Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
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I forged a large part of my veterinary practice philosophy around the principle that when something is logical and dependable, it becomes more believable and trustworthy. For over 20 years, I’ve encouraged colleagues to follow that simple tenet to elevate their clinical practice. I’ve applied it to staff training, education, patient care, client services, personal habits and more.
When applied to pet nutrition, consistent messages create credibility and promote compliance. They help your team and clients to understand your feeding philosophy clearly. Without uniform pet food principles, staff members and clients are left to hack together impulsive suggestions that might differ from visit to visit. That certainly doesn’t create credibility or trust, and it doesn’t enhance the quality of life for the pets we serve.
This article is the first in a three-part Clinic Consult series on developing a successful nutrition program in your clinic, brought to you by Virbac.
Clinical consistency is constructed by developing a pet food philosophy, gaining a consensus, training your team to assess patients and educate clients, and motivating the staff to pursue advanced knowledge and expertise.
Here are the three steps to pet nutrition success.
1. Develop Your Feeding Philosophy
A pet food philosophy can be as simple or complicated as you like, but it’s something you need. Promoting a healthy diet is essential for our profession’s continued success and domain authority. Being proactive in recommending pet food is an opportunity to remain relevant in a variety of pet care sectors. Unfortunately, few veterinary practices give their feeding philosophy much thought and fail to succeed in pet nutrition, leaving them vulnerable to online retailers.
As clients seek help choosing food, they inevitably find answers online. When veterinarians ignore pet food and impart little guidance, any information a client discovers is more than the clinician provided. Regardless of the veracity of internet information, the searches can lead to hard-to-break habits.
Online retailers understand that reality, and once they secure the first pet food order from your client, it’s incredibly easy for them to add monthly flea and tick preventives, supplements, supplies, and prescription medications. As I’ve warned over the past 15 years, pet food is the gateway to all pet product sales. If you’re wondering where your pharmacy sales have gone, chew on the amazing websites that sell pet food.
Veterinarians need to develop a feeding philosophy that transcends brands. For the past 50 years, most veterinarians settled on supporting two or three major brands, and they called it gospel. Today, hundreds of brands produce excellent foods. However, modern pet owners want more than just a brand recommendation (although they need that, too), and they demand the principles behind our suggestions.
For example, let’s say you believe that higher-protein kibble is best for your patients. Instead of leading with a brand recommendation (“You should feed Gracie Brand X.”), explain your position and let the brand follow organically.
Try this messaging: “For my patients and personal pets, I’ve found a higher-protein, lower-calorie formulation to provide the most health benefits, especially in promoting lean muscle mass. I also prefer a dry kibble because of its convenience and reasonable cost, and my two dogs love it. For Gracie, I believe the best diet for her age, breed and condition would be Brand X. What do you think?”
You’ll come across as less “sales-y” and more “doctor-y” by framing your advice in science and evidence. Whatever feeding philosophy you choose, just choose one and promote it to your team and clients.
2. Gain a Consensus
The most successful and happy practice teams have a few common traits. The first is they share the same vision and mission. As for pet nutrition, they agree that certain foundational principles are preferred. For example, some teams might choose higher protein and fiber formulations of dry kibble, while others promote lower protein canned diets and some support fresh or home-prepared meals. The specifics matter, but the common denominator is the commitment to educate clients about the unified feeding philosophy. Having a consensus is one thing, but the attribute that tips these teams toward greatness is acting on their shared standards. Veterinary teams should commit to educating every pet owner about the best diet for their dog or cat during nearly every visit.
Another trait of successful teams is civility and a desire to collaborate. A consensus is earned not by defeating an adversary’s idea but by merging competing concepts into a blend of the best. This process needs to be respectful, thoughtful and guided by the practice’s leaders. It is up to clinic owners and leaders to determine the ultimate protocol or policy and shepherd it into acceptance. Poor or undefined leadership is often to blame when teams lack clarity in purpose and a consensus in policies. That forces clients to ask the internet what to feed their pets.
Not everyone is expected to agree with everything; however, team members should consistently promote clinic policies. If an employee is unwilling to collaborate or support your consensus views, then you must ask whether the person fits well with your mission and vision.
