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FAQs are for educational purposes only. If you are a pet owner, please consult with your veterinarian to determine the best diet for your pet.
What is a veterinary nutritionist?
Veterinary nutritionists are Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). They are veterinarians who are board certified specialists in veterinary nutrition. Training involves intensive clinical, teaching, and research activities spanning at least two years. Trainees also are required to pass a written examination in order to obtain board certification.
Veterinary nutritionists are specialists that are uniquely trained in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with one or more diseases. Nutrition is critically important to maintain optimal health and ensure optimal performance, as well as to manage the symptoms and progression of specific diseases. Veterinary nutritionists are qualified to formulate commercial foods and supplements, formulate home-prepared diets, manage the complex medical and nutritional needs of individual animals, and understand the underlying causes and implications of specific nutritional strategies that are used to prevent and treat diseases.
Veterinary nutritionists may be involved in a variety of different activities, including conducting research, taking care of patients, consulting with veterinarians, owners, or industry, and teaching. Veterinary nutritionists work in a variety of different environments, including veterinary schools, pet food or drug companies, government agencies, or private veterinary hospitals. Some run their own businesses.
What are the qualifications and requirements for becoming board certified in veterinary nutrition?
The residency training program in veterinary nutrition is extensive. After achieving a degree in veterinary medicine and completing at least 1 year of internship or clinical experience, residency training includes at least 2 years of study, with a focus on both basic and clinical nutrition as well as research and teaching. Trainees study under the mentorship of at least one boarded veterinary nutritionist and often with contact with many others over the course of the program. Some programs also require graduate level coursework and rotation with other specialists (such as Internal Medicine, Critical Care, and Clinical Pathology). Trainees must prepare and write up three case reports to qualify to take the board exam. The two day written examination is offered annually and covers a wide range of nutritional and medical knowledge.
For more detailed information regarding residency programs for veterinarians interested in training for board certification, please see our page at:
How do I contact and consult with a veterinary nutritionist?
If you would like to work directly with a veterinary nutritionist to develop a customized home cooked diet for your pet, produce and market a pet product, or consult on any other issue, please visit our Diplomate Directory at: http://www.acvn.org/directory/
Our administrative assistant can be contacted with other questions on the Contact Page
How do I find a veterinary nutritionist to interview or speak at my event?
Please contact our administrative assistant via our Contact Page
Is there a nutrition certification for veterinary technicians and assistants?
The ACVN does not offer certification for technicians or assistants. However, there are organizations with a veterinary nutrition focus open to technicians and assistants: American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition(http://aavn.org/) and Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians (http://nutritiontechs.org/). There are also training programs managed by private pet food companies.
How do I choose the best food for my pet?
Your pet is an individual, and it is very likely that many food choices are available. Your veterinarian is the best source of information regarding the appropriate diet for your specific pet. Many factors are involved in choosing a food, including economics, availability, any health issues that may need to be addressed with diet, your pet’s preference, and your personal philosophies. For more information, see the following article:
How do I know how much to feed my pet?
While there are ways to calculate the assumed requirements of an average dog or cat, the exact calorie needs of any individual pet depend on genetics, environment, activity level, and life stage. It is important to keep in mind that foods vary widely in energy density, with different kibbles ranging from below 300 to more than 700 Calories per cup! The calorie content of the specific food you are using should be determined in order to avoid over- or underfeeding. In some cases, this information will be on the label of the pet food. If not, you can call the company for this information or find it on their website. The prevention of obesity is very important for maximizing the health and lifespan of your pet. You should regularly evaluate your pet to ensure a proper body condition. Your veterinarian can help you determine the proper weight for your individual pet. However, for ensuring that your pet is in optimal body condition, you should easily be able to feel the ribs, and your pet should have an hourglass shape when viewed from above. There are body condition score charts in the following article:
What do pet food label terms such as natural, holistic, premium, and human grade mean?
Many of the terms used to describe pet foods on labels and in advertising materials are not legally defined. For example, there is no regulatory meaning for the terms holistic, premium, ultra- or super-premium, gourmet, or human grade. The term “human grade” in particular is used frequently; however, there is no official definition and pet foods are manufactured under FDA authority, and not subject to USDA inspection as are human foods. Interpretation and use of the term is variable and the definition is therefore dependent on the philosophy and marketing strategies of the individual manufacturer.
