Clients can treat their pets like their children and may want them to eat exactly like they do
There is a lot of thought that goes into what pet parents want to feed their cats. If the pet owners are vegan or vegetarian for example, it can create a moral dilemma for them because if they are no longer eating animal products, they may not want their cats to as well. As the pet’s veterinary team, it is the clinic's job to hear the clients out and guide them to a diet they are comfortable with that also still gets their pet all the nutrients they need.
Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, PhD, DECVCN, took a deep dive into why clients would feed alternative diets to their cats and understanding client motivations in her lecture “Navigating Alternative Cat Foods: Intersection Between Cat Needs & Client Preferences” at the American Association of Feline Practitioners Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.1
Owners want to control the ingredients within their pet’s food. If they are uncomfortable with mass production, bigger companies, preservatives, or flavors with the food on the shelves at the store, they will look elsewhere or try homemade diets. Other motivating factors for alternative diets could be the client's religion or their own diets, and want their pet to have the same diet. The motivation could also be as simple as their wanting to include their cat in their diet because their pet is family.
“Owners have a lot of different motivations as to why they feed these types of food. A lot of it relates to just the fact that they want to include their cats as a family member. It's part of their culture, [their cat is] their baby, and its all about that human-animal bond. Food is love and they want to [feed them] as good as we can,” explained Verbrugghe.
“But it all comes from that good place, where they're really investing in the pets, being there, trying to do the best that they can. And sometimes that reflects religious beliefs, ethical concerns, or personal identity, mistrust, and conventional pet food manufacturing. [They can have] negative attitudes towards the ingredients used in the pet food industry or towards food processing,” she continued.
Verbrugghe also told attendees that the misinformation on the internet is feeding into the concerns of regular pet diets, making them want to shift to an alternative diet. It is important to remember that the pet owner’s requests for diet information are coming from a place of concern and care for their pet, making them more and more invested in their cat's diet.
For pet parents who want their pets to have what they consider a more natural diet, they will ask and explore raw meat-based diets. These diets can be homemade by clients, or they can use a commercial raw product that ranges from grain and supplement mixes to completely frozen food. When compared to a traditional commercial diet, raw meat diets are thought to be minimally processed, contain less grain, and lower amounts of carbohydrates. Although, Verbrugghe informed attendees that there needs to be more research done on these diets.
“There's not a lot of a lot of good evidence out there, and I agree we need more research. Maybe there is a benefit. I'm not saying that there's none, I just think we need more research,” said Verbrugghe.
“What is out there is the risk, the risk that the nutritional adequacy is not good. Nutrient deficiencies, nutrient excesses, and toxicities can certainly happen. Think about that cat without a central liver. Bones can cause damage [blocking] parts of the gastrointestinal tract and cause trauma. So again, a list of raw ingredients that could lead to these patients at risk.
For pet parents interested in this diet, veterinary teams need to make sure that they understand the risks of this diet. Homemade raw diets, and even some commercial ones, may not include all the nutrients cats need. Verbrugghe also brought up to attendees that these diets can pose a health risk to the entire household because it could be contaminated with Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listera, and other pathogens or parasites.
The veterinary team should also emphasize to clients they need to be extra cautious if they are feeding this diet in a household with someone who is elderly, or a child, has immunosuppressive infections, undergoing chemotherapy, or is being treated for anti-inflammatory medications.
This guidance could mean recommending a heat-processed food, homemade, or commercial, or the team can help clients pick or formulate a balanced raw meat-based diet and give clients tips to make sure they are creating a raw meat diet that is as safe as possible for the entire family.
It is important to keep in mind the cat and the owner when discussing alternative diets such as raw meat. Teams should discuss all diet options with the pet owner before developing a specific diet plan to make the client feel comfortable, respected, and heard. Verbrugghe warned that validating the owner's concerns is not the same as agreeing with them and teams can prevent any miscommunications by taking the time to hear and understand the owner’s dietary viewpoints. Communicating and checking in with clients is a key part of making sure their pet is getting the nutrients they need.
“Navigating these alternative diets conversations, we really have to keep in mind both to cat and the owner. Diet recommendations that work for the patients that are more successful with client compliance and adherence, we often have to move away from the traditional let's fix the problem [or] let's find the problem and fix it. We often have to go into a mindset that is much more client-centered, and much more collaborative, even if that is not always where we want to go with our alternative diets. We want to go with our alternative guidance, but I think we're all in it to help the pets as best as we can,” Verbrugghe concluded.
Verbrugghe A. Navigating Alternative Cat Foods: Intersection Between Cat Needs & Client Preferences. Presented at: American Association of Feline Practitioners 2023 Annual Conference; Memphis, Tennessee; October 12-15, 2023.