When he wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, leading gastroenterologist Dr. Donald Strombeck created one of the first-of-its-kind nutrition and dietetics books. It went on to become one of the standards for both veterinarians and those looking for an alternative to commercial pet food.
Bark: When did you start your career in pet nutrition?
Donald Strombeck: I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 and, after leaving the service, went into a small animal practice outside of Chicago—they got me started on an interest in pet nutrition. Back then, we saw the usual variety of cats and dogs. In our standard operating procedure with diarrhea cases, we put the animals on a controlled diet, and we instructed people how to prepare it. Most of our treatments were based primarily on diet. This was at a time when most people, at least in that area, prepared meals for their pets. People didn’t feed commercially prepared diets—the industry hadn’t developed to where it is now. There were some commercial foods available then, and one made by Hills, I/D for dogs with intestinal problems, is still available. But the reason we didn’t use it was that a lot of our patients didn’t respond to it.
B: When did you start teaching at the University of California Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Davis?
DS: After the practice in Chicago, I went back to the University of Illinois and got a PhD in physiology. My major professor started out with an interest in the GI tract, so I developed an interest in gastroenterology, and I’m glad I did. After three years of teaching physiology to medical students, I wanted to get back into veterinary medicine. So I went to Davis in 1973 and taught and did research there for over 20 years.
B: How have you seen the pet food industry change during that time? What kinds of impacts has it had on the teaching of nutrition at vet schools?
DS: It has become a gigantic, multibillion dollar industry. The industry learned to advertise and describe their products as being the “best,” at least according to them. But they have tried to control the education of veterinarians on pet nutrition. They send a lot of literature and books to veterinarians who teach. One of the dogmas they have promoted, and that many veterinarians have bought into, is that you should only feed commercial pet foods because they are a balanced and provide everything an animal needs. And that you shouldn’t feed any human food or add any table scraps to it. So, if you go to most veterinarians, that is what they are going to tell you.
B: This makes it very confusing to the public, who look to their veterinarian as a reliable source of information.
DS: Pet nutrition, up until the ’80s or maybe ’90s, was really sadly neglected as far as teaching at veterinary schools. The quality of the teaching was lacking, the courses were never popular, the students didn’t realize the importance of the courses, and consequently, when they graduated, they didn’t walk away with a lot of useful information on pet nutrition. I do think things have changed now, which is good thing. But most of the people who are trained in nutrition programs get their degrees and are hired by the pet food industry. Most of the money available for research on small-animal nutrition comes from the industry as well. It is a conflict of interest.
B: Does Davis teach pet nutrition now?
DS: They have developed nutrition support services [and a nutrition clinic]. The interesting thing is that they have computer programs (actually, the same programs I used to design the diets in my book) that enable practicing veterinarians to submit information—the kind of animal, the problem, weight and age—and get a specially formulated diet. In fact, Sean Delaney, who graduated from that program, has an online service that also does this for individuals.
B: Were you surprised by the latest recall?