Companion animal nutrition is a big business. The overabundance of choice is overwhelming, not only to the pet owner but to us as veterinary professionals as well. I want to explore the impact that we can have as a veterinary nurse, influencing our clients’ choices by sharing our experiential and educated knowledge and insight to guide owners into making appropriate choices of pet food specific to their pet’s needs.
We also have to explore the media through which we communicate our insights as the world has very much changed from the veterinary practice being a trusted community resource – there is a plethora of information available without people having to leave their house, from “experts” within the depths of the internet.
Where can I find trustworthy evidence-based resources?
To ensure our knowledge is correct and up to date, we need to have a bank of trusted resources. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) resources, including the “Global Nutrition Guidelines”, are typically non-biased, evidence-based and frequently updated resources that we can use free of charge. For UK-based information on pet foods available and guidelines we have the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, which feeds into the European Pet Food Federation (FEDIAF).
Our ability to critically analyse and learn, as well as to look at differing opinions and perspectives, assists us in avoiding bias
All of the major pet food brands also provide a significant amount of CPD for us to use as veterinary professionals. Our ability to critically analyse and learn, as well as to look at differing opinions and perspectives, assists us in avoiding bias.
Starting the conversation
So as a registered veterinary nurse with a special interest in companion animal nutrition, with our up-to-date, evidence-based knowledge all ready to share and help support pet owners and improve the nutritional lives of our nation’s pets – where do we start?
According to the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report (2021), 77 percent of dogs are regularly vaccinated; this is slightly lower with cats at 61 percent, but is still a significant number of pets coming through our door on a regular basis, seemingly healthy. The clients that we are receiving into our clinics at this point have done the hard work for us as they are already through the door. We need to normalise having nutrition conversations within the veterinary clinic. These conversations need to be open and non-judgemental, and we should always make a note of the conversations on the pets’ clinical records to aid future conversations and observations.
We need to normalise having nutrition conversations within the veterinary clinic. These conversations need to be open and non-judgemental, and we should always make a note of the conversations on the pets’ clinical records
In these conversations we need to be asking what food the pet is fed, how often they are fed and whether they have any treats (and if so, what?). We all have our preconceived ideas of what a “good” or “bad” pet food is, but we need to avoid this judgement when conversing with our client. We are building trust rather than fuelling the misconception that we are funded by pet food companies and are just trying to “sell them expensive food”, which we all know is not the case.
Having this baseline information will help us in the future if there are any diet-related issues – such as GI problems, diseases that require or can have some nutritional management or weight gain/obesity. It will give us a benchmark to know how to approach a conversation about a dietary change with our clients and their pets.
Our job as a veterinary professional is to:
- Educate owners about their pets’ specific needs
- Discuss owners’ concerns and questions regarding their pets’ food
- Give owners nutritional options that meet both of these criteria
Teamwork is key
Setting up the groundwork for regular nutrition assessments within your practice requires a consistent approach with consensus from the team that everyone is on board. Defining the practice’s philosophy on nutrition and training the entire staff on the key points is the best way to communicate this message to the client. We need to develop that consensus as a team ensuring the value of the assessment is understood as well as the reasoning behind it.
Defining the practice’s philosophy on nutrition and training the entire staff on the key points is the best way to communicate this message to the client.
- Are there any questions that the team get asked frequently that you could develop a practice position on, to ensure that there is consistency and the same message is being given by the whole team? This would also help those with less confidence in answering nutrition questions
- Review these FAQs frequently to ensure they are up to date with current research
- Decide on a body condition scoring (BCS) chart – 1 to 9 or 1 to 5. Have species-specific charts for the different species you see in clinic, have these available in every room and train team members in their use. Record the BCS every visit.
- Learn how to calculate a pet’s kcal requirement for the owner, so guidance for how much to feed is precise and accurate
- If you stock food in practice, make sure you have it available, especially commonly used prescription diets – this makes the transition smoother and part of the experience when exploring new food options
- Be open-minded about other diets. This links back to avoiding judgement: there are reasons people make choices about their pet’s food, but we can support them if they are comfortable talking to us
If we fail to make conversations about a pet’s nutrition routine within our consultations and normalised with the clients whilst the pet is well, it can make it more difficult to have these conversations when a change needs to be made. We need to have these conversations to understand why our clients make the choices they do – is cost a factor, is purchasing purely based on ease of access, are they drawn into key claims of a specific diet’s marketing? These factors help us get to know our clients better and understand their decision-making process when it comes to their pet’s food. This can help us tailor the language we use when discussing a change in their pet’s diet. For example, some owners will have no interest in the scientific research behind the diet but will be more interested in whether feeding it is going to impact their lifestyle and whether it is easy to purchase. Some may be more interested in the diet perhaps reducing their pet’s medication costs. Some may choose a diet because they believe it is the best for their pet – and it is our job to help them make these choices and decisions in an informed manner.
If we fail to make conversations about a pet’s nutrition routine and normalised when they are well, it can make it more difficult to have these conversations when a change needs to be made
What about for clients we don’t see regularly?
Normalising regular conversations about nutrition works well for those clients that we can get through the door – but can we have an impact outside the walls of our practices? The pandemic has opened up different avenues of communication. We can reach more than those in our practice. Using other tools at our disposal, such as social media, email and websites, we can provide a source of information that is researched, trusted and evidence-based. It is also a good way to share what your practice can offer.
Using other tools at our disposal, such as social media, email and websites, we can provide a source of information that is researched, trusted and evidence-based
You could host an online client education evening to promote your nutritional assessments and some of these can be performed online if someone cannot get into the clinic. Thinking outside the box with how we approach communication with our clients helps restore faith and trust in the veterinary practice as part of the community to support their pets: it makes the support accessible to all.
Why is talking about nutrition so important?
Introducing regular nutrition assessments and opening up the conversation around nutrition is beneficial in three significant areas:
- Benefit to the pet – we chose our profession to support pets and animals. That should always be our primary focus. If we can build relationships and open up conversations early then this is a huge benefit to companion animal welfare. We can ensure that the animal is getting the correct nutrition and that the owner understands why, and feels able to communicate their needs. We are hopefully preventing the problems that come with poor nutrition by having these conversations
- Benefit to the owner – we are providing a consistent and reliable source of trusted information. There is so much information available that owners can become overwhelmed and feel they are doing the correct thing when they actually may be unintentionally doing the opposite
- Benefit to the business – we don’t like to think of the veterinary practice as a business, but it is. Starting to build this relationship with our clients and their pets builds a loyalty and bonds them to the practice. It makes the business part of the community again; this is an important part of the customer journey and cycle within the veterinary practice
We are under pressure as a profession, having to adapt and change our ways of working in what seems a never-ending cycle. But we do have to remind ourselves why we chose this profession, and that was for our patients. Our patients come with our clients – their owners/carers. We have to be prepared to make the time and find the way to best communicate with them to achieve that goal of supporting the pets we treat.
As a veterinary nurse, nutritional assessments and support is an area we can own in general practice, and we are perfectly placed to be the communicator and liaise with the client to achieve this.