Dr. Katy Nelson is somewhat of a legend in the pet world. An associate veterinarian at the Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Virginia and expert in animal health and nutrition, she is also the host and executive producer of The Pet Show with Dr. Katy. Dr. Katy has been featured on the TODAY Show, Fox & Friends, NPR, CNBC, The Meredith Vieira Show, and HuffPost Live, among others.
We sat down with Dr. Katy to talk about the importance of choosing the right diet for your dog, the advice she would give every aspiring vet, and why she’s dedicated her life to animals.
Tell us a little bit about your career path. When did you first know you wanted to be a veterinarian?
I grew up in South Louisiana and animals were always a huge part of my life. You name it, we had it — chickens, cows, even the occasional rabbit.
My dad’s best friend was a veterinarian when I was growing up, and one summer in college he told me about a job opening at a small local zoo. I was pre-med at the time, but I went and worked and a six week position turned into 13 weeks. I absolutely loved it and thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I went back to school that fall and changed my major to a pre-vet track. Two years after that, I went to Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to become a vet?
I think the biggest mistake people make when they go into veterinary medicine is thinking, “I don’t want to work with people; I just want to work with animals!” One of the biggest parts of our job is actually people relations. Like pediatricians, we have patients who can’t talk and can’t tell us where it hurts, and we have very concerned parents advocating for them.
My biggest piece of advice for someone who wants to be a veterinarian is to take psychology, economics, and business classes. Having interpersonal communication skills and being business savvy is a big part of being a really good vet. Vets are highly intelligent people with big hearts, but most of them are also small business owners and there actually isn’t any business training in veterinary school.
Once you make the decision that being a vet is what you want, dive in and study hard. It ain’t easy!
You’re very vocal about the importance of nutrition for dogs. How big of an impact do you think food has on our dogs’ health and well-being?
As a mom, I’ve really delved hard into thinking about what I’m putting in my kids’ bodies. We all put so much time and interest into what we’re eating because we know it has an impact. We are what we eat, and the same thing goes for our pets.
If we’re feeding our pets protein that is so highly processed it’s lost all of its nutritional integrity, we’re not doing them any favors. It’s certainly cheaper in the moment, but it’s actually not cheaper in the long run when you consider that poor diet can cause diseases and health issues like diabetes down the line. If we start with good nutrition from day one, we have a heck of a better chance of our pets living long and healthy lives.
What advice do you give pet owners who are trying to choose the best food for their dog?
A lot of pet health really has to do with choosing the right food for your dog. People think they’re feeding their dog really wonderful food because they’ve read a review online, or the 19-year-old restocking the shelves at the local pet store told them it was a great brand. What you really need to do is have a conversation with your vet. Your vet is going to be able to better assess your pet’s lifestyle and caloric needs and help you figure it all out.
What really impresses me so much about The Farmer’s Dog is that you guys are doing what I’ve been telling people to do for years. You’ve got the algorithms in place to account for lifestyle, disease, body condition, etc. and feed dogs accordingly. Pet owners need to figure out the right daily calorie count for their dogs and stick to it, remembering that treats are extra on top of that. I think one of the hardest things is for people to be honest about that. Sometimes it’s just easier not to think about it.
What are some of the biggest health issues our pets are facing today? How can pet owners protect their dogs?
I think the biggest epidemic we’re seeing in pets is definitely obesity. Almost 60% of American dogs are overweight or obese. That’s shocking!
The obesity issue stems from a lack of nutritional education and a lack of being able to recognize pet obesity by owners. In a study conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), pet owners were surveyed about their dogs’ weights. 100% of the dogs included in the study were considered obese, yet 90% of the owners polled said their dogs were a normal weight!
People are completely in denial about what is and isn’t a healthy weight for their pets, but we have to start being realistic and treating pet obesity as seriously as we treat other health issues like thyroid conditions, heart disease and even cancer. We have the science to prove that pets who weigh less live longer, and we all want to give our dogs the longest, happiest lives possible. A massive part of that is nutrition. When we’re feeding our dogs good things, it translates to good health.
My biggest piece of advice would be to talk with your vet and not take it personally if they tell you that your dog is overweight. Obesity is a diagnosis of a disease, not something to get offended over. They’re not saying you’re a bad pet owner, they’re saying your pet has a disease and it’s one you can treat and work on together as a team. If you look at it that way, you’ll have a lot more results than if you get defensive about what you’re feeding or how much exercise your dog is getting.
Dr. Katy’s dogs, Eddie Underbite and PapaDawg.
Such important advice. Lastly, from one crazy dog lover to another, what do you think it is about dogs that makes them so special?
What I think is really cool is that in the last couple of years, even the Pope has spoken out about animals having souls. I think that’s something that we have known for years as dog owners. I know that when I look into my dog’s eyes there is a soul in there and a sentient being who loves me unconditionally, the way that I love him. It’s been validating that there have been so many books published over the last few years about how dogs touch our souls and communicate with us.
It’s easy to connect with a dog, soul to soul. There are no pretenses and you don’t need makeup or your best clothes. Dogs aren’t going to judge you; they just love you. I think everyone’s goal is to find that unconditional love in life, and whether or not we find it in another human, we know our dogs love us unconditionally. Dogs give us the comfort and connection that everyone is seeking.