The truth about vets and the corporate pet food giants

Can of money A small I have read many times online that veterinarians are all in the pockets of the big pet food companies. I’m here to let you in on a secret.

It’s true.

All of this starts in vet school. In the course of our schooling we get a decent amount of unbiased scientific nutritional education from fully qualified veterinary nutritionists, but at least 18 class hours in each of the four years of veterinary school are spent on specialized diets and how they should be marketed to our clients. All of the students are provided with pet food, free, for every animal they own, for the duration of the four years. Most also sign up their friends and family for special discounted food and get paid to do this, and this is where the habit starts. They know that this could be a significant part of their cash flow over the next few decades, if they learn to play the game. And boy, do they ever.

As a fully fledged veterinarian, every time I purchase pet food from one of the large pet food corporations and sell it on to a client, the food company pays me money. It’s a lot, too. They give me anywhere from $10 to $25 a bag for recommending their diets. This drops with repeated sales to the same clients over time, so if a client repeatedly buys the same food for their pet, my payout decreases, down to the range of $5-8 per bag or case. This is why I am continually having people try new foods for their pets. If the company has a new diet out that they are pushing, though, the payout to the vets goes up a lot. I might get $45 for every big bag of a new diet that I sell, so I take advantage of this and really push new foods to clients to maximize my earnings.

There are also “team bonuses” for the clinic based on overall annual sales. If we sell food in excess of some target number, a check shows up at the clinic at the end of the year. No target hit, no bonus. Because of this, veterinarians who don’t have a flair for sales can bring the income down for the vets that they work with. There is often pressure from the higher producers for the low producers to sell more food, resulting in more pressure on the client to buy foods from the clinic.

The checks for individual sales are made out to the vets personally, not the company, so I profit personally from food sales and so do all of my associates. In fact, every veterinarian I know is making quite a lot of money selling prescription and non-prescription pet foods. One of the vets in my graduating class told me he made about $70,000 last year in “appreciation money” from the big three veterinary pet food manufacturers. And he’s not the best at the game by a long shot.

An extra layer to the deal, particularly for practice owners, is the pet food company reps. If they see that I am buying less of a particular food this year than I did last year, they’ll come in and ask me why. If I tell them I’m recommending a competitor’s brand, they’ll sweeten the pot. To lure me back into the fold, they will promise (and actually provide) luxury vacations (under the guise of “continuing education”), special discounts on their foods (increasing my profit margins), and other incentives if I promise to “go steady” with their company for a year. If you play the game right, you can get a decent trip every couple of years by going back and forth between the companies. This also maximizes your cash back because you are continually putting pets on new foods, avoiding the classic “sales drop-off” I explained above.

On a smaller scale, I mark up the price from what I pay for the food itself. I can easily double (or more) the price of the food and I make a decent profit on it. With that kind of markup I can make $20-25 free and clear on every bag of food that costs me $30. Pretty sweet. That money, like the year-end “bonus”, goes to the clinic’s account, of course. Some of the “bonus” money gets distributed to the other vets in the clinic, but any excess goes straight into my pocket, and I don’t tell the taxman about it. Owning a vet clinic is an extremely lucrative business, mainly because of the food sales.

As you can see, I would be in bad shape without the kickbacks. (Oops, I mean “the appreciation money”.) The average veterinarian only makes $65,000 per year in salary. In order to maintain our lifestyles, we need the money from the food companies.

Now, I can understand your outrage. “How can my vet be making food recommendations when he’s just making money off of it? That’s not ethical! If he is making nutritional recommendations based on how much money he makes from the manufacturer, how can I trust him? How can I trust that anything he tells me is meant to be for the good of my pet, and not to line his own greedy pockets??”

To that I say, grow up. A veterinarian is just as unethical and greedy as any banker, lawyer, taxi driver, or real estate agent. Why should we look out for you at all? You are fully capable of looking after your own financial affairs, and we are obviously out to look after our own. We’re in it for the money, man. We’ve got bills to pay.

