There are a few fundamentals to good health: being disease free, living in a suitable environment and having good nutrition. Good nutrition can be defined as having no deficiencies or excesses and providing the correct nutrition for the lifestage and exercise requirements of the animal.
A 5-year study showed that discussing nutrition at key points in the dog's life played a large impact on body condition scores (BCS) later on in life (Ackerman, 2012). In 2007, all dogs were recommended to be neutered at 6 months of age, this was irrespective of temperament or breed. Nutrition was discussed at the time of discharge from the surgery, in the post-operative examinations and then 3 months later during a RVN examination. These animals underwent what is now defined as the WSAVA Nutritional Assessment (Freeman et al, 2011) and a nutritional recommendation was given depending on the BCS and weight of the animal, but also the breed and the potential for continuation of growth. These animals were monitored for the next 5 years. The abstract showed that those animals that did not receive the RVN advice at the 3-month post neuter exam were 50% more likely to become obese 5 years later. This was irrespective of breed of dog and whether they were male or female.
This abstract really shows the importance of timely nutritional recommendations for individuals throughout their lifetime. Nutrition plays a key role in helping to prevent obesity.
Salt et al (2017; 2022) demonstrated that recording body weights and analysing them with use of a growth chart for both kittens and puppies can dramatically aid in obesity prevention. The continual monitoring of bodyweight and BCS throughout life is key. Keeley et al (2002) established that by maintaining an ideal BCS throughout life (in Labrador Retrievers) significantly lengthened the lifespan, and most importantly the healthspan, of these animals.
These are elements that RVNs can easily build into nurse clinics or consultations that are already being conducted in the majority of veterinary practices. Monitoring weight and having those key conversations makes a large impact. Being aware of the importance of what is said at key points of an individual's life does make a difference. The outcomes of these conversations might not be overtly obvious at the time, as we are looking at years down the line.
It is important to keep making nutritional recommendations – these don't need to be ‘use diet X’, it can be regarding use of a different lifestage product, or that the animal needs to reduce weight as we are starting to see a steady increase each year. Nutrition is an exceptionally large, lengthy conversation to have in a consultation room. It also includes how to feed the animal, for example the use of puzzle feeders, scatter feeders, times of day of feeding and many more behavioural and environmental factors. All veterinary nurses have a baseline knowledge of nutrition (a Day One competency in the UK), so everyone can have a baseline discussion on nutrition, the same as with behaviour, dermatology, physiotherapy and exercise. If the owner wants additional information or the animal needs additional clinical nutritional advice, refer them to an appropriate person. Making a clear referral recommendation on nutrition is important; otherwise, owners will go looking for this information elsewhere (the dog park, the pet food shop etc).
If you feel confident and knowledgeable enough to have these conversations, give yourself enough time. These are not quick conversations and can be very emotive. Food does equal love, in many people's eyes. People can be very defensive about what they feed their pet and might ‘hide’ what they feed, in order not to feel judged. How many people are truly honest when questioned about what food they eat or how much alcohol is consumed when questioned by their own doctor? Creating a rapport with the pet owner and having a relaxed conversation will help tease out all of the information required.
Making those nutritional recommendations is vital. Don't underestimate the importance of those key conversations at key times. There is evidence to support the importance of them in the outcomes (healthspan and lifespan) of the animals that we see.