It's Time to Reject and Replace the WSAVA Global Nutrition Guidelines – KetoNatural Pet Foods

It's Time to Reject and Replace the WSAVA Global Nutrition Guidelines


In this article we are going to give you our perspective on the World Small Animal Veterinary Association's ("WSAVA's") Global Nutrition Guidelines.

Over the past ten years, the "WSAVA Guidelines," as they are usually called, have become hugely influential in shaping how the veterinary community and the lay public answer an important question that most every pet owner has asked at one time or another: "what should I feed my dog?" The odds are good that if you have ever asked a veterinary professional this question that they have told you, in essence, "choose a dog food that meets the WSAVA Guidelines."

We think that's a problem, and not a small one. Because, in our view, following the WSAVA Guidelines is not likely to make your dog healthy. Indeed, we think the WSAVA Guidelines have, on the whole, had a seriously negative impact, not only on the health of modern-day companion animals, but on the credibility and wellbeing of veterinary professionals as well. In this article we are going to tell you why.

For the reasons explained more fully below, we believe that conscientious pet owners and anyone else motivated to improve the health of companion animals ought to do two things with respect to the WSAVA Guidelines (1) reject the specific recommendations they embody and (2) advocate that they be replaced with a set of unbiased, evidence-based veterinary nutrition recommendations.

Here's why.

What is WSAVA?

To understand why the WSAVA Guidelines are such a problem, you first need to understand what WSAVA is.

The entity that would become the World Small Animal Veterinary Association was founded in 1959, with the goal of representing the interests of companion animal veterinarians, primarily those located outside the United States. (At the time, the American Animal Hospital Association had already been formed and was doing this job within the U.S.) You can read more about the long history of WSAVA here.

In its early years, WSAVA was funded entirely by member dues paid by individual veterinarians and the national associations to which they belonged. But that changed in 1984, when the organization's first corporate sponsor (a pharmaceuticals company called Solvay Duphar) made its first financial donation.

Over the years that followed, corporate sponsorship steadily made up a larger and larger share of WSAVA's income. Fast forward a few decades and, according to its more recent financial statements, today member dues only account for about 10% of the organization's income. The vast majority of its money comes from corporate sponsorships.

Who are those sponsors? As of late 2023, WSAVA had six named corporate sponsors. Three are pharmaceuticals companies that make drugs for animals. The other three are multinational pet food companies: Hill's Pet Nutrition, Royal Canin, and Nestle-Purina Petcare.

Where Did the WSAVA Global Nutrition Guidelines Come From?

One of WSAVA's core functions is the production and publication of "position statements." These are summaries of the organization's official positions on important issues pertaining to the health and welfare of dogs and cats. There's one on liver diseases, another on vaccines, and, of course, one on nutrition.

WSAVA's first nutrition guidelines were published in 2011. They were created by a "Task Force" composed of ten veterinarians. And, in addition to the sponsorship money WSAVA received from Hill's, Purina, and Royal Canin, at least five of the task force members had direct financial ties to these companies:

Iveta Becvarova: (Became Director of Global Academic and Professional Affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition)

Lisa Freeman: (A defendant in the $2.4 billion lawsuit that our company filed against Hill's Pet Nutrition earlier this month. Her extensive financial connections to Hill's and other related entities are discussed at length in the suit at pages 15-21.)

Nick Cave (Purina, Royal Canin)

Clayton MacKay (Former Director of of Veterinary Affairs at Hill's Pet Nutrition)

Patrick Nguyen (Royal Canin)

Obscuring financial conflicts of interest by using benevolent-sounding intermediary organizations to "hide the money" is a pervasive practice in the world veterinary nutrition. (If you want to understand this issue in greater detail, I suggest you take a look at our lawsuit against Hill's.) So while we know that at least half of the members of WSAVA's nutrition task force have well-documented financial ties to Hill's, Royal Canin, or Purina, it's entirely possible that the remainder do as well. 

This means that these three pet food companies had two separate avenues for influencing WSAVA's nutrition guidelines: (1) paying WSAVA at the organizational level and (2) paying the individuals that created the organization's guidelines.

What are WSAVA's Guidelines For Choosing a Dog Food?

If you want to read the WSAVA Guidelines as written, here's a link. You'll notice that, interestingly, the guidelines are phrased as questions to ask brand representatives, not requirements. So, technically, it actually doesn't really make sense to say that a brand "meets the WSAVA Guidelines." 