Now some of you got this far and are pretty satisfied with yourselves. “I knew it,” you crow, “I’ve known that for years. What a scam.” I congratulate you on your perspicacity and your obvious intelligence, and your ability to hang onto an idea despite the lack of any credible support for it. The veterinary profession has been trying to keep this secret under wraps for a long time, but in this internet age, it just can’t hold up any longer.

But I’ve got some news for you smart-alecs, too. Everything I wrote up to this point is an absolute lie. Well, except for the part about getting a decent, non-partisan education in nutrition, and the bit about the average salary. Those were true.

The rest of it is conspiracy theory nonsense. The only thing that vet students get from food companies during school is a student price on the pet foods and maybe a pizza lunch with a noontime “talk” about a nutritional topic sponsored by a company. That’s it. Yes, they appreciate the discounted food. They are, after all, making zero income while attending four years of vet school. The discount is a drop in the ocean as far as cash for the major companies; they can afford it, and they hope to leave the students with positive feelings toward their diets.

But to take a pizza lunch and imagine that this forgettable ‘perk’ will spread out to influence the entire career of a veterinarian, to invent kickbacks and biases and thoughts of unethical behaviors is just… silly. Some people have a little too much time on their hands.

I don’t sell much pet food. Because I’m not WalMart or PetsMart or AnythingMart, my volumes are too low to get a really good price. My cost to purchase a Eukanuba performance diet directly from the manufacturer is higher than PetsMart sells it for in store, never mind the cost (to me) of ordering, shipping to me, stocking, making the sale, and putting on a markup so the clinic doesn’t go broke. So why would I bother? I’d have to charge my clients considerably more than they’d pay at the pet store, enhancing my reputation as a money-grubbing veterinarian. I send my clients to the pet store for those kinds of foods.

I feel that I have to stock certain diets because I actually believe that my patients will benefit from them in the management of certain diseases. Most of these diets are marked up 40-60% (lower than the pet store markup). If I pay $30 for a bag, I sell it for $42. Of that $12 in apparent profit, though, most is eaten up in the costs of having the stuff in the clinic, so the clinic pockets about $3 per bag. None of that goes into my pocket. It makes up part of the 10-12% profit margin that most veterinary clinics show. We use that money to reinvest in equipment and upgrades for the hospital. Any salary increases for the veterinarians also comes out of that 10-12% of profit that the clinic makes.

The food companies don’t care about me or my clinic. They don’t pay me anything to sell their foods. They are too busy selling about a thousand times as much food to my local pet store to spend one second thinking about me.

The food companies aside, I don’t understand how people can really believe that a vet takes a “kickback” on food sales and is making money hand over fist on it… but will still go to that vet. If you really believe that your vet is that unethical, walk. You cannot trust anything he says, ever, about anything. If he’ll accept money for selling you something, that’s corrupt. In fact, if you really believe this is happening you should immediately make a complaint to your local veterinary medical board, because this is illegal in most areas.

Oh, I forgot… the veterinary boards are in on it too. Damn.

I also don’t understand the people who believe that vets are being paid by food companies (so won’t take the vet’s advice) and then turn around and go to a pet store to buy food. There they ask the minimum wage worker with a high school education for nutritional advice, purchase what is recommended, and never make the money-advice connection. Pssst. The employees at the pet store are paid to sell you things. I’m pretty sure the store makes a healthy profit on everything you buy. It’s called retail sales.

I’ve had people tell me to my face that I’m in the pocket of a food company. I don’t think they have stopped to think about how incredibly insulting this is. They’ve just accused me of being unethical and unprofessional. And this is dropped into the conversation as sort of an aside, like it doesn’t really matter much, just a part of going to the vet.

