Rescue from the pounds

Tufts counsels `clinical nutrition’ to keep pets’ weight — and related health woes — in check

By Pamela H. Sacks



GRAFTON — When Dr. Lisa M. Freeman went in search of a dog with the right body shape to illustrate a paper on veterinary nutrition, she had to turn to her own Jack Russell terrier, Hazel.

All the other candidates were a little too hefty, which may explain why Dr. Freeman, a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in nutrition, has a very busy practice at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals.

The other day, Dr. Daniel L. Chan popped his head in her office door and urged her to take a look at a Labrador retriever that had just been admitted with a leg problem. The beefy canine tipped the scales at 160 pounds, a weight that astonished even Dr. Chan, a veterinary resident specializing in critical care and nutrition.

Dr. Freeman, on the other hand, registered little surprise.

“Thirty to 40 percent of dogs and cats are obese,” she said. “It directly mirrors what’s happening in people: too many calories, not enough exercise.”

Dr. Freeman is on the cutting edge of a burgeoning specialty in veterinary medicine: clinical nutrition. She advises owners about the best weight for their pets and optimal diet to keep them well. She also consults with other veterinary specialists on optimal nutrition for injured or sick animals, including those that are critically ill.

In the last five years, the specialty has become so integral to the care of cats and dogs that Tufts, with the financial assistance of Nestle Purina PetCare, has created a nutrition center at the small-animal hospital. There, with dozens of specially formulated foods to choose from, veterinarians draw up individualized diets and prepare meals for animals under their care.

“It’s rare that you can fix a disease with diet,” Dr. Freeman noted. “But it is used as an adjunct to slow the progression, or improve the quality of life.”

It is a fact, however, that the great majority of Dr. Freeman’s patients are suffering from that 21st-century nemesis: obesity, a condition that is just as unhealthy in cats and dogs as it is in humans.

Studies show that trim dogs live, on average, two years longer than those that are even mildly overweight, Dr. Freeman said. So she immediately designs an appropriate weight-reduction program for each animal she sees.

Achieving the goal is no easier for companion animals than it is for their owners, who tend to want to please their pets by doling out treats. “They look at you with those big brown eyes,” Dr. Freeman said in a sympathetic tone.

She recalled a family whose members swore they were not giving their pet extra food. It turned out the mail carrier always had a treat or two in his pocket. Often, children are the culprits. They share their after-school snacks with the family pet.

“I feel I needed a whole other degree in psychology to deal with why an animal is overfed,” Dr. Freeman said with a laugh.

There are, of course, many benefits to success. “The animal will achieve weight loss and the owner will say, `It’s a new dog or cat,’ ” Dr. Freeman said.

Veterinary nutrition has come into its own in the last five years. Research has resulted in significant advances, even as owners have sought ways to extend the lives of their cherished companion animals.

“Owners have more and more questions about nutrition, not only for healthy pets, but for ones with disease,” said Dr. Freeman, an associate professor and head of Tufts’ veterinary clinical and comparative nutrition program.

Now, veterinary students graduate from Tufts with a good grounding in nutrition, Dr. Freeman said. She is one of 50 board-certified veterinary nutritionists in the United States, and Dr. Chan is the first veterinarian in the country to do a combined residency in critical care and nutrition.

Along with advising on weight problems, Dr. Freeman consults with other veterinarians on patients suffering from a wide range of diseases, and she designs diets for critically ill animals that must be fed intravenously or by tube. “Kidney, liver, heart, gastrointestinal, food allergies — there’s a long, long list that can be helped with nutrition,” she said.

At the new nutrition center, there are 75 different types of dry and canned foods, arranged according to dietary modifications. The center also has a dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave oven, blender and a recycling center. Measuring cups, bowls, scales, spoons and knives are kept in cabinets. A computer allows students to access the latest information and calculate nutritional requirements for patients.

“It’s being used heavily,” Dr. Freeman said. “We can fine-tune the diet to the correct nutrient level for the pet. It also allows a lot of options for palatability. It is important to find something the animal likes and will eat well.”

Nestle Purina PetCare has picked up the tab for similar centers at five other veterinary schools around the country. Joseph P. McManus, associate dean for administration and finance, said Tufts does not compromise its independence with this type of donation. Several other pet-food companies are funding research projects, he said, and the school does not endorse any product.

“We carry many different types of food, and the faculty matches up the food to the patient,” Mr. MacManus said. “They have independence in research and in the clinical setting.”

Dr. Freeman’s longstanding interest in nutrition only increased during her years as a student at Tufts’ veterinary school. Upon graduation in 1991, she started work on her doctorate at the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

She studied muscle loss and nutritional problems that occur in dogs with heart disease. Humans, it happens, develop the same conditions when suffering from heart problems.

She is now examining whether diet modifications can alter the progression of mitral valve disease in dogs and improve their quality of life. She is seeking dogs to participate in the study.

“Concepts across species can be very similar,” Dr. Freeman said. “We can all learn a lot from each other.”