An Interview with a Veterinary Nutritionist

Nutrition can be a confusing topic for pet owners so PetPlace stopped by to ask one of the country's leading veterinary nutritionists, Rebecca Remillard, some of our most commonly heard questions.

Remillard is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist who works at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston.

PetPlace: What are the biggest mistakes owners make about nutrition for their pets?

Remillard: Unfortunately, owners assume that the same principles that work in human nutrition also always work in dogs and cats. Take vitamin C, for example. Most mammals make enough vitamin C in their livers. Only two species don't make vitamin C, and the human is one of them. Dogs and cats don't need vitamin C.

Sometimes, too, a client will say things like, "I lowered my pet's salt and cholesterol levels." That's fine, but it doesn't make any difference. Dogs and cats don't get arteriosclerosis. It doesn't happen even in the life span of a 20-year-old cat.

PP: Then what should pet owners worry about?

Remillard: Our biggest nutritional problem is obesity, and this can become expensive to treat in terms of medical care. For example, an overweight cat is more likely to become diabetic. Some people think it's kind of humorous to have an 18- to 20-pound cat rolling around their house. But it gets very difficult when the animal then develops diabetes, and we have to make decisions about giving insulin shots, changing his diet, etc. We see dogs and cats that are overweight, have musculoskeletal problems, ruptured ligaments, and difficulty breathing. Often, they weigh twice as much as they should.

PP: How can you tell if your pet is overweight?

Remillard: It's really not so much the weight anymore but how they're carrying it. Some of the pet food companies have come out with what they call body condition charts. Let's say the scale runs from one to nine, for instance, and five is the ideal. Well, there's a picture of an ideal dog. I tell clients, "I don't know what your pet should weigh, but this is what he should look like, and we'll either lose weight or gain weight until we get pretty close to this picture."

PP: How can you help your pet avoid obesity?

Remillard: A lot of bonding between people and their pets is, unfortunately, built around food. When we have a new puppy owner come in, we try to emphasize that you really shouldn't start feeding from the table. Don't start that pattern because 10 years from now it's going to be the kiss of death trying to break that habit if you have to. You might not ever be able to break it. Instead, build your relationship around other things like voice, patting, physical exercise and playing ball – anything but food.