Getting To Know Dr Justin Shmalberg
Read time: 5 min
Imagine the unlikely scenario that you are on the final round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The lights dim as the final question is asked:
“Which amino acid is considered essential in cats and not in dogs?”
You still have one lifeline available – you can call a friend. Who will you call?
We’d call Dr Justin Shmalberg. As a globally recognised, board-certified authority on animal nutrition; and the mastermind behind the KatKin recipes, he’s a handy friend to have. He’s also an invaluable member of the KatKin team, with his profound knowledge of animal food science, attention to detail and dedication to optimising pet health.
Today we get to know him a little better.
Q1 - So now I have to ask – which amino acid is considered essential in cats and not in dogs?!
A1 - Taurine is a must-have in cat diets and is one of the nutrient requirements that distinguishes them as a true carnivore. Interestingly, they still have the gene to convert other amino acids to taurine, but over evolutionary history they appear to have largely turned it off. That’s because they eat primarily prey which has adequate taurine. Feeding a cat a low taurine diet can result in heart conditions and blindness - so it’s certainly important!
Q2 - In recent years, quite a few new brands offering fresh or lightly cooked food have become available on the pet food market for dogs but there has been much less focus on cats. Why do you think this is?
A2 - Cats are more challenging when it comes to making new diets for them. The first reason is cats are quite sceptical of change; we call them neophobic in fact. They’re pretty convinced if they’re offered a food form they haven’t seen before, someone is definitely trying to poison them. So, that transition to a high moisture diet, for example, can take a bit more time and effort. Contrast that with dogs, who are accustomed to quickly eating trash and all the things you don’t want them to. The other reason cats have largely been left behind is because as a true carnivore, they have very specific nutrient requirements that are harder to formulate for. The industry has also largely misjudged how passionate people are about their cats; it’s companies like KatKin that hopefully will set the record straight.
Q3 - Can you explain to us what benefits we can expect from feeding KatKin?
A3 - Domestic cats and their wild relatives are used to getting water from prey; we know that higher moisture diets are more effective in managing weight and also have effects on boosting activity. And let’s face it, many of our indoor cats aren’t exactly exercising all that hard. The individual portioning of KatKin further helps manage weight; no more trying to figure out the exact amount. Cat parents will often notice greater enthusiasm for eating, especially after the transition period. Firmer, cleaner stools are something we hear about all the time - whether we want to or not, it’s an occupational hazard! Shinier coats due to the high levels of healthy fats in these diets is common feedback from owners after a month or two on a fresh diet. Importantly, fresh diets like KatKin are also diets with ingredients you can see; the transparency is right there in the bowl.
Q4 - You have a LOT of qualifications next to your name and it has obviously been a long journey to get to your level of expertise. How did you initially become interested in animal nutrition?
A4 - My passion for nutrition started with my own animals over the years; it was a critical component in the management of their health issues and got me thinking about a preventative approach. I started a small pet food store in my hometown that sold many natural pet foods, which two decades ago were not as common as today. I was paid a visit from a large pet food company one day who had skepticism about these foods; they suggested that I educate myself more about pet nutrition. Apparently, I’m quite impressionable as I quickly set on a course to veterinary school, then to advanced integrative medicine training programs, a stint in private veterinary practice, a nutrition residency, and finally a faculty member specializing in nutrition and in integrative medicine. It certainly has been a long journey but it’s one fueled by my love for animals and a real desire to see people have the best options for their pets.
Q5 - Between research, teaching, and formulating recipes, you must be very busy! What do you do in your spare time?
A5 - Spare time is at a premium these days but my passion for this work makes it feel like leisure. I enjoy all activities outdoors - in Florida we’re fortunate to have a diversity of habitats, the ocean nearby, and a climate that I’d argue is just a shade better than that in London. I have a small farm and adjacent wetlands that serves as a great retreat - a place where I can dream up the next KatKin diet!
Q6 - You put a lot of focus onto preventative health care through optimising diet, so your work must be very rewarding. What is the best part of your job?
A6 - The feedback from pet parents all over the globe on how fresh diets I’ve formulated have impacted their pets’ health. As veterinarians, we can have fantastic impacts on individual pets in our clinic. However, with commercial diets, especially those that are healthy and transparent, vet nutritionists like myself can multiply that impact many-fold. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously but it’s been a real honor to be involved with companies like KatKin that seek to revolutionize how we feed our pets.
Q7 - What motivates you?
A7 - My passions are pet health and innovation. Whether in clinical practice or in my work with KatKin, it’s a phenomenal time to be a veterinarian. Technology, consumer demand, scientific knowledge are all intersecting to really change our ability to impact pets’ lives; I’m motivated to play a role, no matter how small the contribution may be, to this exciting trend.
Q8 - And lastly of course, you have three cats! Please tell us about them!?
A8 - These little ones were found in a bush in Florida when very little; they’ve been nursed back to health on a fresh diet I formulated in the US which is similar to KatKin. They have thanked me by being the craziest cats imaginable; there are two black cats, Fiona and Otis, who run the show and the relatively aloof tabby Charlie who typically only has time for you when making demands of his servants.
Their experience with fresh and its positive impact on their wellness made me excited to export the commercialised fresh model to Europe with the KatKin team doing all the hard work of course!