Nutrition credentials and their role in pet food formulation

Two experts in veterinary nutrition share their differing perspectives as a result of their distinct paths through the industry

Content sponsored by Blue Buffalo

Pet food development and manufacturing require a team of highly trained nutrition professionals for a successful offering to consumers. Veterinarians often ask what the differences and similarities are between Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists and MS and PhD animal nutritionists. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has provided guidelines for pet owners to assist in the selection of pet foods, and it emphasizes the key role that both pet food formulators (animal nutritionists MS- or PhD-trained) and veterinary nutritionists (DACVIM [Nutrition] or ECVCN) have in development of pet foods. Laura Gaylord, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), and Matt Panasevich, PhD (Nutritional Science), provide their perspectives on their training, how their roles are involved in feeding pets, and how these roles work together.

Q1. What are your credentials and education, and what made you decide to take this route?

Gaylord: Nutrition has always been a passion of mine both personally and in veterinary practice, and so after completing my doctorate in veterinary medicine degree and working 14 years as a general practice veterinarian, I decided to pursue an alternative tract clinical nutrition residency program through my DVM alma mater, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

This training was intensely focused on the clinical aspects of nutrition, but it also laid the foundation with educational requirements in nutritional biochemistry, physiology, and metabolism. As nutrition residents, we manage nutrition plans for intensive care inpatients, referral patients in the different specialties at the teaching hospital (internal medicine, cardiology, oncology, dermatology, etc), participate in nutrition-focused research projects, review and seek to publish peer-reviewed studies, and assist with educating students enrolled in the veterinary medicine doctoral program.

I still currently work directly with pet owners, veterinarians, and veterinary specialists through my business, Whole Pet Provisions, PLLC, to design optimal nutrition plans for our patients that will support wellness and/or managing disease conditions. I also am involved with several ongoing research projects in collaboration with colleagues and enjoy working as an independent consultant with pet food and pet supplement companies

Panasevich: I received my bachelor’s degree in animal sciences with a minor in nutritional sciences from Cornell University. I received my MS in animal sciences and PhD in nutritional sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My research emphasis during graduate school was on dietary fiber’s effects on the gut microbiome and gastrointestinal health in companion animals.

After graduate school, I did a postdoctoral research assistantship at the University of Missouri in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology and School of Medicine, where I investigated the links between nutrition, the gut microbiome, and metabolic syndrome. Currently, at the Blue Buffalo Co, I am in R&D Pet Nutrition Technologies as a senior nutrition scientist. I investigate nutritional technologies and concepts for new product formulations and renovations for both OTC and veterinary prescribed diets. I’ve always been intrigued by companion animal and human health and how nutrition plays a pivotal role in health.

As an animal sciences major at Cornell University, I was involved with nutrition research under a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist. This was an eye-opening experience that emphasized the important contributions one can have from the angles of both a researcher and clinician. This overall helped guide my decision to pursue a PhD.

Q2. What is the primary focus of the role of animal nutritionist and veterinary nutritionist?

Gaylord: The veterinary clinical nutrition specialty focuses on how nutritional interventions can support wellness as well as modify disease states in our pets at every life stage. After completion of a residency training program, veterinary nutritionists may work in academia, in research, in clinical practice, for individual pet food companies, or balance a combination of these roles.

Veterinary nutritionists working in clinical practice will apply these skills to design the best nutrition plans for their patients. They may assist with critical care management, design assisted feeding plans for patients in the hospital (enteral or parenteral methods), or design longer-term plans for at home feeding with commercial foods, homemade foods, or a combination.

Veterinary nutritionists are uniquely positioned to draw from both their education and experience in clinical practice to assist with the inspiration and development of pet foods and pet food formulations. Veterinary nutritionists can also be valuable in assisting with the education, marketing, and distribution of pet food products to pet owners as well as veterinarians and pet food company sales teams.

Panasevich: From an animal nutritionist perpsective, diet formulation, evaluation of finished product nutritional data, and incoming raw material should be of utmost importance to pet food manufacturers for safety. Furthermore, delving into the scientific literature and evaluating new concepts to make pet food better and remain safe is equally important.

Exploring novel concepts and asking different questions are what help drive research and innovation, which sparked my interest to continue down the research path. Graduate school training brought a focused approach on nutrition, health, and disease. Indeed, there is a comprehensive nutritional science curriculum, including courses in advanced companion animal nutrition, microand macronutrient metabolism, requirements and regulation of metabolism, and policy and regulatory factors.

These courses prepare us to formulate diets, understand nutrient deficiencies and nutrient toxicities, consider life stage nutrition, design regulatory and feeding studies, focus on therapeutic/disease state nutrition, and evaluate ingredients. In addition, nutritionists complete thesis requirements by conducting experiments, analyzing and interpreting results, and presenting the findings at scientific conferences. Both the curriculum and extensive laboratory and experimental design training gained from graduate work provide a foundation for a career in pet food formulation and manufacturing.

Q3. WSAVA’s Global Nutrition Committee has guidelines on selecting pet foods. How do they pertain to your expertise?

Gaylord: Question 1: “Do they employ a nutritionist?” can refer to either a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist or a PhD animal nutritionist. Ideally both should play an integral role in a pet food’s development from start to finish.