It DOES matter. I am an ethical, moral person. I try to maintain the highest level of integrity in my dealings with my clients and patients, whether it’s on the medical side or the business side. If this is your opinion of my profession, of ME, get out of my hospital. I never want to see you again. You can find someone else to see your pet. Maybe that vet will stoop to your expectations, and turn out to be unethical and immoral (and, if the triad is to be completed properly, incompetent to boot; the three usually go together). For the sake of your pet, I hope not. But for you, karma’s a bitch.

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “The truth about vets and the corporate pet food giants

  1. Pingback: Pet Food Partnering with Veterinary Schools |

    • This person is not a veterinarian. . . They’re definitely making Hills p/d a TON of $$. To even think they prescribe and sell this cheap-to-make-expensive-to-buy food (and sing its praises to boot) in ignorance and without compensation would be idiotic.
      I’d bet $20 against a $1 this guy works for Hills Pet Nutrition llc.

      Like

      • Well, you’d simply be wrong. Obviously this post made you angry for some reason and it has affected your reading skills. Please quote where I sing the praises of Hill’s. And of course I make a profit on things I sell. It would be pretty stupid to run a business that lost money on every sale and service. Profit is what lets me pay my employees.

        Like

  2. I’m kind of disappointed that there’s no name. Otherwise, I have no way on how to avoid you. You seem pretentious to the point you need help. In fact, I almost stopped reading twice! I think I’ll put you on the same level as Jennifer Coates and her articles make her seem like a prick. In fact, I’ve gotten that feeling from reading a couple of her responses.

    While the employees at a pet shop are supposed to sell you garbage, not all of them are okay with it. On DFA, I found two such people. One of them got ‘the talk’ several times for trying to convince customers to not buy bad food. The other one quit because, they got sick of it. This may not have occurred to you, but you don’t need a degree to know more about nutrition than a vet.

    Like

      • Talking about ol Roy from Walmart and brands like that. There not health for your animals and studies show they kill animals quicker than say natural balance.

        Like

  3. Why do virtually all vets sell either Science Diet or Royal Canin? Is this a coincidence? Why do all the vets I’ve come across, and vets of close family and friends, push those two brands exclusively, especially Science Diet? Science Diet is no higher quality than a lot of other cheaper brands. They’re consistently rated poorly, from Consumer Reports and others. Yet my mother’s vet recommended Science Diet DRY food for her dog with kidney problems. Thoughts?

    Like

    • Good question, Rose. Vets are not pet stores. We don’t have the space or the inclination, generally, to have large retail sales. Most vets carry only therapeutic diets (those meant to treat or support specific medical problems). There are only a few companies that make therapeutics diets; Royal Canin and Hill’s are two. Iams and Purina also have therapeutic lines. Rayne Clinical Nutrition is a new player as well. And that’s about it. Most vets will recommend the diets, regardless of brand, that they think work best for a particular problem. At my clinic I stock only 6 or 7 foods, two of which are Royal Canin, one is a Hill’s diet, two are Rayne Clinical, and one or two that I’m forgetting.

      The other factor is where we get product. In my province we have three distributors for all of our medical supplies, drugs, foods, equipment, etc. My clinic orders 98% of our stuff from one distributor. Just from a logistical POV I am inclined to purchase things that I can get from my main supplier.

      I agree that Science Diet is no better nutritionally than any other brand. In fact, I think most foods are nutritionally comparable no matter the brand or how much you pay. It’s mainly marketing. The exception to this is some of the therapeutic diets. We have good long term studies that show the benefits of some foods in certain diseases. Feeding therapeutic renal diets to cats in kidney failure, for instance, has been well established to result in longer lifespan with slower kidney deterioration compared to feeding non-renal diets. There really is good nutritional science and support behind a lot of the therapeutic diets…but not all of them.

