Nutrition

Providing diet consultations in relation to health and disease management

Our clinical nutrition service provides consultations on nutrition in health and on the nutritional management of diseases to optimize the health of dogs and cats. This includes obesity management, homemade diet formulation, critical care nutrition, and commercial diet recommendations for dogs and cats who are healthy or have various metabolic problems.

This service does not see patients through the typical appointment process. Instead, the consultation is handled through an online form and through phone and email communications. As a result, this service cannot provide prescription diets.

How we can help:

  • Homemade diet formulation including raw food diets
  • Obesity management
  • Therapeutic diet recommendations
  • Critical care nutrition including placement of feeding tubes
  • Recommendations for nutrition in healthy pets
  • Supplements and nutriceuticals

The nutrition service is staffed by Dr. Joe Bartges, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. He has more than 30 years of clinical experience and has made advances in the fields of companion animal nutrition and internal medicine.

Frequently asked nutrition questions

How do I choose the best food for my pet?

Your pet is an individual, and there are many food options out there. Choosing the optimal food for your part has many complex parts including economics, availability, your pet’s preference, your personal philosophies, and any health issues that may need to be addressed with diet. You should discuss nutrition for your pet with your veterinary health team. For more information, see the following article: Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats

How do I know how much to feed my pet?

While there are ways to calculate the assumed requirements of an average dog or cat, the exact calorie needs of any individual pet depend on genetics, environment, activity level, and life stage. It is important to keep in mind that foods vary widely in energy density, with different kibbles ranging from below 300 to more than 700 calories per cup! The caloric content of the specific food you are using should be determined in order to avoid over- or underfeeding. The prevention of obesity is very important for maximizing the health and lifespan of your pet. You should regularly evaluate your pet to ensure a proper body condition. Your veterinary health care team can help you determine the proper weight for your pet. However, for ensuring that your pet is in optimal body condition, you should easily be able to feel the ribs and your pet should have an hourglass shape when viewed from above. There are body condition score charts in the following article: Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats

What do pet food label terms such as natural, holistic, premium, and human grade mean?

Many of the terms used to describe pet foods on labels and in advertising materials are not legally defined. For example, there is no regulatory meaning for the terms holistic, premium, ultra- or super-premium, gourmet, or human grade.

The term “human grade” in particular is used frequently; however, there is no official definition. Pet foods are manufactured under FDA authority and, unlike human foods, are not subject to inspection by the USDA. The USDA officially defines products fit for human consumption to be “edible.” Thus, “edible” is a standard; human grade is not.  For a product to be deemed edible for humans, all ingredients must be safe for human consumption, and the product must be manufactured, packed, and held in accordance with federal regulations detailed in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. If a pet food meets these conditions, human-grade claims might be technically accurate. But a product formulated for a pet is unlikely to be nutritionally adequate for a human and vice versa. Because pets become like family members in many homes, it should be underscored that not everything that a human can eat is safe for a pet. To name a few, ingredients such as chocolate, macadamia nuts, and onions are edible and safe for humans but can be toxic to cats or dogs. In short, “human grade” does not mean a food is safe for animal consumption. Often, this term is used when the meat has come from a USDA meat-packing plant; however, not all products that come from a meat-packing plant are safe for your pet.  Interpretation and use of the term varies, and the definition is therefore dependent on the philosophy and marketing strategies of the individual manufacturer.

The term “organic” is legally defined and is observed by the USDA: USDA ORGANIC PROGRAM. This definition applies to foods intended for humans and feed for food-producing animals. It is important to note, however, that this definition does not apply to pet foods at this time. Until such regulations are developed for pet foods, those for human foods are being applied.

The term “natural” does have a legal meaning when applied to a food or ingredient and is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as follows: “[foods] derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” AAFCO specifies that the term is used only to describe products for which all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet this definition. An exception is made to allow the use of chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, or other trace nutrients to allow the food to be nutritionally complete and balanced; however, a disclaimer must be present in such cases.

According to AAFCO:

  • There is no requirement or statement that natural feeds or ingredients are safer than those produced by a chemically synthetic process.
  • Natural is a liberal term that includes more ingredients than it excludes—most pet food ingredients are derived from “plant, animal, or mined sources.”
  • A feed ingredient can be manufactured using the generic equipment and processes and still be considered natural.
  • A feed or feed ingredient can contain trace amounts of chemically synthetic compounds and still be considered natural.
  • Ingredients that are chemically synthesized, such as vitamin ingredients, mineral ingredients, preservatives, and special-purpose food additives are NOT NATURAL. Some examples include chelated minerals, mineral amino acid complexes, vitamin supplements, propylene glycol, calcium ascorbate, and other preservatives such as BHA and BHT, as well as artificial flavors and colors.

Are commercially available pet foods best for my pet?

