The Fifth Vital Assessment: Why should we make a nutritional recommendation for a healthy pet?

by Dr. Lisa Banks

AAHA recommends a nutritional assessment be done for every pet every time. In fact, the nutritional assessment is considered to be the fifth vital assessment along with temperature, pulse, respiration and pain. Veterinarians perform vital assessments to determine the level of health of the pet in order to better determine the treatment plan.  In light of this diet related vital assessment, veterinarians and their staff need to decide what foods the clinic will recommend.  We have actually been doing this for years because we use the free Puppy and Kitten kits that various vendors offer to us.  

These “freebies” should reflect products that are trusted and carried within the clinic. However, have we ever actually sat down with the staff and discussed what the hospital is going to recommend to our healthy patients, who hopefully become lifelong clients? These decisions are a very important for the hospital and for the pet, and should not be taken lightly.

What if during a healthy pet visit the owner states that she is feeding a food that the veterinarian does not consider the best choice for this pet, yet the pet looks healthy…does the veterinarian make a recommendation to change to a better food? If the pet’s temperature is normal, do you decide not to vaccinate? No, of course not, that would be malpractice. We need to remember that although vital assessments judge the health status at that point in time, the decisions we make on the basis of those results are for prevention of illness into the future. Therefore even though we see no issues with the food in this pet NOW, it’s the future health we are here to protect. Veterinary medicine is by its very nature preventive medicine. Our goal is to enrich and lengthen that pet’s life by preventing parasites, viruses, environmental dangers, and long term nutritional issues. So if the diet is not the best by our standards, we need to make a recommendation for the best.

Here is an example from my own experience: Mrs. J brought in Taffy, a Maltese, for her yearly exam and vaccines. Taffy looks great, all physical exam results are normal. and all diagnostics point to a healthy little dog of 4 years old. However, when questioned on diet, Mrs. J admitted that Taffy prefers cat food to dog food, and especially canned cat food! Now despite Taffy being the same size as a cat, this is obviously NOT the ideal food for a dog!! Its not surprising that Taffy prefers cat food: its high in protein and fat. Over the long term the high protein may predispose Taffy to issues, not to mention that the calories will eventually make their mark on Taffy’s figure! I discussed with Mrs. J all the delicious options available, as well as the concerns I have that complete and balanced for a cat is NOT the same as complete and balanced for a dog! Mrs. J only wants the best for Taffy, as do most of our clients, and agreed to transition her over to a food that is balanced for dogs. I want to add that she thanked me for being so thorough!

Fortunately, we have many resources available to help us make dietary recommendations. Every major pet food manufacturer involved in ongoing evidence based research has on-line information about nutritional matters. They also offer free nutritional training to empower staff to make logical intelligent decisions on food choices, free from the marketing pressure that our owners face.  In light of the many areas veterinarians need to keep up to date on, nutrition is often delegated to staff members willing to invest the time and energy to educate themselves. These nutritional advocates are invaluable: they can discuss the diet, feeding directions, reasoning behind the diet chosen, set up transition schedules, and perform follow up with the pet parent. AAHA and WSAVA have excellent toolkits to help make nutritional recommendations, including “10 Questions to Ask Your Pet Food Manufacturer” that places the onus of investigating niche pet food companies on the pet owner.

Remember this: three factors determine the health and longevity of an animal: environment, genetics, and nutrition. We have limited influence on the first two, but we can certainly influence nutrition choices. In a survey by AAHA in 2010, 90% of owners stated that they wanted a nutritional recommendation from their veterinarian, but only 15% perceived that they had received one. So the owners really do want our input! Let’s give it to them.

Here are some resources to help: The Global Nutrition Committee (GNC) began life in 2010 with the initial task of developing global nutrition guidelines, which were first published in 2011. The goal of these Guidelines is to help the veterinary healthcare team and pet owners ensure that dogs and cats are on an optimal nutrition plan tailored to the needs of the individual dog or cat.  quickly find answers for almost any nutritional concern clients have. We offer the largest science based pet-nutrition library on the web to assist the veterinary team. Nutritional matters via the AVMA. Good nutrition enhances pets’ quality and quantity of life, and is integral to optimal animal care. Incorporating nutritional assessment into regular animal care is critical to maintaining pets’ health, as well as their response to disease and injury. It requires little to no additional time or cost, and enhances your clients’ perception of the value of the care they receive. Make a commitment to improving your communication about the preventive value of good nutrition We all want our pets to be happy and healthy, and proper nutrition plays a huge part in that. Good nutrition enhances pets’ quality – and quantity – of life. The goal of the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHANutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats is to help veterinary health care teams. › Nutrition Center  Feel confident that your pet food is up to snuff by asking manufacturers these 10 questions approved by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).

lisaLisa Banks is a native of Buffalo, New York. She attended Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas and graduated with a BS in Biology with a Chemistry minor. She then was accepted at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and graduated with a DVM. After working for six years in private practices throughout New York State, she joined Hill’s Pet Nutrition in 1998 as a Consulting Veterinarian. She remains with Hill’s today as a Professional Consulting Veterinarian. Her interests outside of work are horseback riding, miniature donkeys, and keeping the dogs and cats happy in her home base of Powhatan Virginia with her husband Les.