Why You Should Not Take Nutritional Advice from a Pet Store

October 10, 2014
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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