Question 2: “Who formulates the diet?” may refer to the individual who selects ingredients and balances the recipe for that product. The veterinary clinical nutrition residency training program emphasizes the clinical aspects of nutrition as it relates to wellness and management of disease conditions, but it may not specifically emphasize the intricacies of pet food formulation nor the food science knowledge required for production, especially on a large scale. While the training programs typically incorporate an overview of the industry, most veterinary nutritionists interested in focusing on pet food formulation will seek additional training and education beyond their clinical residency program or work in collaboration with a PhD animal nutritionist.

Questions 3 and 4 refer to quality control for ingredients and finished products and nutrition research, and this aspect also is best served with collaboration and input from both types of nutritionists. Veterinary nutritionists contribute to the body of nutrition knowledge via research and publications through their work in clinical practice, academia and industry. Lastly, product labeling will also be overseen and reviewed by both veterinary nutritionists and PhD animal nutritionists.

Panasevich: For the first 3 WSAVA questions, it is no surprise that providing nutritionally adequate and safe food should be of primary importance to both a pet food company and consumer. Furthermore, with the unique nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, it is vital that each meal is complete and balanced.

The unique hard skill sets gained from graduate training in nutrition are directly relevant to these needs of a pet food manufacturer. Nutritionists are continually evaluating incoming ingredient data to deliver the intended nutrients in formulation, and subsequently confirming this with the result in the final formula. These checks, plus shelf-life stability, toxicological assessments, and microbiological safety before, during, and after the product is made, are a necessity. Nutrient toxicities and deficiencies are directly linked to formulations and ingredient quality.

Animal nutritionists provide guidance by formulating and overseeing the formulations of commercial and veterinary-prescribed diets being fed to the general pet population. Understanding the complexities of ingredient-processing interactions and their impacts on feeding outcomes such as palatability, digestibility, and stool quality are vital to product safety and must not be overlooked by trained nutritionists.

The fourth and fifth questions raised by WSAVA in guidelines in selecting pet foods are: What kind of product research or nutrition studies have been conducted? Is it published in peer-reviewed journals? These are arguably the most rewarding part of research and development. Similar to assessing product safety through formulations and raw material assessments, advancing animal health and well-being should be equally important to pet food manufacturers.

When enrolled in a graduate program, one is continually challenged to think critically and ask questions on how to improve and further the knowledge in their respective field. Delving into the scientific literature on novel concepts related to human, production animal, and preclinical models stimulate innovation in companion animal nutrition. Consumers will always have a demand for nutrition above and beyond their basic requirements and will often assume what is healthy for them is also good for their pets. Scientists should continually be evaluating novel ingredients or nutritional strategies that are hypothesized to support health or are beneficial in a disease state.

Furthermore, research and development programs at pet food manufacturers should go through the process of publishing their findings to showcase the validity of these concepts and advance the field of companion animal nutrition.

Q4. How do you feel animal nutritionists and veterinary nutritionists can work together? Also, what other careers can these roles serve in the pet food and veterinary fields?

Gaylord: I like to say “it takes a village” to develop, produce, and market a high-quality and successful pet food. Each type of nutritionist brings to the table advanced nutrition training and research skills however the approach of each is somewhat different and the best pet foods are made when there is a successful collaboration of both working as a team.

Veterinary nutritionists will utilize their clinical knowledge of prevention and best management of health and disease conditions, while animal nutritionists will overlay their expertise in ingredient quality, formulation, processing impacts, and food science. In addition to developing pet foods, veterinary nutritionists (but also animal nutritionists) can serve as educators for veterinarians, pet owners, and others within the pet food industry.

Both may also serve at the state and federal levels in government and regulatory functions. We also find them working in pharmaceutical, biomedical, toxicological, and environmental research.

Panasevich: Although PhD animal nutritionists have extensive backgrounds in experimental design, diet formulation, evaluating ingredient quality, and understanding processing impacts on nutritional outcomes, their clinical nutrition experience is limited. Their approach is often more focused on the general healthy population and less focused on individual needs or diseasestate nutrition.

Veterinarians in clinical practice provide valuable perspectives, understand client needs, and see firsthand common health conditions. Formulating diets to address disease states such as urinary stones, kidney disease, obesity, food allergies, cardiac disease, and more requires special consideration of macro- and micronutrients levels or inclusions. A veterinarian with advanced nutrition training can help identify the impacts of nutrition on preserving health as well as management of disease states.

Veterinary nutritionists in clinical practice also understand the client demand and can help provide a nutrition solution that can meet expectations. The clinical efficacy of diets is also critical to communicate to practicing veterinarians and further demonstrate a pet food company’s credibility. Both animal and veterinary nutritionists can collaborate on formula design, evaluate the clinical efficacy, and communicate the diet’s benefits.

As the approach toward nutrition from a graduate research perspective vs veterinary medical training is different, drawing from each of these perspectives can certainly help deliver the best outcomes for pets. In summary, nutrition is a highly collaborative science and it must be a team effort within the pet food industry.

Both animal and veterinary nutritionists play pivotal roles in the areas of ingredient/ raw material qualification, regulatory, quality, food safety, academia, and government. Together they have a direct impact on feeding the pet population.

The demand by consumers for nutrition above and beyond the basic nutrient requirements is growing. Pet owners seek to align their pet’s food with their own personal values. It is truly an exciting time for all nutritionists to be involved in pet food and help guide these demands into innovative products.