      And that’s another reason it may seem like vets are a bit one-note when it comes to diets. The barriers to entry into the therapeutic diet segment are high. R&D costs are quite high; the companies aren’t (usually) just making shit up. There are a lot of smart people designing foods that treat or ameliorate specific medical conditions, and that costs money. It’s a lot like developing new drugs. Immediately our supply options are limited. Companies like Wellness, or Blue Buffalo, Solid Gold, Orijen, whatever, simply don’t (and won’t) develop therapeutic foods. You have a multitude of choices at the pet store, but your vet has far fewer choices when it comes to foods that have a particular nutrient profile to treat disease.

      Like

      • So, because your supplier only carries those 2 or 3 brands, these are the only 2 or 3 brands you recommend? Even though you just admitted they are poor quality foods that cost 600% more than something equivalent that’s NOT in your waiting room? Why don’t you just fess-up?

        Like

      • Replying to grassrox:
        Please re-read. I didn’t say my supplier has only 2 or 3 brands. I don’t know where you got that. I did say that there are fewer companies making therapeutic diets than regular maintenance type diets. I also didn’t say they were poor quality foods. Their nutritional value is just as good as any other commercially available food. I also didn’t say they cost 600% more than other foods. So what exactly am I “fessing up” to?

        Like

  4. My vet sells high priced dry food and canned food. I live with it. I am happy that he is there for my cats. He is good at what he does. I feed raw to my cats as of last fall.My vet approves only because he knows that I understand how to feed a balanced raw diet. (It take a while to learn how.)He has seen my weekly menu for my two cats; detailing the amounts of muscle meat, meaty bone and organs, and the amounts they are fed each meal, based on weight etc and other details of their raw food. And he sees my two lean, well muscled,healthy cats (one fed raw since she was weaned at eight weeks )several times a year . I understand that many vets do not support raw feeding because if it is not done properly, it can do great damage, so you must read a lot, and educate yourself before you begin. And vets need to make a good living, so selling pet food make sense. That said, why are most vets selling dry food? Why, when there is no such thing as a good dry food and “grain free” is a marketing ploy aimed at uninformed pet owners? There are many brands of frozen, ground raw food that they could sell instead – after researching to eliminate the brands that are not a healthy choice. Teach themselves about raw feeding of cats and dogs.Take out the shelves full of Hills and Science Diet in their offices and put in a few refrigerators full of the most reliable, healthiest brands of frozen raw food for cats and dogs. Many pet supply stores do this these days and there are several brands that are well balanced raw diets – and some that are not. But many pet owners who won’t learn how to feed raw correctly or do not have time are feeding raw this way. Sell books published by respected raw feeders. Sell raw meaty bones in frozen packages for dogs. Give their clients reading material on raw. ie handouts on the benefits of raw. Hold paid seminars on raw feeding. Give out the names of the closed groups on Facebook that support raw feeding. Help further the revolution to raw and improve the longevity or our pets to what it used to be before dry food. Stop supporting dry food that over time contributes to liver disease and IBD in cats and dogs. I am almost positive sure that I will never hear from you. You will dismiss me as a crazy cat lady. Whether you reply or not, if you really mean what you say about loving the animals that you treat, then read this…..http://www.littlebigcat.com/nutrition/why-dry-food-is-bad-for-cats-and-dogs/
    fyi I am not saying that I support everything is this site about raw feeding, but these facts about dry food are true, not a rant, not emotional, iust facts. If you love the cats and dogs that you treat then you will stop selling dry food and sell only canned food. And maybe someday, frozen raw.

    Like

    • I like your comment about vets needing to make money. We sure don’t make money of food sales; I can make a week’s worth of food profits in two well patient visits. If I never had to sell another can of food, I’d be happy.

      Most clients with dogs simply do not want to feed anything but dry food. It’s a consumer-driven demand based on convenience. You and others obviously have other priorities, but not everyone does. Also, raw food is very expensive where I live. Canned food is more expensive than dry. And some people can only afford to feed the very least expensive food. They have to choose between cat food and feeding the kids, and the kids win (and they should). So dry food is sometimes what happens, as much as we wish otherwise.

