Last week, I wrote about pet food. The post barely scratched the surface on how to talk to people about food choices for their pets.
I asked myself why this topic still frustrates me so much and why my colleagues and I lament how food is one of the hardest things to discuss with some clients.
Yet it is often one of the most important parts of a treatment plan for a sick pet. And vets often get pushback when we suggest a prescription diet or a limited-ingredient diet — or even a trial OTC diet — to help a pet with a gastrointestinal, allergic, auto-immune, neoplastic or metabolic illness.
The Healthy vs. the Sick Pet
Let’s dispense with “healthy” pets in a few short sentences and go on to the pets with serious dietary challenges.
A healthy pet will survive and can actually thrive on most pet foods out there. Think about the farm dog who ate “chow” for 16 years and did fine, or the diet of barn cats, for that matter. Can a better diet with high-quality ingredients and a company that takes great care in how they choose those ingredients and process them be better? Most certainly.
Is there 1 — and only 1 — diet out there that is the right choice for you and your pet? No. If you do some research on label reading, don’t get pulled in by misleading advertising or fall victim to food fads and watch how your pet does on the food you choose in terms of digestibility, palatability and stool consistency, you’re probably good.
What about the “sick” pet? A well-thought-out diet can help them immensely.
How I Learned From My Humans
I live with humans with critical food challenges. I compare my patients to the person I cook for and my elderly in-law. Following a careful diet for them is the difference between them feeling sick or feeling good. Their diets will help them maintain a good quality of life or hasten an earlier death.
That is not hyperbole. So I cringe when animal parents refuse to try a diet formulated for their pet’s specific illness and instead get pulled in by a pretty label or a celebrity endorsement.
Living with my human is like living with a German Shepherd suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, severe allergies, autoimmune disease, arthritis and throw in a touch of cancer. This person became ill when young, so we have been through the diet ringer for decades trying to manage his many problems. My German Shepherd-person is doing well. He can go on long walks, guard the property, enjoy his food and not wake up at night to go out to the bathroom.
With the help of umpteen specialists and clinical nutritionists, he must limit gluten and dairy (way before it was fashionable), be extremely careful about fiber and what types, follow FODMAP, limit spices and fat, get quality protein, and get extra vitamins and minerals but limit fresh fruits, uncooked vegetables and most salads. Oy. If his doctors could formulate a diet for him in a can or a pouch that kept him healthy and out of pain, he would eat it.
My elderly relative is like an 18-year-old, 4-pound cat in kidney failure with brittle bones. She suffers from multiple myeloma, which affects her bones and kidneys. Trying to limit protein but nourish a 98-pound person who is still quite active is a challenge. But nutritionists have saved her kidneys from deteriorating even further and kept her bones as strong as possible for a decade because of a diet she follows religiously.
When I turn to my 4-pound feline patients or my diarrhea-ridden and allergic canines and see that their people are not taking diet seriously as a part of a treatment plan, I get very demoralized indeed. Worse, some of these people think they can make complicated dietary decisions by reading a label in the pet food aisle. If they want to be proactive and take a DIY approach, they should call these food companies, explicitly describe their pet’s medical condition(s) and ask for dietary advice from a qualified veterinary nutritionist.
Did you know that ingredients like corn, grains and chicken meal are not always villains? Or that “real meat” and “natural” may not help your sick pet at all? Certain grain-free diets are so high in fat they are unhealthy. Beef, lamb, rice or chicken are just as or more likely to cause allergies as “demon” ingredients like corn, wheat or soy.
Some ingredients that are labeled “bad” by the pet food industry may actually be important in a specialized diet. Trying to limit protein while still supplying the necessary amount; fulfilling energy requirements while formulating low-fat diets; limiting phosphorous but keeping minerals balanced; supplying high fiber, low fiber or a mixture — a great amount of research goes into balancing these special foods.
Diets Are Not Cash Cows for Vets
Vets like me don’t make significant money on prescribing veterinary diets. The food is expensive right from the companies; there is minimal markup. Ordering and stocking the food is a pain in the neck. None of us went to vet school to be merchandisers.
I encourage people to order these prescription diets online from reputable distributors if that’s easier for them. We recommend these diets because they can be the key to controlling many diseases and syndromes, not to improve our bottom line.
Stick With What Works
If a prescription diet is helping a sick pet, keep it up. Although you may think it is expensive, doing so will save you veterinary bills in the future and support your pet’s illness. If you are on a good store-bought diet and your pet is thriving, don’t change because of advertising pressure.