Commercially available pet foods are required to meet certain standards related to nutritional adequacy for dogs or cats and production. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a collection of state feed control officials that set forth standards on nutritional requirements for dogs and cats. Pet foods sold across state lines must be nutritionally adequate based on various life cycle profiles. AAFCO further defines how nutritional adequacy is established either with feeding trials or chemical analysis. One last role of AAFCO is defining ingredients that are used in pet food manufacture. It is important to note that AAFCO is not a regulatory body. Pet food is legally regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA CVM). The CVM is the organization that has the responsibility and power to PROSECUTE pet food companies that make false or inaccurate claims.

Most pet foods sold in the United States are heat processed. This long-standing process involves using heat to cook ingredients and applies to both canned and dry foods.  Although commercially available heat-processed pet foods have been used safely for years, there have been periodic problems that have occurred even with traditional heat-processed foods. These have included contamination with infectious agents (such as Salmonella), molds (such as aflatoxin), toxins (such as melamine, cyanuric acid, and euthanasia solution), foreign objects (such as metal pieces), nutritional imbalances (such as high and low vitamin D and thiamine levels), and ingredients not listed on the label (such as animal proteins or soy). You can look up foods and medications that have been recalled on the FDA recall website (FDA Animal & Veterinary Recalls) and the AVMA website (AVMA Pet Food & Product Recalls/Alerts).

What about raw food diets?

Raw diets, both home prepared and commercial, have become more popular. Advocates of raw diets claim benefits ranging from improved longevity to superior oral or general health and even disease resolution (especially gastrointestinal disease). Proof for these purported benefits is minimal.  In one study evaluating kittens during growth using an AAFCO feeding trial for growth, kittens fed raw homemade diets did as well as those fed a commercial raw food or commercial heat-processed food. Digestibility was highest with the homemade raw food diet with no adverse effects 

There are risks and concerns associated with the feeding of raw diets with the major concerns being nutritional imbalances and infectious disease.  Commercially available diets, including raw food diets, must contain no Salmonella.  Raw homemade diets, however, have potential for infectious agents.  Commercially available diets, including raw food diets, must be complete and balanced in order to be sold.  Nutritional imbalances are more of a concern with homemade diets whether raw or cooked.

If you are interested in feeding a raw food diet to your dog or cat, then consultation with a veterinary nutritionist who will work with you is worthwhile.  There are more and more commercially available complete and balanced raw food diets available.  When feeding a raw food diet, practice good hygiene.  This includes:

  • Using separate utensils for handling your pet’s raw food diets
  • Keeping raw pet food separate from food for consumption by you and your family
  • Using disposable food bowls may be preferable to reusable food dishes as studies have shown that it is difficult to completely kill bacteria in reusable food dishes
  • Wear disposable gloves when handling raw foods
  • Always wash your hands after handling raw foods
  • Raw food diets should not be fed to puppies or kittens
  • Raw food diets should not be fed when young children, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals live in the household

Additional information may be found at:

I am interested in preparing my pet’s food at home. What should I do?

There are many reasons why you may consider preparing your pet’s food at home: health issues, lack of commercial pet food availabilty, a wish to better control the diet of your pet, etc. In general, home-prepared diets are more expensive than commercially available diets. Of course, they are also more time consuming to prepare. There are many recipes for home-prepared pet diets available on the Internet and in books; however, the vast majority of these are inadequate and unbalanced. The recipes are either vague in instruction, contain errors or omissions in formulation, incorporate potentially problematic ingredients, or feature outdated strategies for addressing specific disease conditions. They may also lack specificity about the exact amount to feed a particular size of pet. If you wish to prepare your pet’s food at home, consider getting a customized recipe and consultation with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Should I give my pets supplements?

In most situations, supplementation is not necessary if your pet is eating a complete and balanced diet. There are situations, however, where supplementation may be indicated despite your pet consuming a complete and balanced diet. These may be prescribed by your veterinarian for specific situations (e.g. fish oil and chondroitin sulfate/glucosamine for arthritis) or they may be beneficial to pets who have an increased risk for a problem (e.g. arthritis). If your pet is not doing well or as well as you would like them to on a particular diet, then try changing the diet, as supplementing the diet might not be helpful. You should tell your veterinary health care team about any supplements and treats that you are giving your pet.

What about treats?

When you as a pet owner visit your veterinarian, there should always be a discussion about your pet’s diet. This involves information about the total diet: all basic meals, treats, table scraps, food for training, food for administering medication, supplements, etc. It is important to note that some treats might not be appropriate for your pet. In addition to the potential that a treat contains a toxic food such as raisins, grapes, or certain artificial sweeteners, treats can also have a high caloric content with low nutritional value. If your pet is overweight, treat calories can contribute to weight gain. If a pet has a health condition such as urinary stones, gastrointestinal disease, food allergies, or chronic kidney disease, the nutrients and ingredients in treats can negatively impact the health of the animal.   Raw-meat-based treats may also cause additional issues, such as bacterial infections from contamination, or gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation from bones.

