Nutrition: The Fifth Vital Assessment?

Published: March 09, 2012
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When I was in veterinary school, students were taught to evaluate three vital signs in every patient: temperature, pulse and respiration rates (also known as a TPR). This was drilled into our heads over and over again. No patient, sick or apparently healthy, should walk out of the exam room without a TPR written in its chart. This is good advice and certainly goes a long way toward ensuring that we don’t overlook our pets’ potential health problems.

Soon after I left vet school, a fourth vital assessment was added to the list: pain. Many pets are good at masking pain. Owners may think that their dogs or cats are simply slowing down when in fact they are hurting. Veterinarians now have many safe and effective tools available to treat animal pain, so making this assessment can go a long way toward improving quality of life.

In 2010, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) published their Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. This is a great tool for helping veterinarians incorporate nutritional evaluations into the work-up of their patients. AAHA and their partners are now taking this to the next level, challenging veterinarians to make nutrition the fifth vital assessment with the website

According to, "90% of pet owners want a nutritional recommendation, but only 15% of pet owners perceive being given one." Feeding pets an appropriate amount of nutritionally balanced food made from quality ingredients is one of the best ways for owners to promote their health and longevity. If veterinarians start to consider information about nutrition to be just as vital as a patient’s TPR, we can do a better job at helping owners to make sure that their pets are getting what they need from their diets.

The benefits of nutritional assessments don’t stop there, however. As I recently talked about in the post Therapeutic Diets: When Food is Medicine, specialized diets are important tools in the management of many diseases. Unfortunately, pets are not being offered these therapeutic diets as often as they should. AAHA estimates that "only 7% of pets that could benefit from a therapeutic food are actually on one."

Putting information about a pet’s nutritional status on par with its other vital assessments will make pets healthier. Both the AAHA guidelines and are written primarily for veterinarians, but owners can also get a lot out of them. Take a look; familiarize yourself with the guidelines. If your vet doesn’t ask about your pet’s diet during your next visit, you will have the information you need to initiate the discussion yourself.

 Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: advent / via Shutterstock