Veterinary Students Deserve 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 food company, veterinary school, 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 Ryan Yamka, PhD, founder of Luna Science and Nutrition, and Dr. Joseph Bartges of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Our guests discuss alternatives to processed pet diets, and how nutrition education in veterinary schools can be improved

Welcome to day 4 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.

Our first guest today is Ryan Yamka, PhD, founder of Luna Science and Nutrition. Then we'll be talking with Dr. Joseph Bartges of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. 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.

There's a Place for Kibble — There's Also Opportunity to Make Better Pet Food

Ryan Yamka, PhD, is the founder of Luna Science and Nutrition, an independent consulting firm. He is board certified in companion animal nutrition by the American College of Animal Sciences (ACAS) and a fellow with the American College of Nutrition (ACN). Ryan has an extensive background in pet nutrition, including developing, formulating and launching dog and cat foods for leading pet food companies.

Ryan consults primarily for pet food companies that aren't doing kibble. He also works with ingredient companies as well as advisory boards for sustainable ingredient companies, cultured pet food protein companies, human-grade pet food companies, freeze-died pet food companies and other formats that aren't your traditional "brown and round" (kibble).

"There's a place for brown and round," says Ryan, "but there's opportunity to make something better. That's why my cofounder and I started Guardian Pet Food."

An Example of Better Pet Food: Freeze-Dried Food Bars Loaded With Highly Digestible Nutrients

Guardian's products are new and novel — food bars for dogs. Ryan's goal was to create a pet food that's nutritionally dense, highly digestible, and in freeze-dried form for the convenience of pet owners, sort of like kibble but with all the benefits of raw food. The food isn't cooked, so there are none of the issues created by heat processing. The manufacturer Guardian uses employs a novel proprietary kill step that doesn't involve high pressure processing (HPP).

The initial products were tested for compliance with AAFCO nutrient guidelines and hit them 100% on the first try, with no loss of nutrients during processing or storage. The bars contain a lot of meat and dogs love them. Dry matter digestibility was a very high 91%, protein digestibility was around 93%, and fat was at 96% or 97%. Dogs' stool volume was dramatically reduced because their bodies were able to assimilate the highly digestible nutrients in the food.

Instead of making marketing claims on product packaging, Ryan and his partner decided to use customer testimonials instead. In December, they're expecting to receive approval for B Corporation certification, which is an indicator of sustainability and transparency. They're currently in the process of building out the Guardian website to include all the scientific backup data veterinarians want to see on non-traditional diets, plus all kinds of other information, for example, on ingredient sourcing.

"All our ingredients are Canadian and U.S.-sourced," says Ryan. "When you click on the blueberries on our site, you're going to see the states where our blueberries come from. Click on beef and you'll see the states where the beef comes from. We're going to have a level of transparency the big companies can't have.

As cheesy as it sounds, Jim [Glosky, Guardian cofounder] and I believe in the concept of 'pets before profits.' Because if you're not thinking about pets and you're not giving them the right nutrition, well, then you shouldn't be making money. You should find something else to do."

Ryan is a pet food industry insider who is courageously asking the industry difficult questions and leading the way for a new generation of transparent pet food companies that put pets before profits.

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Dr. Bartges Was a Veterinary Nutritionist Before It Was a Thing

Our second guest today is one of the most well-respected veterinarians in our professional community, Dr. Joseph Bartges. Dr. Bartges is double board-certified in internal medicine and nutrition and is a Professor of Internal Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

In addition to teaching, he does medicine clinics and is also involved in developing a nutritional support service. In fact, he's currently mentoring a PhD student in her final year in a nutrition-based doctoral and dissertation research program. Somehow, he also graciously finds the time to help with our CANWI nutrition research projects.

Even though Dr. Bartges is a veterinary internist specializing in urology and nephrology, he has maintained a deep interest in animal nutrition, which is somewhat rare in the veterinary world. In fact, he was involved in nutrition before the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) even existed!

Challenges to More and Better Vet School Nutrition Education

Two of the biggest challenges we face today are a scarcity of board-certified veterinary nutritionists (there are fewer than 150 worldwide), and the fact that many of the veterinarians who've received board certification in nutrition have ties to the pet food industry.

Some, but not all veterinary schools have a nutritionist on staff who teaches the subject. In general, nutrition topics aren't getting much attention, which is why veterinary students typically graduate with little training beyond what they learned about processed diets — which in turn is why so many pet parents run into a brick wall when they try to discuss raw or fresh (or dehydrated or freeze-dried) pet food with veterinary staff.

Dr. Bartges has observed that as vet school curriculums have developed, vet student numbers have increased, and nutrition has become a bigger topic of conversation driven primarily by recalls and pets with nutrition-related issues, that students are beginning to ask for a broader base of knowledge of small animal nutrition that goes beyond conventional diets.

Pet Parents Are Ahead of the Nutrition Curve Compared to the Veterinary Community

I asked Dr. Bartges if he's seeing a trend in pet owners who are starting to think about the role of nutrition in preventing disease.

"I think owners are thinking more about preventative nutrition than veterinarians are, actually," he replied. "Thirty-five years ago, when I took nutrition, I had the good fortune to be taught by an animal scientist. He wasn't a veterinarian, but he was, at that time, teaching more about small animal nutrition than most veterinary professors.

Back then, I think much of what was taught to vet students about small animal nutrition mimicked what was being taught in large animal nutrition — pregnancy, lactation, growth, adult maintenance — and not much about preventative nutrition. Most of the research found in veterinary literature is about the role of nutrition in managing disease once it has occurred. There's much less information available on the role of nutrition in preventing disease in dogs and cats."

One of the solutions to the problem is, of course, research into the health benefits of so-called "alternative" (non-processed, human grade) diets. With studies in hand, veterinarians would be better equipped and hopefully more willing to answer pet parent questions about the best diets for the health, longevity and quality of life of their dogs and cats. But as Dr. Bartges points out, who will fund that research?

"Most research has traditionally been funded by pet food companies, and they have very specific interests in terms of their return on investment," he explains. "A lot of that research has been more focused on disease states and managing disease states. That's why diets are continuously reinvented for kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease, and all that. I think less effort has been put into looking at wellness nutrition."

One of our primary missions at CANWI is to conduct independent, unbiased research on the benefits of non-processed diets for pets, filling a tremendous void that will give both veterinarians and pet parents the scientific proof of the superiority of such diets.

We Can and Must Do Better for Veterinary Students When It Comes to Educating Them About Small Animal Nutrition

I asked Dr. Bartges for his thoughts on what can be done to provide veterinary students with a more comprehensive and balanced small animal nutrition education.

"First of all," he replied, "veterinary education, in general, moves very slowly. Universities, in particular, move very slowly. It's like turning a battleship or herding cats or something. Change just seems to take forever. As faculty turns over, we see shifts, and curricula are revised. I think we're seeing a shift away from disease-oriented medicine, including nutrition, to more wellness and health.

Veterinary students learn basic nutrition in their required anatomy and physiology and biochemistry courses. But I think we also need to educate them not only on conventional diets for dogs and cats, but also all the other types diets that are out there and do it in an unbiased fashion."

Dr. Bartges makes the point that currently, only the major processed pet food companies have the money to send representatives into all the veterinary schools to "teach nutrition." Smaller and less traditional pet food producers don't have the financial resources to do that. Either we have to find ways to get those companies on campus as well or find unbiased educators to teach nutrition.

This is precisely the goal of our CANWI SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) program — to bring unbiased small animal nutrition education to veterinary students and veterinary technicians across 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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