      I do not recommend raw feeding in homes with children under 8 or 10 years of age. I have now had two clients whose children became sick after exposure to dogs fed raw. One baby ended up with E coli hemolytic-uremic syndrome and kidney failure, and needed a kidney tramsplant at age 3. The other was hospitalized with Salmonellosis. I don’t think it’s fair to exposure children to life-threatening disease for the sake of feeding the dog raw food. Otherwise, knock yourself out.

      That said, there is too much liability for me to push people to feed raw. If they want to do it on their own, all the resources are out there and I won’t discourage them from pursuing it. But there is enough human risk that I do not want to push this on people.

      Like

  5. LOL GREAT ARTICLE. I liked your article! I laughed while reading it. It got me thinking that if there were veterinarians out there who only did it for a profit and not because they love animals and want to care for them, then I was very fortunate that I found a wonderful Vet. My three dogs are family and I will do what it takes to keep them healthy and happy. Two years ago, I had to switch dog food to a Veterinary Intestinal prescription diet due to medical reasons (on one of my standard poodles). My Vet told me what food he thought I needed and after my looking into all prescription dog foods, I agreed with him. Because his price was not cheap, and I needed cases of canned and dry food monthly, he suggested I go on the Internet to try and find the cheapest price, He then sent a prescription to this internet company for my monthly purchase and delivery. He could have tried to sell me this dog food every month but he cared more about my dogs and my family then he did about profit. You sound like someone who cares for animals, and wrote this article to educate those few who think everyone is out to make a dollar..no matter what! I like you and your article was fun to read. Thank you.

    Like

  6. As a fellow veterinarian (in the US) who has blogged on this very same subject, GREAT JOB! You said it better than I have, and I completely agree with you. Thanks for helping to get the word out.

    Like

  7. I really don’t get why, if you make no money from these foods filled with byproducts, filler and proven, if one does the research, to offer little to no nutrition at all, that vets everywhere carry products like Hills and Royal Canin? Why not carry something with real protein, with real health benefits, ‘clean’ products, like Gather, from Petcurean, for instance. You’re gettng something out of it, most definitely, whether a kick back or the outrageous amounts of fees you charge for the illnesses these crap products eventually cause, like premature renal failure, cancer and whatever else. You my (non) friend are bogus. You really don’t care for the animals that are meant to be in your care. All you see are dollar signs, which is fair enough in many businesses, but when it comes to animals that people rely on you to help as much as you are supposed to be trained to do, you, and your ilk, are disgraceful human beings. Recommend all natural foods, carry them, they’re out there – and why not . . . After all you don’t make anything out of it . . . Right?

    Like

    • Your first sentence is filled with misinformation and logical fallacy. If foods provide “no nutrition” animals starve to death while eating them, or have major deficiencies. It doesn’t happen.

      Please define “real” protein from a scientific (biochemical) POV.

      Please provide ONE SCRAP of EVIDENCE that these foods cause disease, AND that I do this on purpose to make money. That’s one of those hysterical claims to which conspiracy theorists ascribe.

      Please tell me you treat your pets yourself when they get sick. You sure can’t trust any of those damn vets.

      Like

  8. It just reassures me that it is up to the pet owner to educate themselves and to make final decisions about the care and nutrition of their pets. I really don’t care if the Vet gets a kick back for selling kibble or not. They too have to pay bills, student loans and the staff. What I do care about is that; my Vet and I have mutual respect for each other and that my Vet treats me as a person with a brain and decision making capability. Let’s face it, most people prefer the convenience of kibble, and if the Vet alienates his clientele, he might as well close up shop.

    Like

  9. My own vet told me he does make profit from the food they sell in the office, otherwise they wouldn’t bother. AND he told me that Royal Canin came into his Veterinary school and conducted classes on pet nutrition. Give me a break. He found nothing wrong with this ethically. I found a new Vet.

    Like

    • This puzzles me. You think it’s unethical for vets to make a profit? Should he have lost money providing good nutrition to his patients? I don’t see the ethical issue.