In addition, treats are frequently not complete and balanced. That means they may not contain the proper nutrients and/or may not contain nutrients in the proper proportions. Treat calories should make up no more than 10% of total daily calories to avoid unbalancing the diet as a whole. Even if your pet is healthy, you should discuss treat options with your vet to ensure that you help your pet stay as healthy as possible.

Are there food that I shouldn’t feed my pets?

There are many foods that should not be fed to pets because they are toxic or because they may cause other health problems. Examples include very high-fat items such as chicken skin, grapes and raisins, bread dough, macadamia nuts, chocolate, garlic, onions, and foods artificially sweetened with xylitol. More information can be found here: ASPCA Pet Poison Control.

How do I know if my pet is overweight?

Overweight pets are at higher risk for medical problems like arthritis and don’t live as long as their trim counterparts. How can you tell if your dog or cat is the perfect weight? Follow along with these steps:

Step 1: Do the Feel Test
You should always be able to easily feel your pet’s ribs by gently running the flat of your palms across the sides of the chest (just behind the shoulders in the middle of the chest).

Step 2: Look for the Tuck
For short-haired animals, you should be able to see an “abdominal tuck,” where there is no belly hanging down beyond your pet’s rib cage when viewed from the side. They also have a “waist” behind their ribs when you look at them from above. This may be harder in long-haired animals, but it’s easier to note when the coat is clipped or wet.

Another Trick: Compare to Your Hand
If you’re still not sure, put your hand out with your palm down and fingers straight. Gently run your other hand over the back of your hand – this is exactly how padded your pet’s ribcage should feel! Now, turn your hand over so your palm is up (with fingers still straight). Run your other hand over your palm.  If your pet’s ribs feel more like this, he or she is overweight!

What is a veterinary nutritionist?

Veterinary nutritionists are Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). They are veterinarians who are board-certified specialists in veterinary nutrition. Training involves intensive clinical, teaching, and research activities spanning at least two years. Trainees also are required to pass a written examination in order to obtain board certification.

Veterinary nutritionists are specialists that are uniquely trained in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with one or more diseases. Nutrition is critically important to maintain optimal health and ensure optimal performance, as well as to manage the symptoms and progression of specific diseases. Veterinary nutritionists are qualified to formulate commercial foods and supplements, formulate home-prepared diets, manage the complex medical and nutritional needs of individual animals, and understand the underlying causes and implications of specific nutritional strategies that are used to prevent and treat diseases.

Veterinary nutritionists may be involved in a variety of different activities, including conducting research, taking care of patients, consulting with veterinarians, owners, or industries, and teaching. Veterinary nutritionists work in a variety of different environments, including veterinary schools, pet food or drug companies, government agencies, and private veterinary hospitals. Some run their own businesses.

What are the qualifications and requirements for becoming board certified in veterinary nutrition?

The residency training program in veterinary nutrition is extensive. After achieving a degree in veterinary medicine and completing at least one year of internship or clinical experience, residency training includes at least two years of study, with a focus on both basic and clinical nutrition as well as research and teaching. Trainees study under the mentorship of at least one board-certified veterinary nutritionist and often with contact with many others over the course of the program. Some programs also require graduate-level coursework and rotation with other specialists (such as Internal Medicine, Critical Care, and Clinical Pathology). Trainees must prepare and write three case reports to qualify to take the board exam. The two-day written examination is offered annually and covers a wide range of nutritional and medical knowledge.

Where can I find additional nutrition resources?

NRC Guidance for Pet Owners
Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs – A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners
National Research Council of the National Academies, 2006
Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs – A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners
National Research Council of the National Academies, 2006

Web Pages

These web pages are intended to provide information to veterinarians, students and owners. They were selected based upon the credibility and source identification of the information. The ACVN is not responsible for errors or omissions in any of these sites, and their views do not necessarily reflect the views of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or its Diplomates.

American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition
American Society for Nutrition http://www.nutrition.org/
American Society for Parenteral & Enteral Nutrition
American Veterinary Medical Association
Association of American Feed Control Officials
Consumerlab.com (tests dietary supplements for purity, potency, bioavailability, etc.)
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (regulatory and safety issues, adverse event reporting, meetings, industry information)
FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine
FDA Recall List
National Animal Supplement Council
NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements (fact sheets, safety notices, database)
Nutrient Composition of Whole Vertebrate Prey
Pet Food Institute
Pet Food Institute Consumer Information
USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (general supplement and nutrition information, links to a variety of dietary supplement websites)
The United States Pharmacopeial Convention Dietary Supplement Verification Program
Veterinary Information Network

WSAVA – Global Nutrition Committee – Nutrition Toolkit & Guidelines

* The above questions were modified from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition web site (http://www.acvn.org).