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Nutrition: is it on the table?

It is never too late to bring nutrition to life in your practice and “put it back on the menu”!

15 April 2021, at 9:00am

I am certain that as a profession, we all act in the best interests of our patients every time. I have no doubt that we can all be confident that we have, more often than not, applied or recommended the best treatment options or performed to the best of our ability in the consult room or operating theatre, every time.

Does that apply when it comes to nutrition?

When I first entered the dark side of veterinary industry, having practised what I thought was a good standard of general veterinary medicine in all species for thirteen years, a colleague advised me “if you want to push boundaries, shake the tree and get a reaction – don’t ask permission first, just do it and seek forgiveness later”. That request will be at the end of this article.

Sometimes, the obvious needs to be stated. All the pets we care for probably eat every day. The humans that are fortunate to have those pets in their lives usually take enjoyment from selecting what they choose to feed their pets and watching their pets finish each meal. It is in some ways, a sense of enjoyment and relief. It is a sign that the pet is well. It is an important part of the pet-family bond.

Dare I ask – are we part of that bond?

Those people, our clients, want to feed what is best for their pet in the very same way that for those of us that have children, want to feed what is best for our children. Those clients may have biases or experience when it comes to selecting a pet food and that could be influenced by what they remember feeding their childhood pets, what their friends feed or what they have read or been told by an “expert”. The problem we face, in many situations each day, is that we simply do not know what their biases or past experiences are, usually because we do not have time to ask. People, on the other hand, love to talk about nutrition. They have time to watch television shows on cooking, read restaurant reviews, follow the recipes of their favourite celebrity or Michelin star chef and tell their friends all about what they prepared or ate that week. If I knew how to operate my smartphone to its full potential, I probably have a picture of every meal eaten throughout the year of people I barely know.

Do you know what food is eaten by every patient under your care?

I bet you know how much they weigh and when they are due for vaccination and anti-parasitic treatment. Unless we have prescribed a specific diet for a therapeutic reason or unless the client is purchasing their pet food from our clinic, it is highly likely that we probably do not know what they are feeding their pets. In addition to this, it is equally likely that we do not know where they purchase their pet food from and what their reasons might be. If we assume that the research studies on this topic are representative and that it is indeed true that less than 5 percent of our clients actually purchase their pet food from their veterinary clinic, then if we truly want to improve the lives of the patients under our care through the power of nutrition, we need to ask those important questions:

  • What do you currently feed your pet?
  • Where do you purchase the pet food from?
  • What are your reasons for choosing this food and where you purchase it?

We may be surprised by the answers we get. Here are some of the more common reasons but this list is by no means exhaustive:

“My vet told me to feed a good quality, complete and balanced diet from a reputable manufacturer”

Virtually every brand on the shelf is now marketed as “complete and balanced”, tells us all the perceived “bad things” that it does not contain and claims to be “natural” or “holistic” and containing ingredients or benefits that have not yet been clinically proven in dogs or cats. Some of these brands have the finances to advertise on television and are marketed very well – so we should not be surprised with what our clients choose when we give them a broad recommendation.

“My vet did recommend a special diet, but it seemed expensive and was one of many options offered that day”

I now take time to explain that the pet must eat something each day and there will always be a “base cost” even if the cheapest food is fed. The additional cost of a well-researched and clinically efficacious diet with specific health benefits may not always cost the client as much each day as he or she thinks. In some cases, nutrition may be the best option to recommend first and ensure that this is explained clearly and effectively.

“I think the vet was just recommending the diet that they sold, they don’t have much space, so their range is limited, and they certainly charge a premium”

There are probably over 500 brands of pet food available in the UK alone, so it only makes sense to recommend or sell what we think is the best for the pets under our care. Often, we are providing free advice from our highly trained team and explaining the nutritional benefits of high-quality diets for an individual pet can take time. We are not and should not be trying to compete with the grocery channel when it comes to providing veterinary advice and care of the highest standards.

“The same food can be bought cheaper online, and it is very conveniently delivered to my home”

This is true of many products nowadays. We are probably all guilty of seeking advice from a specialty store and then sourcing the item online. Online retailers have a different business model to “brick and mortar” entities. Online retailers may have lower operating costs and operate at scale, so may opt for a lower profit margin while relying on a higher volume turnover (earns x turns). They may also choose to sell bulky everyday consumable goods at a very low margin to attract other basket purchases at a higher profit margin (loss leader). The price we sell pet food at is our choice, the recommended retail price (RRP) is exactly as the name suggests – it is “recommended” and a guideline only. Veterinary business may have completely different commercial terms to online retailers and instead of discounts on large orders, may receive rebates or loyalty discounts to help close the gap. There are ways to set up clinic webshops, take online payments for “click and collect” and partner with logistics companies or wholesalers to deliver pet food to our clients’ homes in a cost-effective manner.

It is important to recognise that nutrition should play a major role in the health and well-being of the pets we care for and that our clients really do appreciate that we take time to discuss the nutritional needs of their pets. Shifting our attention to make nutrition a foundation pillar of what we do will take time to realise our aspirations, but a strong focus on making effective recommendations, investing time and resources to train our clinical teams and incorporating nutrition alongside our other clinical priorities will make a difference.

So as promised, sincere apologies if this has not resonated with your philosophy towards recommending and selling pet food; if you knew much of this and are currently doing it at your practice, that is fantastic and keep doing it; if this feels quite new or you think you missed this along your journey, it is never too late to bring nutrition to life in your practice and “put it back on the menu”!

In these current times with a global pandemic, a much-needed focus on health and well-being and a surge in pet ownership, now seems like as good a time as any to tackle the pet obesity situation, improving general health and immunity and strengthening and leveraging the strong bond between families and their pets to improve the lives of our teams, our clients, and their pets. We all have a part to play.

Mark O’Byrne, BSc(Hons), BVetMed, MRCVS, graduated from RVC in 1992 and spent time travelling in Africa, practicing small animal medicine in Hong Kong and being a regional Veterinary Affairs Manager for Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Asia, Australasia, Japan and UK/Ireland. He is now Group Head of Nutrition at IVC Evidensia.

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