Unlike foods for human consumption and feeds intended for food-producing animals, there are no regulations in place for “organic” pet foods at this time. Until such regulations are in place, those for human foods are being applied to pet foods.
The term “natural” does have a legal meaning when applied to a food or ingredient, which is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as:
“derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
AAFCO specifies that the term is used only to describe products for which all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet this definition. An exception is made to allow the use of chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, or other trace nutrients to allow the food to be nutritionally complete and balanced; however, a disclaimer must be present.
Are raw pet foods better than canned or kibble foods?
Raw diets, both home-prepared and commercial, have become more popular. Advocates of raw diets claim benefits ranging from improved longevity to superior oral or general health and even disease resolution (especially gastrointestinal disease). Often the benefits of providing natural enzymes and other substances that may be altered or destroyed by cooking are also cited. However, proof for these purported benefits is currently restricted to testimonials, and no published peer-reviewed studies exist to support claims made by raw diet advocates. No studies have examined differences in animals fed raw animal products to those fed any other type of diet (kibble, canned, or home cooked) with the exception of looking at the effects on digestibility. Typically raw meats (but not other uncooked foods like grains or starches) are slightly more digestible than cooked meat.
There are risks and concerns associated with the feeding of raw diets. One of these is the risk of nutritional imbalances, which is a reality for both home-prepared and commercial raw meat diets. Another important risk is related to bacterial or parasitic contamination. Of course, food poisoning is also a major concern for people, and the public health aspects of feeding raw foods to pets cannot be overlooked. Safe and proper handling of raw foods is crucial for reducing the risk, but safety cannot be guaranteed. At this time, the vast majority of purported benefits of feeding raw foods remain unproven, while the risks and consequences have been documented. It is best to discuss the choice of feeding raw foods with your veterinarian so that an informed decision can be made with regard to your pet’s diet.
Are commercially available pet foods safe and healthful?
Commercially available pet foods have been used successfully for years. There are many kinds of foods available, from canned to dry. Some are complete and balanced and others are meant for supplemental or intermittent feeding. Safety problems (with regard to both nutritional adequacy and toxin/microbiological contamination) are occasionally documented in both commercial foods as well as home-prepared human foods. Most manufacturers utilize sophisticated mechanisms for quality control and food safety, including screening and reporting systems. As such, commercial foods remain a consistent, safe, and healthful option for feeding pets.
Which supplements should I add to my pets’ food?
If your pet is eating a complete and balanced commercially available pet food, supplements are not recommended unless specifically prescribed by your veterinarian. This reduces the chances of excesses and adverse nutrient or medication interactions. Talk to your veterinarian if you are interested in using a particular supplement for your pet, and keep your veterinarian informed if you are giving your pet any supplement. This is important information for him or her in order to be able to optimally care for your pet.
Is preparing my pets food at home better than buying commercial foods?
Some owners with pets that have particular health problems may wish to participate in the management of their pet’s condition by providing a home cooked diet, even if a commercially available diet would be appropriate. These owners may have a belief that a home cooked diet is safer, more natural, or more healthful than a commercially available diet. They may wish to avoid certain ingredients (such as grains, chemical preservatives, or by-products) or to include certain ingredients (such as specific protein or fat sources). Other owners wish to feed their pets according to their own philosophical views, and choose home prepared diets that are vegetarian, organic, or raw.
Another common reason owners feed a home cooked diet is when a pet refuses commercially available diets. In some pets, this is a learned behavior while in others it may be the result of a food aversion secondary to a disease condition (such as kidney failure). Finally, pets may have a particular combination of diseases for which no suitable commercial diet exists. In these cases, a home prepared diet can be an appropriate solution.
In general, home prepared diets are more expensive than commercially available diets. Of course, they are also more time consuming to prepare. There are many recipes for home prepared pet diets available on the Internet and in books; however, the vast majority of these are inadequate and unbalanced. The recipes are either vague in instruction, contain errors or omissions in formulation, incorporate potentially problematic ingredients, or feature outdated strategies for addressing specific disease conditions. They may also lack specificity about the exact amount to feed a particular size of pet. If you wish to prepare your pet’s food at home, consider getting a customized recipe and consultation with a board certified veterinary nutritionist.
