can give Rover.” There are at least two problems with recommendations like these.

First of all, there is no one “best” food out there. Dogs are just like people in that individuals respond in their own ways to different diets. Some dogs will thrive no matter what they eat (within reason, of course). For others, it takes some legwork and trial and error to find a food that works well, and even then, there’s probably more than one that will fit the bill. So while a veterinarian may have confidence that Brand Y is a good dog food, he or she really can’t look you in the eye and say it is the best or even one of the best for your dog.

The second problem relates to the owner perception that has gained traction of late that veterinarians are in the pocket of the pet food industry. This has made some doctors gun shy when it comes making brand-specific recommendations lest we lose credibility in the eyes of our clients. We resort instead to generalities like “feed a high quality food” or “low fat diets are best for dogs that need to lose weight.” Unfortunately, many owners don’t know what to do with vague recommendations like these.

I make my way through this minefield by offering clients several suggestions that I feel comfortable with and allowing them to make the final decision. For example, I might say to an owner, “Rover could benefit from a diet with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Company X and Company Y both make excellent foods called Abracadabra and Magic Morsels that would be appropriate for Rover, or if you’re happy with his current diet you could add the contents of two fish oil capsules to his morning and evening meals.”

Owners can help the situation by raising the topic of nutrition during appointments. During a wellness exam ask your veterinarian, “This is what Rover is currently eating; what do you think?” After a new diagnosis, ask, “Does this affect what Rover should be eating? Are there a couple of foods you’d recommend?” As long as the conversation occurs, it doesn’t really matter who brought the subject matter up.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  1

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  • Food Glorious Food!
    09/27/2013 10:04pm

    "According to the American Animal Hospital Association, only seven percent of pets that could benefit from a therapeutic food are actually fed one".

    I find this statistic very troubling, but I completely understand your hesitation to suggest a specific brand/type of food. (How many comments have we all seen on PetMD about vets being in the pocket of the pet food companies?)

    I also find it troubling that people fuss about the price of prescription diets or a quality food when they drive a Lexus and have unlimited texting on their iPhone.

    I appreciate that my vet has suggested specific foods - and if that doesn't work we try suggestion #2.

    I confess that I was hoping this post might address using prescription food such as Hill's A/D (or one of the comparable diets from other companies) on a long-term basis. It's very palatable and the critters seem to really like it. However, it's my understanding that it's not a good option for a long-term diet.