April 26, 2017

Survey Says: Pet Owners, Raw Diets, and Veterinarians

A survey of pet owners who feed their pets raw food products reveals, among other things, a distinct lack of communication about nutrition in the veterinary office.
By Laurie Anne Walden, DVM, ELS
In a survey of over 2000 pet owners, researchers from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine found that owners who feed their pets raw animal products trust veterinary advice less than do other pet owners. Pet owners reported that nutrition was not discussed at most veterinary appointments. Communication between veterinarians and clients regarding nutrition can be improved, conclude the authors of the study, which was published in PeerJ in March.
 
Although diets containing raw animal products carry serious health risks for both pets and people, sales of freeze-dried and frozen raw pet diets have been increasing, say the authors. The most common pathogenic bacterium associated with raw diets is Salmonella, which pets can carry without showing any clinical signs but which can cause severe disease in susceptible animals and people. Pets that have eaten raw animal products can spread Salmonella and other zoonotic bacteria and parasites in the environment. Raw pet diets may also provide inadequate nutrition.
 
The researchers’ goals were to examine pet owners’ motivations for feeding raw diets and determine how much nutritional advice they sought from veterinarians. “A greater comprehension of the motivations and resources that lead pet owners to feed [raw animal product] diets may help veterinarians communicate with clients that have chosen or that are considering to feed these diets,” they write.
 
The investigators conducted an Internet survey of pet owners in the United States, receiving 2337 responses. Of these, 46% of dog owners and 38% of cat owners had fed their pets raw animal products. The resource used most often for information about raw diets was the Internet, cited by 20% of raw-diet feeders (14% used published references and 9% asked a nutritionist or veterinarian).
 
The most common reasons for feeding raw diets differed between dog and cat owners. Dog owners most often said they fed raw diets because the diets were “healthier” or “more natural.” Cat owners most often responded that they fed raw diets because of information they had gathered from “a veterinary resource other than my veterinarian” or because they “try not to consume processed foods and do not want my pet to consume them either.”
 
Raw-diet feeders were less likely than other pet owners to think that vaccination and parasite prevention were beneficial to their pets. Compared with other pet owners, those who fed raw diets were slightly less likely to take dogs, but slightly more likely to take cats, to a veterinarian. Owners feeding raw diets were significantly less likely than other owners to say they trusted veterinary advice “very much,” either in general or specifically regarding nutrition. Only about a third of all pet owners reported discussing nutrition at every veterinary visit.
 
The investigators propose that raw-diet feeders’ low level of trust in veterinary advice may result from poor communication between veterinarians and pet owners. They note that to communicate effectively, veterinarians must be able to explain the reasons for their recommendations. Veterinarians may not always be comfortable discussing nutrition because of insufficient training, they suggest, pointing out that only half of the veterinary colleges in the United States have a board-certified nutritionist on staff and that many schools do not provide specific nutrition training for final-year veterinary students.
 
“The results from this survey reveal that there is a need for veterinarians to discuss nutrition with clients,” they conclude. “Clients feeding a [raw animal product] diet are clients whose pets may benefit from attempts by their veterinarian to improve communication and nutritional competency.”
 
 
Dr. Laurie Anne Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. After an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, she returned to North Carolina, where she has been in small animal primary care practice for over 20 years. Dr. Walden is also a board-certified editor in the life sciences (ELS) and owner of Walden Medical Writing, LLC. She works as a full-time freelance medical writer and editor and continues to see patients a few days each month.

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