Are there foods that I shouldn’t feed my pet?
There are many foods that should not be fed to pets because they are toxic or because they may cause other health problems. Examples include very high fat items such as chicken skin, grapes and raisins, bread dough, macadamia nuts, chocolate, garlic, onions, and foods artificially sweetened with xylitol. More information can be found here: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/.
Does my pet have a food allergy?
The term “food allergy” is used a lot these days. Figuring out if your pet has a food allergy can be complicated. First, let’s define what an allergy is. Allergies occur when the immune system (the cells in our body that normally fight infections) overreacts to a foreign substance. The key point to remember is that the immune system plays an important role in allergies.
The next step is to understand the different types of food allergies in dogs and cats. Food allergies can affect mostly the skin, and this process is called “cutaneous adverse food reaction” or CAFR. CAFR will often show up as itchy skin, ear infections, skin infections, and itchiness around the anal area in dogs. Cats often have very itchy faces and may have crusty, scaly skin. A very important point to remember is that environmental allergies to things like grass, dust mites, and pollen cause many of the same signs as CAFR. Flea allergies can also look very similar. If you suspect your dog or cat has CAFR, you should have your veterinarian examine them to help determine what is causing the itchiness.
Food allergies can also affect the gastrointestinal tract and often result in vomiting and diarrhea. Depending on the severity, this immune-mediated response may lead to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It can be very difficult to tell the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance. A food intolerance doesn’t have to involve the immune system and can occur to almost any ingredient in a food. A classic example of food intolerance in dogs and cats is lactose intolerance due to loss of the enzyme that breaks down lactose (i.e. sugars found in dairy products) with age. With food allergies, the immune system is activated by a protein it sees as foreign. Proteins are found in most food ingredients – whether it is a meat, grain, or other carbohydrate source. The most common food allergies in dogs are beef, chicken, and dairy. The most common food allergies in cats are beef, fish, and dairy.
Diagnosis of food allergies involves feeding a veterinary therapeutic or homemade diet for a period of time (typically 8 weeks) and watching to see if the signs improve. Then the pet must be re-challenged with the original diet that caused the clinical signs in order to confirm a diagnosis of food allergies. It is CRITICAL that your veterinarian be involved in the process of instituting a food allergy trial. The diets provided at your veterinarian’s office undergo much higher quality control standards to eliminate contamination with other protein sources. In addition, your veterinarian can provide you with guidance on appropriate treats and unflavored medications for use during a food trial. Blood tests, hair tests, and saliva tests are not reliable for diagnosing food allergies.
Telling the difference between food intolerance, environmental allergies, and food allergies is challenging. Working with your veterinarian will assure your diagnosis and treatment plans are successful.
Should I discuss the treats I give to my pets with my veterinarian? Can I cause any harm with treats?
When you as a pet owner visit your veterinarian, there should always be a discussion about what you are feeding your cat or dog. This involves information about not just the main diet and amount, but also any treats, table scraps, food for training, food for medication administration, dietary supplements, and any other food or treats. The reason for having a discussion with your vet is that some treats may not be appropriate for your pet. In addition to the potential that a treat contains a toxic food such as raisins, grapes, or certain artificial sweeteners, treats can be problematic in terms of the number of calories that they contain and in terms of the nutrients that they contain. If your pet is overweight, treat calories can contribute to weight gain. If a pet has a health condition such as urinary stones, gastrointestinal disease, food allergies, or chronic kidney disease, the nutrients and ingredients in treats can negatively impact the health of the animal. Raw meat-based treats may also cause additional issues, such as bacterial infections from contamination, or gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation from bones.
In addition, treats are frequently not complete and balanced. That means they may not contain the proper nutrients and/or may not contain nutrients in the proper proportions. Treat calories should make up no more than 10% of total daily calories to avoid unbalancing the diet as a whole.
Even if your pet is healthy, you should discuss treat options with your vet to ensure that you help your pet stay as healthy as possible.
How Do I Know if My Pet Is Overweight?
Overweight pets are at higher risk for medical problems like arthritis and don’t live as long as their trim counterparts. How can you tell if your dog or cat is the perfect weight? Follow along with these steps:
Step 1: Do the Feel Test
You should always be able to easily feel your pet’s ribs by gently running the flat of your palms across the sides of the chest (just behind the shoulders in the middle of the chest).
