There’s a common misconception that veterinary professionals don’t know anything (or very little) about animal nutrition and that self-professed ‘experts’ are who you should be asking for nutrition advice. Let’s break it down – who are the real experts and what do their titles mean? How much study have they done in animal nutrition and why are online short courses not enough to call yourself an expert?
How much study do veterinary professionals have in nutrition?
Firstly, you have Veterinary Nurses or Technicians (like myself); depending on where you gain your certificate or degree from, typically you are required to pass one or two modules (in a certificate program, such as the Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing), or a minimum semester’s study (in a degree program such as Bachelor of Veterinary Nursing or Bachelor of Veterinary Technology). Veterinary Nurses and Technicians can expand on this knowledge through Continuing Professional Development if it’s an area of interest and may like to undertake a Specialisation in this area through a Board Certification program, such as the North American Vet Tech Specialist in Nutrition (VTS Nutrition). To earn your Specialist title, you must have three years minimum experience in nutrition (after you have qualified), submit a case log and detailed case reports, satisfactorily demonstrate the ability to perform a number of advanced nutrition skills and have your knowledge assessed in a Board exam. These specialist nurses often support Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists, or can work in Animal Nutrition companies, consult with clients in general practice, referral hospitals, or critical care settings. This is what I’m working towards!
Next up, you have your standard Veterinarian. To get into graduate vet school, most vets will undertake a pre-veterinary undergraduate degree (depending on where they live or what University course they wish to enter) which is similar to the degree mentioned above; you must pass at least one semester of animal nutrition in undergraduate. Some courses will contain a few nutrition subjects, or have nutrition tied into physiology subjects to ensure this requirement is met. When vets move into graduate school (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), they typically need to again pass two semesters of animal nutrition. In some courses, this may be further broken down into a digestion or metabolism subject rather than being called ‘animal nutrition’. This is likely where the confusion around vets not learning about nutrition comes from; most DVM subject lists don’t explicitly say animal nutrition, however nutrition is worked into every single subject studied, especially since diet is included as part of a patient’s treatment plan for many diseases. These subjects are taught by either Nutrition or Internal Medicine specialists, not pet food companies as is another misconception – some of these specialists may contribute their knowledge to research that it’s used by pet food companies, or consult with them, but they do not promote a particular food, they teach the concepts behind why certain nutrients are required and what ingredients are used to provide them. Again, many vets also choose to expand their nutrition knowledge through Continuing Professional Development in maintaining their registration.
Finally, you have Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists. These guys are the experts when it comes to animal nutrition; they are veterinarians who have decided to specialise in Nutrition similar to the VTS program for nurses. To become Board Certified, vets need to enter into an additional two years of clinical training and research after their DVM (a total of up to 10 years of University education), publish peer-reviewed research, submit case reports, and then pass a two day Board exam. These vets can formulate commercial or home-made diet recipes, work in Specialist or University teaching hospitals, pet food companies or provide consultancy services to clients or other veterinarians.
Alongside Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists, you often find people with a Masters or PhD in Animal Nutrition. These people usually work with Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists or in similar settings. They usually aren’t Veterinarians, but have extensively studied or researched animal nutrition. You will often find these people working in animal nutrition manufacturing and formulating or undertake research in animal nutrition, rather than in clinical settings.
So who ISN’T an expert?
The title Nutritionist is not protected, therefore anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. You’ll also come across many online courses claiming to make you a ‘Pet Food Specialist’, or an ‘Animal Nutrition Expert’…this is simply not true. To use the title Animal Nutritionist (and work as one) you need to have a bare minimum Bachelor’s degree in Animal Nutrition that you may choose to extend your knowledge into a Masters degree (preferred) however as this is an unregulated field, anyone can use the title. If someone states they are a Specialist, however, this is a protected title, and you absolutely can get in trouble by misleading people by calling yourself one without Board Certification! Always beware of people who state they are ‘Specialists’ from an online course and they aren’t a member of the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists (using the post-nominals DACVN) or Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians (VTS Nutrition). Majority of online courses are designed for Continuing Professional Development, not certification. There’s also a number of online courses that have popped up from naturopaths or homeopaths that don’t have any animal nutrition certifications (as listed above) or have purely human nutrition backgrounds so it’s always important to investigate who is actually running said course if their information is from a credible source. Also steer clear of courses that claim to teach you how to formulate diets; this should never be attempted by someone without a bare minimum University education, or without the help of a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist, as this is extremely complex and should not be taken lightly – an online short course will never be able to teach you the complexities of formulating a complete and balanced diet, especially if your patient has specific disease processes at play. We see alot of misinformation coming out of these courses, aswell as from social media groups, breeders or groomers, friends of friends, or the dreaded Dr Google. Always check the source and the person’s qualifications to give out such advice – animal nutrition is a delicate and complex science, that should not be taken lightly or oversimplified. It’s so easy for the voices of the true experts to be lost in the sea of misinformation, so if you have a question, ask us, don’t Google it. In other words, trust the professionals.
If you want to learn more about animal nutrition and you aren’t a veterinary professional, there’s many places you can learn for your own interest, often free of charge! I recommend Mark Morris Institute website for (free) access to the Small Animal Clinical Nutrition textbook or if that’s too heavy for you, there’s some fantastic blogs out there by Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists such as Tufts Petfoodology or AAFCO Talks Pet Food! WSAVA also has some fantastic resources available for clients aswell as the vet industry. Alternatively, ask your vet team! If they don’t know the answer to your question, they’ll be able to refer you to someone who does or provide you with credible resources to help.
Who do you trust for animal nutrition info?