Adronie Verbrugghe

Cats are different. That’s one thing that cat people and dog people can agree on.

New clinical studies professor Adronie Verbrugghe certainly does. Her research has found differences beyond the cat’s sense of independence and contrariness: cats are also different in how they digest food and in the ways that nutrients affect their health. In dogs and humans, for example, high carbohydrate diets may lead to insulin resistance, an important problem in obesity and Type 2 diabetes. In contrast, adding prebiotics (soluble dietary fibre) can help to reduce this insulin resistance.

When Verbrugghe tested these approaches in cats, though, she found that the levels of carbohydrates used in commercially available diets, which are much higher than the amounts available in the natural diet of cats, didn’t increase insulin resistance. Nor did adding prebiotics reduce it. “Because cats are strict carnivores, their metabolism is different,” she explains.

Although she says that conducting research on cats “can be a pain” because of these differences, Verbrugghe cherishes her own cat, Chanel. As a child growing up in Belgium, she says she constantly asked for a pet but her parents always refused. “I was an animal-lover from early childhood and knew I wanted to be a vet,” she says. While she briefly considered other careers in high school, her interest in helping animals won out.

After graduating high school, Verbrugghe attended Ghent University in Belgium, earning a master’s in veterinary medicine and then a doctor of veterinary science degree. While working on her doctorate, she also began a residency with the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition, eventually writing the exam that qualified her as a specialist in pet nutrition.

Over the last two years she has completed a post-doc (again at Ghent University) on the roles of nutritional supplements in treating inflammation in cats. However, the data from that work is still being analyzed.

Verbrugghe was delighted to be offered the Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition at OVC. “It is an amazing opportunity to build a whole nutritional program from scratch,” she says. “I would not have had the same opportunities in Belgium.”

Her first goal is to implement nutrition as the fifth element of assessment for veterinarians, following temperature, pulse, respiration and pain. This is a new standard for assessment that is being added by veterinarians worldwide. “Good nutrition means good health, and good quality of life, so it’s important that we teach this to the veterinary students,” she says.

Verbrugghe also plans to start a nutritional consulting service, so that pet owners can come in to discuss the nutritional needs of their pets. Many health problems, such as renal disease, urolithiasis, diabetes, liver disease and allergies require a change in the animal’s diet. The program would also help owners with pets that need to lose weight.

Accurate nutritional information could serve as a counter-balance to the reams of opinions available on the internet, Verbrugghe hopes. “There are a lot of opinions about nutrition for animals from people who don’t really know anything,” she says. Helping people choose between the products available isn’t always easy. She mentions, for example, that less expensive dog foods often use inexpensive ingredients that are difficult for the dog to digest. That means the dog will need to eat a larger quantity to get the nutrients it needs.

“I’ve seen Beagle dogs who had to eat 1,200 grams daily of a cheaper food, but only 400 grams of a more expensive food. So which is really more expensive?” she asks. The dogs also have larger stools when eating cheaper foods, something most pet owners could do without. On the other hand, each dog or cat is an individual, so there’s a need for variety.

Verbrugghe is also planning a nutrition-related research program studying cats because very little veterinary research has focused on cats. “Nutritionally, they are not at all like small dogs,” she says. “They are really incredible animals with specific needs.”

Although Verbrugghe will not be teaching classes at this point, she will work with students in the Small Animal Clinic where nutrition is part of the diagnosis or treatment. “They are the future vets, and I want to help them see the importance of nutrition.”

She and her husband are settling into Canadian life, but she speaks with pride and fondness of her homeland, reminiscing about the foods she loved. “French fries should really be Belgian fries,” she says. “Every little village in Belgium has a trailer where you can buy fries. And we love to eat ‘moules frites’ (mussels served with fries) or ‘stoofvlees’ (a beef stew with beer). We have hundreds of beers in our little country. Oh, and the chocolate – everyone knows Belgian chocolates.”