However, perhaps because the questions strongly suggest "correct" answers, they tend to get discussed as affirmative requirements/recommendations, so that's how we'll summarize them here.

In WSAVA's eyes, you and your dog will be better off if you choose a brand of pet food that meets the following five requirements:

1) The brand employs a board-certified veterinary nutritionist on a full-time basis and uses that person to formulate all of its diets.

2) The brand should validate its nutritional contents using "AAFCO feeding trials," as opposed to other methods.

3) The brand's products should be featured in studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

4) The brand should provide a public phone number and e-mail address so you can contact its representatives directly.

5) The brand should make its products in a facility that it owns, not one owned by a third party.

Before explaining what's wrong with these individual guidelines, there's something important to highlight, just in case you don't notice it on your own: the guidelines  involve hurdles that only the largest and wealthiest pet food companies can clear. In fact, as of late 2023, there were only three pet food companies in the world that met them: Hill's, Purina, and Royal Canin.

What is Wrong With WSAVA's Guidelines?

So we know that Hill's, Purina, and Royal Canin provided funding to WSAVA as well as the individuals that WSAVA chose to create its nutritional guidelines. And we know that those guidelines wound up serving as endorsements of precisely those same companies.

Is that a reason to be suspicious that WSAVA's nutrition guidelines are about something other than improving the health of dogs and cast? Of course.

Is it the whole story? Nope. In fact, the majority of our arguments against WSAVA's nutritional guidelines have nothing to do with who created the guidelines, they are substantive critiques about the guidelines themselves.

There are four of them:

1. The WSAVA Guidelines Are Not Evidence-Based

There is zero scientific evidence that dogs tend to live longer lives or experience better disease outcomes if they are fed diets that meet any one of WSAVA's individual nutrition guidelines. And there is zero scientific evidence that dogs live longer lives or avoid nutritionally-mediated diseases if they are fed diets that comply with WSAVA's guidelines as a whole.

Neither one of those assertions is up for debate. As you'd expect from a set of public health guidelines, many of the claims made throughout the broader document that embodies WSAVA's Global Nutrition Guidelines include citations to peer-reviewed evidence. Here's an example, from a section of the document recommending the use of a body condition scoring (BCS) system for evaluating body composition:

"Disease risk associations with higher BCS in adult animals appear to increase above [a BCS score of] 6 out 9."

Following this statement there is a citation to two peer-reviewed studies in which researchers evaluated disease incidence rates among dogs with a variety of different BCS scores. Whether the studies actually support the statement the authors make is up for discussion -- and that's the point. When you cite evidence supporting your assertions, others can evaluate that evidence for themselves to determine whether you're being fair and accurate in your claim.

But there is no evidence cited as support for any of the five specific recommendations referenced above. Some at least sound like reasonable theories (like the employment of a full-time nutritionist) whereas others don't (like the use of AAFCO feeding trials, as opposed to biochemical analysis, to determine nutritional adequacy of a diet). But none of those theories had been tested by scientists at the time the WSAVA guidelines were published. And none of them have been tested since then either. 

There is, quite simply, zero evidence supporting them.

This stands in marked contrast with the kinds of policy statements that public health organizations use to articulate dietary recommendations for human beings. Consider, for instance, the World Health Organization's 2003 report on "Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases." Spend just a few minutes flipping through the document and you'll see that not only are its individual dietary recommendations supported by voluminous evidentiary citations, but whole sections of the report are dedicated to discussing and evaluating the strength of that evidence. 

The WHO (and other credible public health authorities) cite and evaluate the evidence in support of their recommendations because doing so is a necessary ingredient in the advancement of knowledge through scientific study. It's how we ensure that claims are fair and accurate. And it's how claims made in the future get even more accurate.

As such, the fact that WSAVA's nutritional guidelines have exactly zero evidentiary support is not just some minor shortcoming. It means they aren't even a valid part of the professional practice of science.

2. The WSAVA Guidelines Have Failed to Improve Companion Animal Health and Welfare

So we know that WSAVA's guidelines promote the interests of the very same companies that paid for them to be developed. And we know that there's no evidentiary basis for the guidelines either.

When it comes to public health guidelines, those are huge, glaring problems. But, nevertheless, you could just about convince yourself to look past them if they were working. If the WSAVA guidelines were actually helping to improve the sorry state of companion animal public health, you could perhaps excuse the faulty process that brought them into being. Maybe in that case the ends would justify the means.