Willingness to change and iterate is another characteristic of collaborative and unified teams. A consensus is an infinitely dynamic process, always open to exploring progress and improvement. This is especially pertinent to pet nutrition. I appreciate colleagues who offer opposing opinions and are willing to discuss differences courteously. If their ideas improve a policy or procedure, that’s progress. If they fail to shift our position, they must be willing to support team solidarity.
Passion is the final feature of unified workplaces. Once a consensus is gained, the team enthusiastically shares the concept or policy. In fact, if your team isn’t excited to share something as important to pet health as diet, then they probably aren’t unified. Passion is the key because lukewarm recommendations will fail to inspire staff and clients. Your team wants its leaders to show fervor in their beliefs. Pet owners want your team to “really feel it” if you’re advising them to follow along, especially with pet food. Enthusiasm generally signals authenticity, authenticity emanates from consistency, and the flywheel of trust keeps spinning.
If you’re struggling to gain a consensus, try this exercise:
- Write down your desired policy, procedure or vision. Writing forces you to critically evaluate your idea and helps refine the message.
- Ask a couple of trusted colleagues to review it. Then, after revisions, take it to your team.
- Give the team a few days to process the information, and ask for feedback in writing or in person.
- At a team meeting, invite opening thoughts and then be quiet. Be careful not to jump in too soon, potentially limiting an open discussion. If your team isn’t giving much insight, ask everyone to rate the idea on a scale of 1 to 10. Few will give it a 10, so when they say 8, ask what would deserve a 10. Be supportive of all suggestions, but don’t hesitate to point out differences politely.
- Share a final version for approval and consider another brief meeting before moving on to training.
3. Train Your Staff
It’s time to train once you’ve established your clinic’s pet food philosophy and earned a consensus. Begin by organizing the evidence behind your choices. Staff members need to understand the science behind your recommendations, so teach them the details. Next, script out common client questions and scenarios. You’re building a toolkit that will guide conversations and address major concerns.
In addition, don’t hesitate to incorporate resources from brands or companies that support your feeding philosophy. After all, you need to give clients specific brands that align with your beliefs. I encourage you to personalize the material so that the messages reflect your practice’s personality and don’t come off as company-speak.
Be sure to enlist eager employees to help you craft staff training tools to encourage ownership of the program.
Next, teach your team to use the body condition score (BCS) during each visit. Visual charts can help pet owners understand that obesity is more than a number on a scale. Body fat assessments and a muscle condition score (MCS) also are helpful in convincing clients that a diet change is needed. Offer to email or provide copies of BCS and food information. Many pet owners will fact-check your info, so be proactive and steer them toward reputable online resources. While you’re at it, remind clients that you offer online food sales and home delivery. If you don’t, now is perhaps the last-most-excellent time to begin.
Finally, train your staff to calculate basic daily caloric recommendations quickly. (See “Calorie Counting” below.) Computing calories not only aids clients with precise feeding, but it also demonstrates your team’s expertise and experience in nutrition, further inspiring trust.
Staff training is arguably the most time-consuming and critical step in pet nutrition success. It also requires persistence and grit because any change is accompanied by challenges. But stick with it. The process applies to nearly every aspect of veterinary practice, so as you hone your skills in one area, everything else lifts. In no time, you’ll have a proven template that you can apply to any new product or service.
Follow those three steps and you’ll discover that as your recommendations become consistent, creating credibility and trust, compliance increases. Pet nutrition is too important to patient health for veterinary professionals to ignore. A dog or cat’s long, healthy, happy life often begins at the food bowl. We can’t let them down.
Calculating a pet’s estimated daily caloric needs isn’t hard. Two formulas are commonly used, and one doesn’t require any fancy math. Visit petobesityprevention.org for detailed lists of caloric requirements.
CALORIC CALCULATION 1
Resting Energy Requirements (RER) in kcal/day = 30 × ideal body weight in kilograms + 70. This simplified formula works great on most pets except very small dogs (less than 5 pounds) and large dogs (over 60 pounds) because it might overestimate calories.
CALORIC CALCULATION 2
Resting Energy Requirements (RER) in kcal/day = ideal weight in kilograms to the 3⁄4 power × 70. The more precise exponential calculation works great in all pet sizes, shapes and breeds.