When to Consult a Veterinary Nutritionist

Pet care & safety
Two cats eating cat food of a small white plate

Most people know when it's time to see a specialist –– their veterinarian tells them! But it’s not always so simple –– especially when it comes to seeing a nutritionist.

The Difference Between Specialties 

When pets suffer disorders like fatty liver disease, torn cruciate ligaments, severe allergic skin disease, and end-stage cataracts, practitioners like me recommend specialists like internists, surgeons, dermatologists, and ophthalmologists (among other specialty groups).

It’s not that general practitioners can’t treat these diseases. Rather, it’s that we know others are better qualified than we are to manage them –– at least in the acute phase, or when very specialized equipment or procedures are employed.

Yet as it turns out, not all areas of specialization are treated equally. Consider cardiologists, surgeons, and neurologists. They get plenty of our patients when bad diseases require fancy equipment and even fancier footwork. But nutritionists?

… not so much.

Don’t believe me? Go ahead, ask your own veterinarians for a list of specialty areas in companion animal medicine and I’ll bet nutritionists come very close to the bottom of the list. That is, if they remember to include them at all. (In case you’re wondering, I’m no exception to this not-so-collegial kind of memory lapse.)

Which is kind of sad, really, given the crucial importance of nutrition to the history of veterinary medicine and to pet health in general. After all, keeping pets in the home didn’t catch on until pet food manufacturers made pet-friendly diets cost-effective and convenient. And what’s more obvious to the maintenance of good health than what goes into our pets’ bodies?

Yet nutrition has gotten short shrift in veterinary medicine over the last decades. For plenty of reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, veterinary nutrition has arguably not kept pace with other veterinary disciplines –– and not just when it comes to collegial respect.

Indeed, veterinary nutrition is widely regarded as an industrial rather than clinical branch of vet medicine. And it’s precisely because newly minted nutritionist talent has long been channeled into the pet food manufacturing industry that plenty of veterinarians –– myself included –– have lost respect for nutrition as a clinical practice over the past few decades.

In other words, directly ministering to individual pets in need of veterinary assistance hasn’t historically been the focus of veterinary nutritionists. Fortunately, veterinary nutrition as a discipline has undergone a considerable shift in the past few years. To wit, far more modern veterinary nutritionists are committing their careers to treating particular pets rather than ministering to vast populations under the auspices of big-name pet food companies.

Trouble is, too few general practitioners like myself have been made aware of this growing trend towards individualized clinical veterinary nutrition. Indeed, too few of us know that we can actually refer our clients to these specialists, much less know who they are or how to find them. Which is why too few of you have been referred to one and why too few pets have reaped the benefits of this growing font of knowledge.

Which brings us back to the point at hand: When should your pet see a veterinary nutritionist? Here are but a few brief reasons to help get your wheels turning on the subject of clinical vet nutrition as you seek newer and better ways to improve your pets’ quality of life:

When You Should Consider a Veterinary Nutritionist

  1. Your veterinarian recommends a specialized diet (aka, “therapeutic” or “prescription” diet) your pet doesn’t want to eat. Palatability is a huge issue.

  2. Your pet suffers from two or more conditions that require different (and even competing) specialized diets.

    It’s not uncommon for pets to require one diet for their body’s propensity to form urinary stones and another to help manage their diabetes, food allergies, and/or dietary intolerances. When this happens you shouldn’t stress. Consider it a perfect opportunity to consult a vet nutritionist!

  3. You trust your own home cooking over that of any pet food manufacturer. Though pet food manufacturers are actually very good at offering a safe and wholesome product (consider the many millions of pets they feed and the relative dearth of adverse events), it’s understandable that many of us would want to cook for our pets. And when you make that decision, how better to do it than to get a recipe from a bona fide nutritionist? This way you know for sure you’re offering a complete and balanced diet.

  4. You make very specific dietary choices for your family and want to extend those to your pets, whenever possible.

  5. There’s nothing specifically wrong but your pet doesn’t seem to thrive on any one diet.

In these cases, you have nothing to lose from consulting a veterinary nutritionist.

So go ahead, ask your veterinarian for a recommendation. And in case he or she doesn’t have one readily on hand, check out the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition’s website. There you’ll find plenty of resources, including individuals, vet schools, and other sources to help you find a veterinary nutritionist that’s right for you.