Pet Nutrition Expert Challenges Veterinarians to Embrace Owners’ Concerns About Pets’ Diets


Kara Burns feeds off veterinarians’ questions and she had their undivided attention Friday at the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in San Antonio, Texas, as one of the featured speakers at a Meet the Experts Roundtable, an inaugural event at the giant annual gathering.

“We know the nutrition question is coming and we become anxious,” she told the audience in her presentation, “What Do I Feed My Pet? Don’t Fear the Question; Embrace the Answer?”

pet nutrition kara burns

Kara Burns relaxes with Pudge, left, her Pug, and Fribble, a French Bulldog.

Veterinarians recognize the importance of proper nutrition in the management of pets’ overall health and disease prevention, acknowledges Burns, of Wamego, Kan., who is the founder and president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians, the 10th recognized specialty for the profession.

“Pet parents are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition in their own health and expect the same standard for their animals. Consequently, the veterinary health-care team should be their go-to source for advice,” she emphasized.

Think about it: How many television commercials and print-media advertisements is the pet owner subjected to daily? “So when they come to their veterinary health-care team with the question: ‘What should I feed my pet?’ How do you respond?” she asked.

In 2010 the American Animal Hospital Association published Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for veterinary practices and the following year the World Small Animal Veterinary Association followed with its counterpart.

To provide proper recommendations to clients, it is incumbent on the team to do its research. She cited the following guidelines when researching the question: How do I differentiate one food from another?

  • Is the manufacturer’s contact information available on the product?
  • Does the manufacturer employ full-time veterinary nutritionists, veterinarians and credentialed technicians?
  • Where is the product produced and manufactured?
  • Are specific quality-control measures in place to assure product consistency and quality?
  • Will the manufacturer provide a complete nutrient analysis for the pet food in question – above and beyond the guaranteed analysis?
  • Has the product undergone research, and are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?

But that’s not all!

Burns said the team must also research the Association of American Feed Control Officials nutritional adequacy statement on pet-food labels to determine if it is complete and balanced and meets an assortment of other standards.

Because there are many variances among manufacturers, products and life stages, she emphasized that hospital team members “should not fear asking questions or fear being asked questions by pet owners. Find out the ‘why’ behind owners’ thoughts of a certain food or brand. For example, they may want a natural product for their pet. Ask what natural means to them. Are they looking for nutrition that is healthy? Or one that contains a certain ingredient that is important to them? Once we know ‘why,’ the team can help educate them and recommend a product in the best interest of the pet. Embrace your recommendation! That will show owners that nutrition is part of medicine and will encourage them to ask the experts (your team) for advice.

“Don’t be afraid to present a researched and educated nutritional recommendation and deter the ‘I read this on the internet’ response.”

Here are some additional questions from Good News for Pets and Burns’ replies:

How well equipped are today’s veterinary hospitals when it comes to providing nutritional advice to clients?

They are well-equipped to do a nutritional assessment and provide recommendations to owners. They need to get more involved, however. When the American Animal Hospital (AAHA) Guidelines and the subsequent World Small Animal Veterinary Association Guidelines were announced several years ago, the profession began to view nutrition as the fifth vital assessment. Thus, a nutritional assessment and recommendation should be performed on every pet that comes into the hospital – every time it comes into the hospital.

Veterinarians should empower their team members, especially the credentialed technicians, to be a part of the nutritional checkup process. Team members should be taking the nutritional history, performing a body condition score, etc., and discussing the findings with the veterinarian, who will be making the eventual recommendation.

What are the main sources via which veterinarians and team members can update themselves on pet nutritional education?

Most national and many regional and specialty conferences have tracks dedicated to this. There are online courses, veterinary journal articles and non-branded veterinary web sites which provide nutrition expertise.

Nutrition companies provide great education, as well, although these may be frowned upon because of the branded nature. I would still recommend these, however.

How do you discourage owners from offering their pets table scraps or snacks too often?

Owners show their love through treats, but we need to ask them questions in the proper way and allow them to feed treats (in moderation) given the individual patient. Veterinary teams can allow for up to 10 per cent of the total kcal/day to be from treats. BUT it requires attention to detail and calculations to make this possible.

Obesity is an epidemic and veterinary team members should be working to decrease it in patients. Discussing treats tactfully – and the amount given – is a great start.

Do you encourage owners to take their pet to the hospital regularly for weight checks only?

Absolutely. Weight checks are critical. There are so many positives from this – getting the pet (and owner) out to the hospital (increasing exercise) and consistency with weight scales. This allows the veterinary team to determine weight-loss progress or offer support and guidance and look for spots on the weight program that may be weakening, then offer advice.

How do you advise veterinarians who deal with pet owners on limited incomes who are forced to prioritize price when purchasing pet food?

I never say good nutrition only comes in the highest priced bags and cans! A nutritional advocate should work with the owners to recommend the right food for that pet. The right food should take into account nutrients, the pet’s health/life stage/lifestyle, the owners’ concerns and price, etc. This underscores the need for a nutritional counselor in every hospital.


Leave A Reply