There's just one problem: companion animal public health has gotten worse, not better, since WSAVA's guidelines were published. There is no evidence that any of the most serious and most common nutrition-influenced diseases in companion animals -- such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis -- have become less pervasive in the years since WSAVA published its guidelines.

In fact, to the extent that their prevalence is being monitored, these diseases have all become more pervasive since 2011.

Obesity is a particularly good example, because its association with both shorter lifespans and increased incidence of other diseases (such as cancer and diabetes) is particularly well-documented. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), approximately 53% of America's dogs were overweight or obese when WSAVA published its guidelines in 2011. But, according to APOP, America's dogs have steadily gotten fatter over the past decade. Today approximately 59% of them are overweight or obese. 

It's roughly the same for diabetes. In its State of Pet Health Report for the year 2016 (to my knowledge its last attempt to evaluate companion animal diabetes incidence rates), Banfield Pet Hospital reported that canine diabetes incidence rates had increased by 80% in the preceding ten years. Publication of WSAVA's guidelines in 2011 does not appear to have had any kind of positive impact on that trend whatsoever:

Similarly, in its most recent report on osteoarthritis (published in 2019, eight years after WSAVA's guidelines were created), Banfield reported that the disease's incidence rate among dogs was also "on the rise."

I'm not aware of any similarly-detailed data on recent trends in canine cancer incidence rates. But according to the Veterinary Cancer Society, cancer is the leading cause of death among dogs beyond middle age. 

All of this data supports the same conclusion: the most common and most serious nutritionally-mediated canine diseases in the country absolutely have not gotten better since the publication of WSAVA's nutrition guidelines. They've gotten worse.

3. The WSAVA Guidelines Are Not Substantive

Let's review. We've already seen that there was no evidence supporting the adoption of WSAVA's guidelines in the first place. We've seen there is no evidence that the guidelines have done anything positive for companion animal public health over the past 12 years. And we've seen that the guidelines implicitly endorse the very same companies that paid for them to be created in the first place.

Sadly, there's more. 

When public health authorities publish dietary recommendations, they typically focus those recommendations on substantive nutritional topics -- subjects like nutrients, food groups, diseases, and healthy bodily functions. How much protein should a 150-pound person consume each day to prevent age-related muscle loss? How much Vitamin D can a dog ingest before it becomes toxic? Etc.

This is the case with human-focused organizations, like the WHO and the USDA. It's also the case with organizations focused on companion animal health, such as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the National Research Council of the National Academies of Arts and Sciences (NRC), both of which publish evidence-based nutritional guidelines for dogs and cats.

WSAVA's guidelines take a fundamentally different approach. They don't feature a single word about specific nutrients, food groups, diseases, or bodily functions. Instead, they focus entirely on what you might call "reputational qualities." In essence, WSAVA recommends that your dog only eat foods made by the kinds of companies that WSAVA thinks are good, regardless of what nutrients those foods contain.

That's not how nutrition is studied at universities, it's not how it's debated in scientific journals, and it's not how (most) public health organizations frame nutritional issues either. Instead, they focus on the stuff that makes dietary recommendations important in the first place: links between dietary qualities and health and wellness outcomes.

Like I said before, if there was strong evidence supporting its rationale, perhaps you could excuse this as an experimental, cutting-edge quirk of WSAVA's process. But there isn't. Or if WSAVA was making a positive impact on public health perhaps you'd have to throw your hands up and admit that the group is onto something that the rest of the scientific community is missing. But it isn't.

Instead, you're left trying to explain why this important organization is taking such a strange approach to making dietary recommendations to pet-owners. And that brings us right back around to where we started.

4. The WSAVA Guidelines Were Created By the Very Same Companies That They Implicitly Endorse

As I explained earlier, it is beyond dispute that major financial conflicts-of-interest underpinned the creation of WSAVA's nutritional guidelines, and at multiple levels. And it just so happens that the guidelines turned out exactly how the companies that paid for them would have wanted.

Is that why the WSAVA guidelines lack any evidentiary basis? Is it why, despite their popularity and influence, the WSAVA guidelines haven't had a positive impact on companion animal public health? Is it why the guidelines are focused on the kinds of strange, non-substantive qualities that most public health authorities don't really pay any attention to?

I'm not aware of any direct evidence that answers those questions once and for all. And unless such proof is uncovered the most defensible advice I can offer is to treat the WSAVA guidelines like any other influential set of recommendations that lack any evidence of validity or efficacy: advocate that they be replaced with evidence-based recommendations or just ignore them altogether.