One of our many tasks is to help clients learn to provide an appropriate diet for their pets. Here’s how to create a fresh food plan.
A fresh food program is one of the foundations of most integrative practices. However, clients walking in the door for the first time may have never considered alternatives to “pet food” in its processed grocery store form. Some may be highly informed, yet missing some key knowledge, while others may be completely ignorant about food.
As veterinary technicians, one of our many tasks is to help clients learn to provide an appropriate diet for their pets. While this process may begin with the veterinarian, educated staff can provide ongoing and frequent support and monitoring.
The attitudes people have towards food are some of the most basic and primitive in their repertoire, so we don’t want to scare them. We need to make sure we are not striking at their most closely held beliefs and prejudices – at least until we have showed them a better way that they can understand. Effective food education and management is a much-needed service that’s a great boost for any practice.
Practice goals for nutrition
When a practice is able to supply information about ideal diets for each animal, and provide support for clients making these changes, compliance and success with dietary programs will soar and pets will heal better. We can provide information that’s more accurate and less biased than other sources clients may be using. People look to their veterinary practice to be informed – and yours can be one of the few places that does an excellent job.
The definition of “good nutrition” may vary in each practice and is usually set by the veterinarian. Many veterinarians are open to being educated by you, the technician. One goal of our practice is for patients to eat a “real food” diet, and one that’s appropriate for the animal’s body condition. This means the food is minimally processed, and raw or lightly cooked, depending on the animal. We want our clients to make their own food whenever possible. To achieve these goals, what is needed for implementation?
Do you have a simple, complete, AAFCO and NRC compliant program to offer your clients? There are many “cookbooks” available, but most writers have not gone to the trouble of analyzing their results, or are not quite putting things together properly. Use a program that’s complete.
Nutrition software can really help with this process, and back you up to make sure you have it right, but some programs are quite difficult to use. Steve Brown is perfecting his program (it should be available by mid-September) – it’s developed with the goal of helping veterinarians and support staff to formulate diets that meet nutrition needs (including ingredients for a raw diet).
Playing with a nutrition program is also an excellent way to learn. What happens to the mineral content of your diet if you use higher-fat meats? What happens to the calorie count if you use sweet potatoes instead of broccoli? What happens if you add a cup of rice to one pound of a meat and veggie diet? Some clients are excited to see the steps while others merely want actual recipes they can follow. Dr Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats was written with this goal in mind – people making food at home can be sure they are including all the components. Dr. Jean Hofve’s new book, Paleo Dog, is another excellent resource. If you give clients a simple and correct plan, it is much more likely they will do what you suggest.
Some clients are unable to go all the way to a fresh food diet, and some animals require a slow transition. In these situations, you can greatly reduce stress for both clients and staff if you offer information about commercial food, so your clients will not have to rely on material from possibly uninformed sources.
Steps for client participation
1. Write it down!
A thorough and detailed journal of one week’s diet prior to the beginning of treatment is an essential component of a successful program. The journal will sometimes provide clues that wouldn’t be elicited even with the most careful questioning or detailed form. Whether it’s on index cards and scraps of paper or an Excel spreadsheet, this daily record is priceless.
With this information in hand, we can evaluate the current status of the pet’s diet before meeting with the client. How many kcal is this animal consuming? What is the balance of the diet? What is the caloric percentage of protein, carbohydrate and fat? What caloric percentage of the diet is coming from treats? What exactly are those treats and how big are they? What kind of cup does the client use to measure food? Is the food fed wet or dry? Is the animal “free fed”? (If so, any estimate of the total food involved is suspect, so clients need to measure the amount they put in the bowl.) How much water is being consumed? All supplements should also be included. Even the most obsessive clients discover things they didn’t tell you when they keep a journal. The journal also frequently gives us insight into the client’s level of understanding, which helps us know where to start.
The journal also provides a real-life foundation on which to compare other foods and ideas, like the difference between an average 50% starch dry dog food and a frozen diet, or the fact that a grain-free diet is still 40% starch.
2. Meet the client: where to start?
Prior to meeting the client, evaluate the results of the journal and make a plan that includes some choices. Be able to show the client how you arrived at your conclusions. These skills can be taught to interested clients, but you need to be able to communicate this information so that clients really get it, even if they can’t do the numbers themselves.
Reading the food journal tells us what steps may be needed. Sort through the information and sit down with the client (have a phone consult if absolutely necessary, but in person is better). You may have an idea of the goal for this meeting, but this is the time to gently help the client understand rather than merely telling them what to do.
Present the results of your evaluation and help the client understand them. This proactive step is, in my opinion, one of the best relationship builders you can implement. It establishes the understanding that: “In this practice, we really mean we are a team. Here is your first experience with us, helping you find the best way to move through the process of improving your food program for your animal. We decide together.”
Set goals. The first might be as simple as eliminating three giant dog treats and picking up the food bowl. You both may decide to begin with introducing real food along with digestive enzymes and probiotics. Will these be done one at a time or all together? It has to make sense to the client, be within his or her capacity, and it has to be clear. Clients should go home with a written plan that will hold them until the next visit. Ask clients to check in weekly, even if it’s just to drop by for a weight check.
It’s useful to have a separate folder for food and supplement tracking that you can use with the client. You and the client both contribute to this file. Notes and changes are a lot easier to see if they are not mixed with the medical notes in the main patient file. You will hear about everything, and you will probably see both cell phone poop pictures and pictures of food preparation, which it is all part of the learning process. Clients love this personal relationship and we hear a lot more about what’s happening with their animals.
3. Stock some food options
When transitioning to raw food or any other different diet, clients need products for each step. Your team research will provide recommendations for what to carry at the clinic, what to recommend to clients, and where they can buy products. You can research the cost per animal, and find ways to help clients bridge the conceptual gap between thinking that pets should be cheap to feed, and understanding that good food costs money. Cost is an issue for most of our clients.
The best way to be sure the products you recommend get into the hands of your clients is to sell them.
Your role is important!
The veterinarians in your clinic will be involved at various points in this process, as decisions are made and new directions explored. Veterinary supervision, support and participation are critical, but for ongoing help with the animal and the learning process, support staff can provide a gigantic boost to the effectiveness of nutrition programs.
This article is a short overview of a complex idea, and is not intended to give you a complete blueprint on how to develop this area of your practice. Indeed, each practice is so different that each plan will be unique.