Step 2: Look for the Tuck
For short-haired animals, you should be able to see an ‘abdominal tuck,’ where there is no belly hanging down beyond your pet’s rib cage when viewed from the side. They also have a “waist” behind their ribs when you look at them from above. This may be harder in long-haired animals, but it’s easier to note when the coat is clipped or wet.
Another Trick: Compare to Your Hand
If you’re still not sure, put your hand out with your palm down and fingers straight. Gently run your other hand over the back of your hand – this is exactly how padded your pet’s ribcage should feel! Now, turn your hand over so your palm is up (with fingers still straight). Run your other hand over your palm. If your pet’s ribs feel more like this, he or she is overweight!
Why is the ingredient list not the way to evaluate a food for my dogs? Many websites rank the quality of pet foods based on the ingredient list but I have heard from my Veterinarian that this is not the best way to evaluate a pet food product.
We agree with your veterinarian. Rating pet food products does seem to have become a favorite hobby for some lay people with web sites; however their rating systems are not based on any official independent body of experts with firsthand experience or knowledge, and so their scales are arbitrary and frankly illogical when based on the ingredients.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has a Nutrition Toolkit (http://www.wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit) which contains good recommendations for dog and cat owners titled ‘Selecting the best Pet food’.
The ingredient list was not ever intended to be a tool by which to “evaluate” a pet food. Those items listed have an agreed upon definition set by an AAFCO subcommittee. The definitions can be found in the AAFCO manual published annually available to anyone after purchase although the manual is primarily directed at manufacturers in the feed and pet food industry. The ingredient list is a statement declaring the contents of the product, and the manufacturer must abide by the definition of each ingredient, e.g., the product cannot contain poultry if not listed and the product must contain taurine if it is listed. Every ingredient they add must be on the list; however, the list may not include everything in the product, i.e., food residue from previous product runs. The ingredient list was not intended to state or imply the nutritional adequacy of the final product for a dog or cat, and cannot be accurately used for that purpose.
A separate AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy statement required on the label was designed for veterinarians, nutritionists or pet owners to evaluate the nutritional or biological value to their patient or pet. Evaluating a pet food using the legal definitions of each ingredient is like using a wrench to remove a very small Philips-head screw from your watch so you can replace the battery.
The ingredient list, like the wrench, is simply not the correct tool to evaluate a pet food. Every ingredient, no matter how well defined, can and does vary widely in nutrient content depending a multitude of uncontrollable factors, e.g., supply and demand, source, weather, season, region. The AAFCO definitions allow for this variation and are therefore not sufficiently accurate by which to ‘rate’ any one ingredient as a good source of nutrients for dogs, or a poor source for cats, etc. If the individual ingredients cannot be properly ranked, then the end product pet food cannot be ‘ranked’.
It has been pointed out, “the total (pet food) is the sum of the parts (ingredients)”; however, these personal ‘rating’ systems of pet foods are based on only the first few listed. As is clear from reading any pet food label, the first few items are but a fraction of many (10-30) in the product. This is like deciding on whether to buy a certain car based solely on the tires …… who does that? Yes the list is in decreasing order by weight, but that includes the weight of water in the ingredient, i. e, wetter ingredients get listed first. A meat listed first may contain as much as 70% water which makes for an expensive can of water. This order by weight to the ingredient list does not accurately represent those less wet ingredients contributing more nutrients.
It is entirely the responsibility of the manufacturer to test each ingredient for nutrient value and known contaminants before receiving and using that ingredient in their pet food product. And because the nutrient profile is not stated or implied by the AAFCO ingredient definition, some manufacturers have specific details in their ingredient vendor contracts which may include not only the source, what can and cannot be in an ingredient but specify nutrient content of that ingredient as well. Additionally, some (not all) manufacturers double check the ingredient nutrient profile in their own food laboratories before incorporating that ingredient into their production line. They want to know the nutrient profile of their ingredients because that gives them much better control over the final nutrient content of their end product, e.g., a guaranteed nutritionally complete and balanced pet food. In summary, ‘rating’ a pet food for nutritional or biological value based on the first items in ingredient list on the label is not a valid tool for assessment. The AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement on the label was designed for this purpose and WSAVA developed additional tools for pet owners.