Food is one of those most important topics that is discussed in the focus of my work, and it’s not surprising.
I use it as a positive reinforcement tool when I’m performing care duties for a pet, and I teach families how they can, too. It’s used as part of enrichment strategies that are appropriate to a pet’s telos, physical ability and emotional needs.
Food is sustenance.
It brings joy to families when they’re feeding their pet and it’s well-received, since it signals that the pet is feeling good about things and that they are doing at least reasonably well.
Pets need food to survive, at least until they are approaching the stage of animal hospice-supported natural death, where food becomes more of a burden than a support, but that is a topic best reserved for a post all on its own.
I’m often asked about what I think in terms of what food or foods are best for a pet. As a seasoned Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner (CAHP), I am qualified to speak to whether it not specific foods are safe for a pet (think foods and ingredients that are inherently toxic, or those that can trigger GI symptoms, like those that are high in fat). It’s also totally fine that I make safe suggestions on strategies that can help a pet be more willing to eat or hurdle an off day when an appetite is flagging to see if that’s helpful, before having to have the vet weigh in. This is actually good to do, since if it doesn’t help, the vet can use that data to decide what next steps should be.
The truth is, beyond that, I’m not the person to ask about what food or foods or are best for a pet. That’s not my lane. My professional training isn’t in veterinary nutrition, animal nutrition, or Traditional Veterinary Chinese Medicine (TVCM), where food is a focus of adequately supporting the patient. And those are the professionals whose lane that is. Yes, I get it: it’s not a popular point of view, and in fact my position is in conflict with many people who tout themselves as experts.
When a family expresses a hearty interest in supporting their pet’s well-being with food, I’m fully on board with that. Food is one of the cornerstones of supporting health. And when a pet is experiencing a health challenge, or age-related decline and even the journey through hospice, food can be a tool in the box to help them feel and do their best. In fact, its not unusual for a family-of-record to relay that they aren’t comfortable with a vet’s recommendation for a prescription diet when it becomes necessary, even though they can appreciate that those options are there. Or, they want to feed a fresh, homemade diet or even a raw diet, though they aren’t getting the support they’d like from the vet team to do that. The position of the clinician is understandable, and so I always open my response with that. There are many caveats to going homemade or raw, though by searching internet, you’d not know that—there’s lots of unqualified support for pursuing it anyway. And, families need to understand the problems that they might face in doing so without an expert reviewing their pet’s individualized needs.
Because it’s required that the primary or hospice vet be in the loop, I have happily referred families to the real professionals: veterinarians boarded in nutrition, veterinarians certified in TVCM, veterinarians with additional education and interest in assisting families with therapeutic diets and animal nutritionists (these professionals typically have MS or PhD level degrees). These professionals are able to, after reviewing a pet’s medical records, make their assessment and design a nutritional plan that is appropriate and safe for the pet’s needs. From homemade diets, fresh frozen and dehydrated options that are commercially available—and even raw—families can be matched with options that all involved can feel good about.
I’m also very excited to report that if families ask their primary or hospice veterinarian, who might not be that comfortable making recommendations for these options, they’re usually happy to liaise with online resources like balance.it and Pet Diets—companies spearheaded and powered by veterinarians whose specialty is nutrition and designing individualized meal plans.
If you’ve an interest in feeding your pet in a way that is aligned with your values and wishes and that serves your pet best, you deserve to have the best support possible to help make that happen—and that doesn’t come from armchair experts.
With over 20 years of experience in pet care and the past 9 of those focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner and Certified Fear Free Professional. She is CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC and can be found at lorrieshaw.com.