Julie Churchill

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Julie Churchill

Dr. Julie Churchill’s family has always loved animals of every species. She recalls her parents having “extraordinary tolerance” in allowing her to bring home injured and stray animals in need of care. One winter her brother stored a hibernating snake in the family’s refrigerator with her cheerful and quiet complicity.

Today Churchill is a veterinary nutritionist and associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, directs a clinical nutrition service, and teaches in the veterinary curriculum. She is proud of the strong nutrition education program at the college and makes a committed effort to training veterinary students about the importance of nutrition in preventive care.

“Many people have never heard of a veterinary nutritionist,” she says. “They don’t realize it requires residency training after veterinary school, just as other specialists such as oncologists or cardiologists.”

Julie Churchill with Roo

As a board member of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, Churchill has a growing concern about the increasing rate of obesity in American pets. Dogs and cats are now facing the same health challenges humans are experiencing in developing countries around the world.

“Obesity is a serious disease that impairs the quality of life and shortens a pet’s life span,” she says. “Overweight pets share many of the same problems as overweight people.”

The problem is multifold. Food is a nice way to show love and care for our pets as well as a tool to reward good behavior. Pets never gain unhealthy weight out of neglect, but though good intentions, and pet owners may not be aware of the harm it can cause.

Thanks to financial support from major pet food companies, the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center has one of the few nutrition clinical services in the country.  Churchill sees clients who want the best nutrition possible and pets that require nutritional therapy for their medical care.  She helps develop a feeding plan that meets the pet’s nutritional needs to manage multiple medical conditions, help develop a weight-management program, or formulate recipes for homemade options that will provide complete and balanced nutrition. 

“My passion is preventive care and maintaining wellness,” she says. “Our profession has at times failed the public because we’ve abdicated our role of including nutrition recommendations for every pet each time we see them. Nutrition takes time and attention, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Unless you really like it, it’s easy to say it’s too complicated. When we fail to provide this valuable help to clients and patients, they seek advice about foods from untrained, nonveterinary sources.”

Julie Churchill

Teaching about the importance of nutrition may be Churchill’s primary role at the college, but it is not the only one. She also codirects Gopher Orientation and Leadership Experience (GOALE), a program for first-year veterinary students she helped start 11 years ago. Based on a similar program at Washington State University, GOALE offers first-year students a two-day excursion to Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wisconsin. Then students meet with a mentor, such as Churchill, once a month during the school year.

“Students come to vet school for the love of animals and don’t always realize you have to work as a team, with the people and their animals,” she says. “To be successful— to assure the pet gets the care he needs and deserves—you need to work on leadership skills as well. We take students out of the vet context to practice these skills in an experiential way.”

While growing up, Churchill lived in 13 cities as her father, an executive in the wood-manufacturing industry, climbed the corporate ladder. She bonded best in the Midwest and still maintains a strong connection to northern Michigan, where she and her family vacation two weeks a summer.

As a child she read every book by British veterinary surgeon and writer James Herriot, and when she brought home another “critter” to care for, her family likened her to fictional television character and pet-lover Elly May Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

 “I have a very strong need to nurture, and I do so by feeding them,” she says. In her role at the college and in raising three children and caring for five dogs along with her husband, fellow vet school faculty member Dr. Michael Henson, it seems the nurture quotient is likely fulfilled.

An inveterate volunteer and talented home cook, Churchill keeps plenty busy outside the clinic and classroom. When summer comes around, she begins thinking of Michigan and the crystalline water of  Lake Michigan.

“I love big water. It renews my soul,” she says.