Animals have very different nutritional needs to humans. But telling that to pet owners who are convinced the human fad diets they swear by also benefit their cat or dog isn’t always easy, unless you know how. By Rachel Smith
Paleo. Veganism. Grain-free. Raw food. Fad diets are plentiful—and no-one could deny that as humans, we’re increasingly obsessed with what we should be eating. The trouble is when we assume such diets might suit our pets too—a trend which has vets increasingly concerned.
“We’re frequently asked by vets how to manage these conversations,” says Dr Mina Magelakis, scientific services veterinarian at Royal Canin. “We hear things like, ‘How do we tackle grain free? How do we tackle raw feeding?’ and other feeding regimes they’re hearing about. I’m not going to deny that it’s a challenging conversation to have with a pet owner, because you’re up against their own personal values and opinions.”
Dr Peter Higgins, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney and a practising vet himself, says small animal vets would be seeing issues related to diet every day—and potentially dealing with tricky pet owners who are convinced that they know better.
“The bane of a vet’s life is trying to convince the owner that what they’re doing is the wrong thing,” he explains. “A vet can say, ‘You really shouldn’t be feeding [your pet] this. This is the reason you’re here today and the dog or cat is sick, so stop feeding this diet’, but the owner will say, ‘That’s not what it says on Google’. It’s an increasing problem.”
The dangers of feeding animals a human diet
People applying the human experience to their animals is nothing new but in the case of nutrition, it can be damaging or even deadly.
“I’ve definitely come across pet owners thinking the pet would do really well on their diet—I’ve had a lot of vegetarians be very insistent, for example, but for cats, being obligate carnivores, this can be lethal. A cat cannot thrive on a vegetarian diet because they need the amino acids, essential fatty acids and vitamins contained in meat,” says Dr Claire Stevens, a veterinarian based on the Gold Coast.
Dr Higgins agrees, adding that cats put on strict vegetarian or even vegan diets can go blind quickly. “Often people won’t pick it up because the animal compensates with their other senses. They can also experience liver problems—and they can literally die from it.”
Busting the ‘myths’ out there about what pets need nutritionally is also something vets should prioritise when talking to owners who may have read and believed fad diet claims.
“For example, humans require vitamin C but cats and dogs can synthesise it themselves, so they don’t require it in their diet as much as we do,” says Dr Magelakis. “Another really common one we hear is the belief that pets cannot tolerate carbohydrates or they may suffer grain-related allergies—but we do know cats and dogs are completely capable of digesting carbohydrates. The vast majority of food allergens actually come from meat-based proteins.”
Are some fad diets better or worse than others?
While there are ‘alternative’ pet diets available that can be okay for pets, some are more difficult to balance nutritionally and are more likely to cause disease, explains Dr Magelakis.
“We’re frequently asked by vets how to manage these conversations. We hear things like, ‘How do we tackle grain free? How do we tackle raw feeding?’ and other feeding regimes they’re hearing about.”—Dr Mina Magelakis, scientific services veterinarian, Royal Canin
“The diets considered to probably pose the most risk for a pet’s health and wellbeing are raw diets or home-cooked feeding regimes. Studies suggest that balancing a home-cooked diet [for a pet] is incredibly difficult, even when you have the best intentions and due diligence. The supplementation of the diet is really complex and any minor changes to ingredients can alter the nutrient profile significantly,” she says.
“We’ve also responded to a lot of enquiries from vets about what to feed puppies who develop rickets as a result of being fed raw or all-meat diets that aren’t nutritionally balanced for growth. Rickets can have long-term detrimental health effects—but it’s completely preventable which is why education for pet owners about what’s appropriate is so important.”
Something else vets should consider mentioning to owners is that the bacteria in raw food diets for pets can cause serious illness, and contaminate the home environment and areas where the pet defecates. “That can pose a risk to the pet and to pet owners [with compromised immunity] such as young children, pregnant women or elderly people living in the house,” explains Dr Magelakis.
Insurance, ethics and extreme cases
How far does a vet go with a militant pet owner hell-bent on feeding Fluffy vegetables instead of meat, to the animal’s detriment? There are strategies vets could try, says Dr Higgins.
“Tell the pet owner to check their pet insurance policy,” he suggests. “If it says you shouldn’t feed a diet other than a normal dog or cat diet and that decision is usually made by the veterinarian, it could void the policy.”
He adds that in really extreme cases, when an animal becomes emaciated due to incorrect feeding, it’s up to the vet to play hard ball. “You could then say something like, ‘Well, we’ve spoken about this before. We may have to talk to the RSCPA [or another welfare body] about this’. Pet owners can be very stubborn, and believe that a diet is a good diet because they’re doing it themselves or because their own personal view is that vegetarianism or veganism is the only way to live—and that’s fine, but animals are different to people. Their metabolisms are different; they have different enzymes. It’s been my experience with cats particularly on these sorts of diets that they are not happy animals.”
Talking to tricky clients about diets
Pet owners who may have had their own health issues and extrapolate their experience onto their pets need careful handling, says Dr Stevens, who is developing a course for veterinarians about how to communicate better with clients.
Treading lightly, being respectful of the client’s experience and not using medical jargon is key, she adds. “Saying something lightheartedly, such as, ‘We buy Puppuccinos for dogs at coffee shops these days; I think often we forget he or she is a little wolf!’ can help pet owners to realise that maybe because it’s right for us doesn’t mean it’s right for the pet.”
Slowing down as a vet rather than rushing through the consult to get to the next patient can also help you better understand your client’s story, she adds. “How we use body language, how we frame our questions, how we listen—it all happens in the consult room. Either your client trusts you and you win them over or they go elsewhere.”
Dr Magelakis says it’s a fine line between making sure that you don’t personally offend the client, and that you give them advice that’s in theirs—and their pet’s—best interest.
“I do believe that pet owners want the best for their pet and in the vast majority of cases vets have well-established relationships with their clients,” she explains. “The education component really just comes more naturally from having this relationship—it’s just a case of identifying nutrition as an important conversation in the consultation room, and for vets to position themselves as the expert.”