What is a veterinary nutritionist? 🩺
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve introduced myself as a Veterinary Nutritionist and was then met with a polite nod and a blank stare. Even my parents don’t really understand what I do. What does being a Veterinary Nutritionist actual mean? We often get confused with an animal or pet nutritionist…but we’re not the same thing. So how are we different and what can we each bring to the table?
It can be really confusing all these names, but let’s start with an animal or pet nutritionist. This is someone who has completed a degree or diploma in this field. These programs can be offered by anyone, and we’ve seen it all. There are degrees/diplomas being offered by qualified (and unfortunately sometimes unqualified) individuals who create their own online courses; others can be comprehensive, two to four-year programs offered by established universities. Generally, an animal nutritionist learns how to formulate and create diets to meet the nutritional requirements of animals, with a focus on optimising health and minimising disease. However, because there’s such a wide range of training and as the profession is unregulated, there can be varying levels of skills that ultimately come out of it.
On the other hand, the profession of Veterinary Nutritionist is tightly regulated. We are nutritionists as well (after all, it’s in the name), but in order to call yourself a “Veterinary Nutritionist” or specially, a “Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®”, you first have to undergo a very strict training program. A good analogy is a human dietician. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist after undergoing some type of training or experience, but to be able to be called a “dietician”, it means that person has undergone a specific, training program for it.
As Veterinary Nutritionists, we are veterinarians first. We love animals and have chosen to focus our career, and really our life, to taking care of them. Getting into and completing vet school is already an epic journey, and at the end we are doctors. At this point, you can start working as a veterinarian. But for some, we decide we want to further specialize in a particular area. I decided to specialize in nutrition because I’ve always loved cooking and was fascinated how the food we put into our bodies fundamentally dictates everything - how we grow, how we function, how we age, and how we stay healthy or develop disease. So, I wanted to learn more and dedicate myself further into this field.
Now, when a vet decides they want to become a Veterinary Nutritionist, they have to then get into a competitive residency program that will last another two to four years (depending on the program). During our residency training, we work in university veterinary hospitals and take care of both healthy and sick patients with their nutritional needs. The experience we get during our residency is an important part of building our knowledgebase and we see hundreds of patients during our program. We spend countless hours in the hospital, working with other specialists, speaking with pet parents, training veterinary students, making diets, and literally hand-feeding the sickest patients. It’s hard work, but it’s important work. Another big part of the residency program is our participation in research. We have to run a study and publish it in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. Some of us can also go on to get Master and PhD degrees. The veterinary degree is a science degree, but this further experience in research teaches us how to be better scientists.
After clocking the needed number of hours and seeing the needed number of cases, and ticking so many boxes, we’re finally allowed to sit the board examination at the end of our residency. If you pass this massive, multi-day exam, only then can you call yourself a “Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®” and you become part of a college. It’s not a “college” per say in the traditional sense of a university, but rather we are members of an organized group of professionals. The college that Meredith and I are part of is called the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM).
There are only two colleges for veterinary nutritionist in the entire world; the American college and the European College, which is the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN). Being part of these colleges is truly a privilege and a responsibility. Even once we’re in, we are constantly being held accountable by our peers and have to uphold a level of standard set by the college and show that we’re continuing our education. This is important because it makes sure that we’re keeping up with the science even after we receive our qualification. Becoming a veterinary specialist is a lifelong decision we make to dedicate ourselves to the field. There are currently only three Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists® in Australia, which is Meredith, me, and Scott Campbell in Queensland.
Hopefully that explains a bit what the difference is between a Veterinary Nutritionist and an animal or pet nutritionist. We’re not saying one is better than the other, as the worlds needs both! As veterinary nutritionists, though, who have gone through a residency training program, we just bring a different particular set of skills and experience to everything we do.