      Like

  10. I enjoyed your humour. I used to believe this stuff and now it’s just irritating to hear it from other people especially because they assume I mist not have read what they have that led them to believe these things.

    I used to feed a high protein and high fat food and now rather regret it because my dog developed gastro problems and needs low fat moderate protein food or he’s shiting blood and mucous and panicking in discomfort and hunched over. My Bvet suggested RC gastro and I decided to try it just to prove to her it wasn’t going to work. Low and behold it actually did. I tried the low fat and that worked even better. My dog is much better off health wise now that I’ve started to be more level headed and realistic and question claims about food. Like the claim that rc uses saw dust. No they use cellulose which is what makes up the cell walls of plant matter. Every time you eat an expensive organic carrot you are eating cellulose and you don’t absorb it, it becomes fiber. For dogs with chronic loose or liquid poop or anal gland problems, fiber can be helpful.

    Like

  11. My dog was just diagnosed with Cushings disease and crystals were found in her urine. She is a Boston, nearly 14. My vet recommended I get the Hills Urinary diet, so I am giving her the canned food. Please tell me if this will help her more then the natural Balance I have been feeding her for over 7 years. Thank you. She is taking Vetoryl for the Cushings.

    Like

  12. Hi Susan, sorry to hear about your dogs illness, cushings is expensive to treat and I certainly understand the hardships of dealing with a sick dog. They’re our babies and watching them deteriorate is never easy. My dog was also diagnosed with cushings recently, she is a 141/2 yr old min pin with other health issues. Because of cushings I believe from my research and my vets explanation that a low protein diet is best. I feed her a vegan kibble(gather endless valley) adding to it fresh vegetables/fruit and a small amount of a high quality protein-wild fish/grass fed beef, chicken, sardines, fresh high quality grains-quinoa, steel cut oats, brown rice, and I interchange all these items from meal to meal.We all have to research and find what works best for our dogs as they all can react differently to different foods. What works for mine, may not work for yours. I also add a bit of cinnamon and honey( raw honey) to her food each morning for stomach upset, and it seems to help. She too is taking vetoryl-10mg once a day, with breakfast. I feed her 3-4 times a day, small portions.It is said that licorice root is good for dogs with cushings, but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m waiting for her first blood tests to come back to see how she is reacting to the vetoryl. If she is doing well, I will consider adding licorice root to her diet.
    I’ve read and reread many books, articles and tons of labels concerning pet foods, my conclusion, it’s all confusing and the easiest thing to do, yet this too is complicated as it takes time and experiment, is to find a quality kibble or wet food and add to it fresh whole food ingredients. Read the labels and as I said what doesn’t hurt my dog, might hurt yours, what makes my dog stomach upset, might be good for yours. Feeding is such an individual thing, the best advice is simply trying different foods and allowing your pets health/reaction determine whether or not it is working. I’ll also add that vomiting and diarrhea are never normal, nor should they be overlooked, but that is just my opinion. Some feel that when switching foods those things can happen and to allow it for a short period, I disagree, imo, that means it is a food or an ingredient their bodies can’t handle. Research, research, research and best of luck with your baby.

    Like

    • The best thing to do is for Susan to tAke her veterinarian’s advice. That’s the person who knows the dog and the disease. Cushing’s disease is not liver disease; although the liver enzymes are elevated secondarily, the liver function is generally perfectly normal. There should be no need to feed a low protein diet. That may, in fact, be the last thing a geriatric dog needs.

      Like

      • The vet recommended the Urinary diet because she has had repeated UTI’s and there were crystals found in her urine. The problem is she does not care for the food. (it is canned), and even when I put pieces of beef from the stew I cooked for the people in the family, she still manages to eat just the people food, and leaves the canned food. I read that one of the side effects of the Vetoryl is loss of appetite. Today is day 9 of the Vetoryl.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s