Buying a Veterinarian

“Did you know vets get kickbacks from selling “prescription pet foods?”

“Do you know how much money vets make from selling pet food?”

“Did you know that the food companies are the ones teaching vet students pet nutrition?”

I hear these questions all the time. I get asked them all the time. And while my answers, based on my experiences in the field for over 28 years, are, in order, “Not true, not much, and not exactly,” some information I came across recently made me want to address this issue.

Recently, a webpage from the University of California-Davis Veterinary College was shared. It detailed the Pet Food Program, which is under the jurisdiction of the Student Chapter of the AVMA. Based on my knowledge and research, every veterinary college has a SCAVMA chapter, and all are eligible for the program, which includes companies such as Hill’s, Purina, Royal Canin, Nutramax, and more. In many colleges, if not all, faculty and staff are also eligible for the program. Please note, I am not singling out UC Davis in any way. They just happen to have the most informative web page on the subject. These programs exist at virtually every (if not all) veterinary college. And, in the private practice setting, doctors and staff members may participate in similar programs, where they can order food and/or products at a discount.

Check out the links at the UC Davis Pet Food Program site. There, you can see the percentage discounts offered by Hills, and the actual wholesale clinic price and MSRP of Royal Canin products (which will tell you how little vets make from food sales). The other companies represented have varying discounts and promotions.

Thinking of the questions posed above, I find now I am really not concerned with the money aspects. I am far more concerned with how pet food companies are impacting the thinking and decision making of veterinary students, staff, and faculty.

Consider the situation of the average veterinary student. Long days of classes and labs, long nights studying. Weekends spent reading, working on group projects, in the clinics, or at part time jobs. Student loan debt that may top $250,000 by the time they finish veterinary college. An intense passion and belief in doing the best for animals. And of course, a pet or two at home, and a tendency to bring home hard luck cases that need adoption.

Enter the pet food programs. Suddenly “premium” food and “prescription” diets are affordable for the veterinary student! The products they hear about in their internal medicine lectures, the brands that have given them books, backpacks, scrub shirts, and other imprinted swag. The formulas that emphasize science and research in their advertising and professional references. The very foods listed on the laminated notebook inserts with the conditions where they should be used clearly listed, within the reach of a poor vet student!

While I was a veterinary student, I utilized my college’s food program. For a mere $10, I could purchase a 40-pound bag of Science Diet Maintenance, the then gold standard for adult dog food. A case of the canned version also cost $10. Prescription diets came in smaller sizes, but at the same student-friendly cost.

Obviously, when I finished and left college, I continued to buy Science Diet for my dogs. And I recommended it to all my clients. I recommended their “prescription” products for patients with all sorts of health issues. I did not even consider other brands. My loyalty, and medical recommendations, had been bought, ten dollars at a time, over my four years of veterinary college.

This subtle manipulation by pet food companies is far more dangerous than having them teach nutrition classes. The current veterinary student is bombarded by far more companies than I was in my student days. Many colleges, including my alma mater, Cornell, have developed corporate sponsorship policies to try to eliminate undue influence. However, at least in Cornell’s case, the policy makes an exception for established programs. (You can read the policy here).  Yet when I helped a leading raw food manufacturer come to Cornell to speak to the Holistic Medicine club, he was limited in being able to mention his brand, provide handouts, over even spring for coffee for the students under the guise of “undue influence.” So, some companies are allowed to talk to and sell products at a discount to students (and faculty and staff), while others cannot buy them coffee or even give them a free pen? Why grandfather in some companies, and discriminate against new ones? Why make it easier for some (bigger) companies, compared to other (smaller) ones?

The old adage of “follow the money” may be very applicable in understanding why some companies seem to get special treatment and privileges. For example, take Purina. They funded the Nutrition Center at Tufts University Foster Hospital for Small Animals (see page 4), as well as nutrition centers at other veterinary colleges, including Michigan State University, Colorado State University, and the University of California-Davis. Other funding supports the research projects of faculty and residents. You need only look at the end of any veterinary journal article for disclosures, conflicts of interest or acknowledgments to see what companies, whether pet food, pharmaceutical, or other vet related, have provided funding. For example, from a recent publication in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

Being human, we cannot help but be influenced by our experiences – especially those that benefit us in some way. Whether it is a roof over our research laboratory, a discount on a product we value, or just the gift of a logo T shirt, we can’t help but think warm thoughts of those who provided for us. What level of gratitude, loyalty, and trust these experiences engender in us varies from person to person. The most striking aspect of the influence on vet students in my experience was a willingness to blindly trust the pet food company or other entity, without any scientific thought or open mind. In other words, to treat condition X, use drug Y and food Z. That is how it is done. And that is how I did it, for the first few years of private practice, until my own dog suffered for it, and my eyes were opened. But that is another story…

What should be done about this situation? Should all companies be allowed to talk to students at veterinary colleges? None? Should research funding be restricted, and the playing field be leveled? I don’t know that there is a perfect solution. But I believe the first step to figuring that out is assuring that everyone is aware of the subliminal marketing effects of the industry’s participation in and support of veterinary education.

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