Front runner in the field: Julie Churchill

May 23, 2019
Julie Churchill Headshot

Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, DACVN, is a leading authority in a specialty that’s only existed since 1988—veterinary nutrition. There’s no physician corollary in human medicine, and there are fewer than 100 board-certified veterinary nutritionists in the United States.

Churchill works tirelessly to debunk myths about pet nutrition. She says the rapid rise of grain-free and exotic pet foods is the product of a perfect storm. Factors of which include a 2007 pet food recall, which involved intentional adulteration of an ingredient from China; human food trends like Atkins, Paleo, and other low-carb diets; a strong desire among pet owners to provide their loved one with the best food available; and a misconception that food allergies are common. There is a resounding need for better, clearer, more widely shared information about pet nutrition.

“You and I are taught to avoid processed foods—to shop around the perimeter of the grocery store and buy fresh produce and whole foods. But the motivation for processing human food is different. It’s usually to increase shelf life, to make it more economical, and to make it tastier. Sugar, fat, salt,” Churchill says. “Dog and cat food is formulated to be complete and balanced to be the whole diet  your pet consumes. It’s processed to meet the goal of providing everything they need—when fed in the right amounts.”

Collaborating for a cause

When news broke last year that the Food and Drug Administration was investigating a possible link between grain-free dog food and a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), pet owners panicked and Churchill was there to offer her expertise. She also collaborated with a board-certified veterinary cardiologist to offer continuing education to veterinarians throughout the state.

More recently, Churchill has been serving as president for the Pet Nutrition Alliance (PNA)—an international, independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources to support veterinary healthcare teams in helping pets live longer through better nutrition, and to assist teams in providing nutritional assessments and recommendations for every patient.

With thousands of choices available, it is confusing for pet owners and the veterinary healthcare team to make informed decisions about the best pet food for an individual pet. With this in mind, PNA set out to create resources that not only inform veterinary healthcare teams on the best food options available, but also save veterinary professionals time. Their new tool, Dare to Ask: We Did!, was created by compiling information about pet food manufacturers.

“Most pet owners base food decisions on an ingredient list, and we want them to understand the decision should be more focused on quality control, nutritional expertise, and other important factors surrounding the pet food manufacturer,” Churchill says. PNA contacted more than 200 manufacturers selling pet food in the United States and Canada and asked them for details on their nutritional expertise, where their foods are manufactured, and whether they can provide information on a requested nutrient.

Fighting an epidemic

Churchill has also been sounding the alarm on pet obesity for years, because obesity is a significant disease that impacts pet health and life span. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, some 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs in the United States are currently overweight or obese. “Obesity can lead to arthritis, cancer, metabolic disease, and heart and lung disease in both dogs and cats, and diabetes in cats,” she says.

Churchill champions the body condition scoring (BCS) system. The 9-point assessment tool can help pet owners discern when their animal is healthy and when they are becoming overweight. “We should strive to have pets maintain a 5 out of 9 body condition score to promote health,” says Churchill. “You should be able to easily feel—but not see—the ribs of a dog or cat who’s a healthy weight and BCS.”

Looking to the future

Among the most gratifying ways Churchill helps promote pet health is through her work in the classroom. She strives to cultivate clinicians who understand “that nutrition matters and can positively impact pet health.”

Prevention is the ultimate goal. Churchill wants to empower all veterinarians to make informed and tailored dietary recommendations for each of their patients—thereby stopping unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and other health problems before they start. “The public is craving nutrition expertise,” Churchill says. “I think we’ve abdicated that role for too long. I want to help practitioners be the nutritional experts that their patients need—every practitioner should feel confident and competent in making a specific food recommendation.”