Veterinary Technicians Want Better Training in Pet Nutrition

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • CANWI is a non-profit organization I co-founded with Dr. Donna Raditic; our mission is to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet parent and veterinary staff member
  • The focus of this year’s fundraising efforts is our latest endeavor, the SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) program, which will bring unbiased small animal nutrition education to veterinary students and veterinary technicians across North America
  • Today’s guests are veterinarian Dr. Susan Guttschow, who built a veterinary technician certification program from the ground up, and certified vet tech Ed Carlson, a specialist in nutrition
  • Both Dr. Guttschow and Mr. Carlson understand the huge need for unbiased, comprehensive nutrition education for both veterinarians and veterinary technicians, so they can become resources for pet parents and also apply nutrition fundamentals to disease prevention and treatment

Welcome to day 2 of Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute's (CANWI) annual fundraising week here at Mercola Healthy Pets. This week we're introducing a new program we're very excited about called SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition). Dr. Raditic and I created it to fill a tremendous need for unbiased small animal nutrition education in veterinary schools across North America.

In today's video, I'm chatting with Dr. Susan Guttschow about the veterinary technician education program she built from the ground up. Following our discussion, CANWI co-founder Dr. Donna Raditic talks with Ed Carlson, a certified veterinary technician and veterinary technician specialist in nutrition.

Below are some of the highlights of our discussions, which you can view in their entirety in the video above, or by reviewing the downloadable transcripts linked above.

Veterinary Technicians Are an Essential Component of Every Vet Practice

I met Dr. Susan Guttschow on our very first day as students at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. I sat next to her and we've been friends ever since!

Dr. Guttschow worked as a veterinarian for the first 20 years of her professional life, then switched to a career in academia at Gateway Technical College, which has several campuses in Wisconsin. When she arrived at Gateway, the college had no veterinary technician program, so she set out to build one from the ground up.

"I looked around at other programs that were operational and tried to take best practices from each of them," Dr. Guttschow explains. "I wrote the course curriculum for our program and designed the flow around the student experience. Our veterinary technician education program is a two-year program.

We are accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which means that our students have specified curriculum topics they must learn, as well as over 300 essential skills they must show competency in before graduation. I'm happy to say that we have now had three graduating classes of students."

When people ask Dr. Guttschow what veterinary technicians do, she compares them to RNs (registered nurses) in the human medical field. "Aside from making diagnoses, prescribing medications, and performing surgery, veterinary technicians do really everything else. They do so much," she says.

I absolutely agree. My certified vet tech, Ashley, has been with me for years, and I couldn't manage without her. Vet techs are essential to our ability to be effective veterinarians.

Nutrition Education is Deficient in Most Vet Tech Certification Programs

All AVMA-accredited veterinary technician education programs must provide nutrition training, and it's up to the program developers to shape how the subject is taught. At Gateway, that person is Dr. Guttschow, who like me is very interested in the topic and brings a nutrition focus to every subject area in the curriculum.

"As students learn about disease processes, physiology and anatomy," she explains, "we make nutrition connections by pointing out how each animal is designed and therefore, what they're designed to eat. It really triggers curiosity in students relative to what we're feeding our animals vs. what we should be feeding them."

Students begin to see how nutrition impacts every facet of an animal's wellbeing, and how it can be used to both treat and prevent disease.

The problem is that while nutrition is a prescribed topic for veterinary technician programs per the AVMA, how it's taught and to what extent is entirely dependent on who's teaching it. Gateway vet tech students are lucky in that both Dr. Guttschow and her veterinary technician, Heather, understand the importance of weaving nutrition into all other subject areas. As Dr. Guttschow explains:

"In clinical pathology, when we talk about diseases and how we diagnose them, we talk about the nutritional impact on each disease and the role nutrition might play in development or treatment of that disease. When we talk about surgical nursing, we talk about how nutrition is integral to the healing of patients and how we might need to adjust nutritional requirements or nutritional provisions to meet the changing needs of patients.

But it is certainly possible that if a vet tech program doesn't have a nutrition focus, students might not receive much information regarding the role of nutrition in patient health. It's very dependent on who is presenting the information and how much importance they give to it."

One of the goals of CANWI's SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) platform is to develop a sort of comprehensive "plug and play" nutrition education program that colleges with vet tech certification courses can use to ensure students receive accurate and complete information about animal nutrition, including  a wide range of different types of pet diets.

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Veterinary Technicians Can Fill the Role of Pet Nutrition Educators in Vet Practices

Ed Carlson is a certified veterinary technician as well as a vet tech specialist in nutrition with the InTown Veterinary Group Network of hospitals in New England and New York state.

Ed's interest in nutrition began when he worked in internal medicine at a busy specialty veterinary hospital. He found that he really enjoyed researching diet options for different disease processes and quickly became an invaluable resource to the veterinarians he worked with. The more he learned about nutrition and how to use it to help patients heal and stay healthy, the more clients called him instead of their veterinarian to discuss their pets' diets.

Dr. Donna Raditic asked Ed to discuss the ways in which veterinary technicians are currently involved in nutrition education in veterinary practices. He replied that he does a lot of talks at regional and national conferences for vet techs and veterinarians and is often disappointed to learn that techs aren't being utilized to the level they could be to provide nutrition education and assistance to both pet owners and veterinarians.

"I definitely think helping to educate the whole veterinary team on the role of the veterinary technician with respect to nutrition and how we can play a vital role in veterinary hospitals is something we really need to focus on," says Ed.

Dr. Raditic asked Ed if he sees a need for more and better nutrition education for veterinary techs.

"Yes. Absolutely," he replied. "Nutrition is so vitally important to our goal of providing excellent health care to our veterinary patients. The sky's the limit, as far as I'm concerned, with how much education we can provide to our teams on nutrition. In my experience, veterinary staffs are really hungry for this knowledge. My lectures are often full. I really wish more veterinary technicians and veterinary students were getting more information and more education on nutrition earlier in their careers."

Dr. Raditic agrees with Ed that getting veterinary technicians educated about nutrition and encouraging them to confidently seize the role of pet nutrition educator with clients is a great way to build a team approach to managing patients. Veterinarians are extremely busy and could really take advantage of that kind of resource in their practices.

Ed believes one way to build nutrition education teams for vet practices is to bring programs to colleges with both veterinary and vet tech students and have both groups attend the training at the same time to illustrate how the teams can collaborate for the benefit of patients, clients, and the practice.

Veterinary Staffs Can Become the Go-To Experts on Pet Nutrition

One of the most important reasons both Dr. Raditic and Ed cite for the importance of increasing animal nutrition expertise among veterinary staffs is so pet parents don't end up turning in frustration to, for example, pet store employees or random self-proclaimed internet pet food experts.

And it's not that every bit of information obtained from those sources is necessarily wrong, it's that veterinarians and veterinary technicians should fill that role instead.

However, since the vast majority of veterinary staffs aren't receiving nutrition training beyond what the processed pet food companies offer, they're at a significant disadvantage when faced with not only questions from pet parents about "alternative" (non-processed) diets, but also in understanding how important proper nutrition is in preventing and treating disease.

"I want to see veterinary technicians jump in there and become part of the nutrition education team," says Dr. Raditic. "It's a win-win. Every pet parent needs that kind of veterinary team looking out for their animal's health."

Going forward, our vision is for Ed Carlson and other veterinary technicians like him with a special interest in nutrition to help get our SPAN program off the ground and into veterinary and vet tech schools all over North America. Dr. Raditic and I invite you to join us in supporting this important work with a donation to CANWI, either online through PayPal or via the mail. We can't do it without you. Thank you!

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