Summer 2013

Food as Medicine

Veterinary resident studies the role of diet in chronic kidney disease

By Laura Ferguson

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Jessie Markovich, a resident in clinical nutrition, is working to ensure a good life for cats with chronic kidney disease. Photo: Kelvin Ma.

Jessie Markovich often takes care of animals in desperate straits. Sometimes the diagnosis and treatment are quick: dialysis for the dog that ate a box of raisins, or surgery for the cat with a kidney stone.

But Markovich, a resident in clinical nutrition at the Cummings School, also sees pets whose underlying problems are more inscrutable, especially cats, which are masters at hiding illness. Cats, for instance, “usually have three clinical signs that something is wrong: They vomit, stop eating and lose weight,” she says. “They want you to have to work to figure it out.”

Already board-certified in internal medicine (she completed her residency in that specialty at Tufts), she is developing treatments for cats and dogs with such illnesses as chronic kidney disease, focusing on the relationship between nutrition and health. With faculty who are experts in clinical nutrition and nephrology, the Cummings School, Markovich says, is a perfect fit for her.

“I feel spoiled to be here,” she says. “The collaboration is fantastic, and I have access to a wealth of knowledge and experience. I get to learn all the time—from my colleagues and the students.”

To complement her clinical work in the hospital, Markovich also conducts research. She recently completed an online survey of more than 1,000 owners of cats with chronic kidney disease in 48 states and 10 countries. She’ll examine such variables as nutrition and medication to determine if they affect the progression of the disease.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) says the number of cats diagnosed with chronic renal disease increased nine-fold between 1980 and 2000. More than 2 million cats in the U.S. have the condition, including 49 percent of cats over age 15, according to the AAFP.

The number of cats diagnosed with chronic renal disease increased nine-fold between 1980 and 2000.

“We don’t know all of the causes of these diseases,” Markovich says, “but our goal is to provide the highest quality of life for as long as we can. Every study is about breaking the problem apart and trying to find what small difference one small change can make.

“You might try to find foods that are more appealing to a cat and that help slow the progression of kidney disease at the same time. That may not sound like a big change, but if it works, then I have done what I could to improve the quality of life for that cat. That’s why I’m here.”

The planned expansion and renovation of the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals will strengthen the capabilities for Markovich and other Tufts veterinarians to develop new treatments to improve animal health and well-being.

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