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It's Time to Have the Pet Food Discussion

Does the veterinary industry have a problem talking about pet food?

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Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Like this article? Then subscribe today

I wrote a blog post several weeks ago on the subject of veterinary nutrition for pets. Not one to mince words, I made clear that I’ve become disillusioned by the state of veterinary science and education in the U.S.

Citing our profession’s lack of independence from corporate influence as our foremost downfall, I argued that “Big Pet Food” has surpassed all other industry subcategories in this regard. It has effectively usurped our role as the scientific font on the subject in ways no pharmaceutical empire has ever achieved.

But here’s the thing: The pet food industry hasn’t been content to simply take over the way others have done, appealing to our rapacious thirst for retail sales. Instead, it has done so in ways no pharmaceutical empire has ever achieved — from the inside out … one endowed chair at a time.

What’s more, this Achilles’ heel is becoming increasingly apparent to stakeholders outside our profession, too. We may know lots about nutrition at the theoretical level, they say, but when it comes right down to it, most veterinarians don’t know jack about feeding. At least, that’s how it looks to a wide swath of our critics. 

If you’re like me, you see the tip of this critical iceberg every day in your exam room. Some are clients who quiz you about X new miraculous pet food, Y’s latest recall scare, or maybe even the dreaded Z option: raw fare. Others are outliers who read pet nutrition blogs, endeavor to cook at home and subscribe to long threads bashing us for our pet-food-company-funded nutrition coursework.

In either case, whether simply concerned or patently cracked, you’re likely to greet their comments with an internal eye roll and a quick prayer to the gods of client brevity.

Go ahead and confess: You’re exasperated by their gullibility and contemptuous of their presumed expertise. Which is justifiable to some extent. But are these perceived insults all we’re reacting to?

I don’t think so. In fact, I believe most of us bristle because we’re fundamentally fearful when it comes to discussing nutrition with our clients –– and not just because of the confrontational crackpots. For my part, I’ll confess it’s the one issue I feel most apprehensive about discussing freely.

Not that it keeps me from going there. Call me a masochist, but I probably bring up the subject during almost every single client interaction — not just the GI, dermatology and annual visits.

Yet I’m never comfortable with it. I always approach the issue of feeding with significant trepidation, knowing that I wade into a minefield whenever I talk food and feeding, even with my “easy” clients.

If you’re honest with yourself you probably feel the same way. Despite the fact that nutrition is fundamental to veterinary science and arguably the number one area of client concern, we harbor very deeply held fears on the subject, both rational and irrational.

In case you doubt this claim about our collective fears, consider a recent Veterinary Economics article by U.K. veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Weeth. Her title says it all: “Three excuses I’ve heard from veterinarians scared to talk about nutrition.”

In it, she describes the following reasons for our widespread apprehension:

  • “You didn’t get much nutrition training in school.
  • “You just can’t fit one more thing into appointments.
  • “ You don’t want to sound like a pet-food salesperson.”

All three are spot-on. Here’s my take:

The school thing: While we may have undertaken sophisticated schooling in animal nutrition, much of it was focused at the biochemical and physiologic level or at devising balanced diets in dairy cattle (for example). Which is important stuff, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a working knowledge of nutrition in a clinical setting.

I never learned how to read a pet food label or discuss different diets with pet owners. Nor was I instructed in the clinical relevancy of a wide range of therapeutic diets or how to recommend them. I mean, it’s hard to be confident in an exam room when you’re not sure whether you’re inadvertently playing the role of yet another industry mouthpiece.

Suffice to say, however, that we all know the dangers of letting foxes run hen houses. So when we allow our deans, trustees and other representatives to shirk our profession’s academic responsibilities and slake a corporate thirst for influence, we should know what we’re losing in the bargain.

This is, admittedly, changing in some programs. But I still don’t see many clinical nutrition tenure track slots, do you?

And though a full quarter of my clientele claims to want to cook for their pets (at least part of the time), at this rate it’ll probably be decades before I’ll have a local board-certified nutritionist to refer them to.

The time thing: Pet owners want to talk about nutrition. Trouble is, we don’t. Apart from telling our clients how fat their pets are and how to adhere to a nutritionally balanced diet, we don’t have a ton of independent science-based wisdom to impart in this arena. And following our clients down a rabbit hole of A versus B super-premium kibble is not a good use of our time.

The sell-y thing: I know I’m not alone when I say I hate selling products. Although I know that I deserve some compensation for both my expertise and the convenience I offer when I sell them the pet food that sits, beckoning tackily, in my waiting room, I still want to take a shower afterward.

The mixed news here is that, as a profession, we’re relying less and less on income from selling pet foods. In fact, Big Pet Food has finally succeeded in pricing some of us out of the equation altogether. A higher-priced product and wider streams of distribution mean tighter margins for us.

And that means practice owners like me aren’t always sad to send their clients shopping online. Not when it ultimately means more competition between brands and more respect for my authority.

Though it’ll be a long time coming, I believe this emerging financial independence from pet food manufacturers can only be good for the quality of our education, our recommendations and our reputations, too –– to say nothing of how much more relaxed I’ll feel during any given exam room visit.

Now, that’s another kind of fear-free practice I can get behind.

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