Wellness Nutrition Part 1: Nutritional philosophy and determining diet quality

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you recommend a particular type or brand of pet food?  Maybe your pet has always been on it and has a beautiful shiny coat, fresh breath or just enjoyed the food. Maybe it’s what is cheapest or most convenient to purchase.

Does your clinic have a nutritional philosophy?

What do I mean by a nutritional philosophy?  The following are all examples of nutritional philosophies:

‘To feed a diet of raw whole foods similar to what was consumed by wild ancestors’

‘To produce as many diets as possible to meet all consumer demands’

‘To provide a diet that contains controlled levels of nutrients that when in excess or deficiency cause harm and to provide a high level of nutrients that have been shown to have health benefits’

‘To feed a diet formulated according to the principles of evolutionary nutrition’

‘To provide a diet that is complete and balanced for a particular lifestage’

Do the brands you recommend align with the nutritional philosophy of your clinic? Why is this even important? It can be quite hard to tell a product’s quality most of the time. The ingredient statement tells you little about product quality, and statements like holistic, grain free, premium and super premium are not clearly defined or regulated. It can be hard to navigate the marketing to find something helpful about the quality of the diet you are purchasing and /or recommending.

Several practitioners have asked me how they can assess the quality of a diet.  This can be really hard to do and that’s why knowing a company or brand’s nutritional philosophy is useful, as it enables you to have some idea about how it has been created. How can you find this information? The best way is to do some research on the company website, look on the bag itself or alternatively ask the company representative.



Questions to ask to assess quality…

  • Where is the food manufactured? Is it through the company’s own manufacturing facility or through a third party?

A company that uses its own manufacturing facilities is likely to have better oversight of quality control.

  • Have feeding tests been done to substantiate nutrient bioavailability or has the food been formulated to meet recommended levels?

There are two methods of determining nutritional adequacy of pet food: feeding tests or the formulation method.

As the name suggests, in the formulation method the food is designed to meet the nutritional levels for the intended species as established by an official publication (e.g AAFCO or FEDIAF) with no feeding trial to validate the nutrition provided. This method is quicker and cheaper than performing a feeding trial.

The advantages of a feeding trial are that pet acceptance and nutrient bioavailability are tested. To qualify as a feeding trial a minimum of 30 dogs or cats must be fed on the diet exclusively for 6 months. During this time they are weighed, have at least two thorough veterinary physical examinations and blood is taken for a series of tests. This method provides a much stronger reassurance that a food is fit for the purpose for which it was designed.

  • Where have the ingredients been sourced from?

This could give you a clue to the likely quality of the ingredients.

  • Is the formula fixed or variable?

How can you tell? If the ingredient list says pork and/or chicken/and or beef etc. this means the diet varies from batch to batch depending on which ingredients were cheapest or most readily available at the time. A fixed formulation means that you know exactly what is in the food and the nutrition delivered will be consistent, because it doesn’t vary from batch to batch.

  • Is the diet life stage appropriate?

A diet that says it is suitable for all life stages is obligated to meet the requirements of the most demanding life stage, which is growth. This means the diet is not best suited for a mature or senior pet, as it will contain an excess of some nutrients that may be harmful to older pets eg. minerals such as calcium and phosphorus.

  • What are the levels of minerals or ash?

Higher levels of minerals or ash in a diet may be due to high levels of bone in the food’s meat ingredients. It is important for the health of the animal that levels of specific minerals are controlled. For example, diets high in calcium may cause problems in patients prone to developing uroliths and in large breed puppies where it can cause developmental orthopaedic diseases such as hip dysplasia and osteochondritis dissecans. A less premium food may simply label ash, and not provide a breakdown of relevant minerals, therefore there is not the transparency to make an informed decision on the foods nutrient profile.

  • Does the diet contain high levels of antioxidants and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids?

Antioxidants fight free radical production and help to ensure a healthy immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation. An omega 3 FA known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is important in healthy brain and vision development. Omega 6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) are important for a healthy skin barrier and help give our pets a shiny coat.

The answers to these questions provide an overall impression of the diet quality and the company’s nutritional philosophy.  Stay tuned for our next blog, Wellness Nutrition Part 2: developing a nutrition protocol and how to start the conversation with your clients.


Blog by Dr Annabel Robertson BVSc (Hons) MANZCVSc MBA

Annabel graduated from the University of Melbourne with honours in 2008. Since then she has worked as a small animal veterinarian in private practice in Australia and the UK. She also completed an internship in small animal medicine during this time and sat her membership in small animal internal medicine in 2012, and finished her MBA in 2015. Annabel joined the Hill’s team in 2015 as a technical services vet in Melbourne. 

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