We Are What We Eat and Our Pets Are What We Feed Them

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 veterinary technicians Deborah Glottman, who is also president of the Vermont Veterinary Technician Association, and vet tech educator Heather Darbo-McClellan
  • Both Deb and Heather would love to see more time and attention given to educating veterinary technician students about nutrition-related topics

Welcome to day 5 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 Deborah Glottman, a veterinary technician and president of the Vermont Veterinary Technician Association (VVTA). Following my chat with Deb, I'll be talking with veterinary technician educator Heather Darbo-McClellan. 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 Find It Difficult to Keep Up with a Dynamically Changing Pet Food Market

Deborah Glottman has been a veterinary technician since 1988, and president of the Vermont Veterinary Technician Association (VVTA) since 2005. Deb is an emergency critical care nurse and surgery nurse (veterinary techs are often referred to as veterinary nurses), and she also runs a non-profit organization that provides veterinary care — primarily surgery and dentistry — to pets belonging to senior citizens in the central Vermont area.

When it comes to patient nutrition, one of the biggest challenges veterinary technicians face is finding the time to discuss with clients what they're feeding their pets, and what they'd like to feed and can afford to feed.

"I feel like technicians are getting better educated, slowly but surely, on pets' nutrition needs," says Deb. "But the number of diets on the market has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, and clients expect us to know more about all the different types of pet food."

Generally speaking, veterinarians only get a couple of classes on nutrition in vet school — and those cover both small and large animals. Deb thinks most vet techs get even less in the way of formal nutrition training. I asked Deb if she thinks a program like SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) would be a welcome and valuable addition to veterinary technician curricula.

"I feel that what I call the Big Three – Hill's, Purina and Royal Canin — get a lot of time in front of vet tech and veterinary students because they're also providing free food," Deb answered. "I get that. I know the students appreciate it.

But I think we have to look at all aspects of the pet food industry. For example, frozen raw diets. I don't necessarily think feeding raw is an answer to anything, but I feel we need to be educated about it. If we have clients who want to feed raw, we should at least be able to talk to them about the right way to do it."

Patient Nutrition Should Be a Core Focus in the Practice of Veterinary Medicine

Deb thinks the veterinary industry needs to realize that evolving pet food trends are here to stay, and if veterinary staffs don't get educated about them, they can't advise pet owners on their risks, benefits, and other factors.

"I also feel the veterinary industry needs to wake up to the fact that nutrition is at the core of absolutely everything that occurs with animals — they are what they eat," says Deb. "Their bloodwork is what they eat. Their medical issues are what they eat. What our patients are eating should be a core focus for us."

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Broadening the Nutrition Discussion with Vet Tech Students

My second guest today is Heather Darbo-McClellan. Heather is a certified veterinary technician currently working in academia at Gateway Technical College, helping to teach students how to become vet techs.

"My job here is to coach my students," Heather says. "I love educating, training and inspiring them."

Heather was instrumental, along with Dr. Susan Guttschow, who I interviewed a few days ago, in setting up the vet tech program at Gateway. It's a two-year program accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and nutrition topics are a big part of the curriculum.

"Clients have a lot of options when they visit a pet food store," says Heather. "Often, they have no idea what type of diet to choose. If they want to feed raw, they might ask their veterinarian for guidance, and since most vets don't have much knowledge about raw diets, they just say 'Don't feed raw.' That's not a satisfactory answer, obviously, so clients go elsewhere for advice, often from unreliable sources."

When Heather discusses pet food with her students, she encourages them to think about the diet animals eat in the wild. What is the natural diet of cats? What do lions and tigers — carnivores — eat? Then they examine some dry cat food labels to see if the ingredients are suitable for carnivores (they aren't), and she challenges them to think about what type food is biologically appropriate for a particular species.

Heather is way ahead of the curve, because I don't think any other nutrition educators out there are discussing the evolutionary history of domesticated pets in terms of what diets are best for them.

Going forward, our CANWI vision is that Deb, Heather, and other veterinary technicians like them who understand the importance of nutrition to the health of animals will be instrumental in getting 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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