Who Are You Going to Call? Veterinarian or Nutritionist?

At the recent Nutrition Symposium, I had the opportunity to listen to two prominent Equine Veterinarians speak about the need for veterinarians and equine nutritionists to work together. One Doctor was from one of the most prestigious private clinics in the United States and the other from the staff of a Veterinary College. Both stated that they not only recognize a great need for Veterinarians and Nutritionists to work together, but noted that few horse people understand that horse Nutritionists exist, what their training consists of and what they do. Let’s address these issues…

What's the Difference?

It is quite apparent that many horse folks do not understand the difference between Veterinary Science and Animal Science – after all, both involve animals, don’t they?? In fact, many eventual Veterinarians do their undergraduate work in Animal Science before, hopefully, being accepted to Veterinary school. (NOTE: Veterinary school is the TOUGHEST professional program to get in to – tougher than even law school or medical school to eventually treat HUMANS!!). The degree is a “D.V.M.” or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

The highest professional degree in Animal Science is the “Ph.D.”, Doctorate or Doctor of Philosophy (though the education really has nothing to do with philosophy!!). Both the D.V.M. and Ph.D. are typically addressed as “Doctor”, adding to the confusion.

The major difference in training between the two professions is the areas of course concentration. In general, the veterinary program involves courses relating to medical topics. The advanced degrees (Master’s, M.S. or Ph.D.) in Animal Science concentrate on courses in non-medical management. Though there is quite a bit of crossover, the amount and level of training in nutrition is much greater for the Animal Scientist than the Veterinarian.

Critical Training

  1. Undergraduate degree
  2. Graduate degree (D.V.M. or Ph.D.)
  3. Continuing education (C.E.)
  4. Field experience 

As previously stated, many Veterinarians pursue their undergraduate degree in Animal Science, Others will go through a more structured “Pre-veterinary” curriculum outside the Department of Animal Science.

Regardless, the course work required for admission to Veterinary School must be completed. The main areas focused on are biology, chemistry, physics, physiology and genetics. As with all undergraduate degrees, a certain amount of general studies courses are needed, such as English, Foreign Language, Humanities etc.

The undergraduate course work in Animal Science also involves biology, chemistry, physics, physiology and genetics, but will offer courses that apply these concepts directly to species, like horses, cows, swine etc. In addition, specific course in nutrition are taken which involve gastrointestinal anatomy and physiology, nutrient sources and functions, nutritionally –related diseases and ration formulation. Nutrition is also discussed in the individual species courses.

Thus, the Veterinary student coming through Animal Science will have more exposure to horse nutrition than the one going through a typical Pre-Vet program. All Ph.D.s will have gone through Animal Science undergraduate programs (of course, there are always exceptions).

Graduate school for the Ph.D. candidate is akin to Veterinary school for the Veterinarian. Here is where the separation in course emphasis becomes truly obvious.

Veterinary students will take advanced courses in anatomy, chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, surgery, ethics and law and get practice in the clinical setting. Students generally chose either a small animal, large animal/equine or mixed practice and can concentrate coursework towards this end. In most Veterinary curricula there is typically only one course in animal nutrition, which covers most species.

Advanced degree students in Animal Science who choose the field of nutrition will take many credits hours of concentrated study in nutritional principles, nutritional biochemistry, in-depth courses in protein, energy, vitamin and mineral nutrition as well as species-specific courses relating these concepts to their chosen species, in this case, horses. In most cases, both the Master ’s degrees, as well as the Ph.D.,  require a thesis to be written based on research performed by the student.

To summarize, the Veterinarian develops expertise in areas related to the health of the animal in disease prevention, recognition and treatment. The Ph.D. becomes expert in advancing the nutrition of the horse with respect to reproductive performance, sound growth, athletic performance and longevity. There is obviously some crossover in knowledge, but given the distinct areas of expertise, the way to maximize the overall health of the horse is for horse owners to understand the differences and for Veterinarians and Nutritionists to work together to solve health-related nutritional issues.

Continuing Education:
Most professionals are committed to life-long learning. Veterinarians are required to take a certain amount of continuing education (C.E.) credits to maintain their licenses. Continuing education courses are typically offered by Veterinary Schools and, in some cases, well-respected private clinics. Subject areas are typically updates on new drugs, surgical techniques, practice management and other pertinent information that can improve the quality of care of the horse. Veterinarians will also study journals relating to medical case studies and information stated above.
Continuing education for Ph.D. Nutritionists typically involves studying scientific journals in their area/species of interest and attendance at scientific meetings where recent research is presented, in most cases, by University Ph.D.s specializing in specific facets of horse nutrition, such as basic nutrient requirements, growth, metabolic conditions and athletic performance. Some Ph.D.s at private companies also perform research, but this research is usually proprietary and is not shared with the others in the industry.
There is crossover of Veterinarians attending Nutrition meetings more typical for Ph.D.s and vice versa, but one can see how the focus of the two professions diverges markedly.

Field Experience:
Once the educational ground work is in place, there is no substitute for being on the farm with the horses and their owners/managers. Applying the knowledge not only is a valuable part of the learning process but also broadens the perspective on how not all animals follow the rules!!

It is here that most Equine Practitioners have an advantage over the Ph.D. Nutritionist. Except for the few Veterinarians practicing 100% of the time in the clinic, most Equine Veterinarians are making farm calls. They get to know the horses and their owners, and see a myriad of variations on what the books say. This may underlie why the Veterinarian is the primary source of nutrition information for the horse owner. The Veterinarian is there, typically accessible and respected for their knowledge. It can put the Veterinarian in a tough spot though, as he or she may not know the correct answer to certain questions and either has to ad libor say they don’t know. It is here that Equine Practitioners and Nutritionists can work together.

Very few Ph.D. Nutritionists have the opportunity to spend a lot of time on farms. Most Ph.D.s either work in a University setting or for a company designing nutritional products and feeds. Under these circumstances, there is little time for on-farm visits, unless a purposeful effort is made. Some Ph.D. Nutritionists have made very successful livings as consultants, where most of their time is spent on the horse farms.

So, the biggest gap in getting nutritional information to the farm happens because of the above – the true nutrition experts are not in the field and on the farms routinely. The solution? Make the Ph.D. Nutritionist accessible to the Veterinarian in the field and provide continuing education programs in nutrition for Equine Practitioners.

We at Tribute Equine Nutrition (Kalmbach Feeds. Inc.) have made a concerted effort to work with Veterinarians to provide current nutrition information in three ways:

  1. Present  nutritional seminars approved for continuing education credit (have been offered in 8 states)
  2. Provide Practitioners with an Equine Nutrition Guide, comprised of current information on nutrition for breeding farms, suggestions for feeding horses with metabolic issues such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance, Cushing’s Syndrome, Obesity, Tying-Up, Ulcers, etc.
  3. Offer a direct phone line to the Ph.D. Nutritionist to Equine Practitioners to immediately address issues.
D.J. Burke, Ph.D.