How therapeutic diets can help boost the bottom line

Manufacturers of veterinary therapeutic diets have refined certain ingredients or taken a fresh approach to diet marketing

The veterinary therapeutic diet category is every-evolving. Prescribing and selling food doesn’t always come as second nature to all veterinarians, and many clinics struggle with low diet sales or compliance.

For some reason, we’ve sort pushed it to the side and said, ‘Oh no, that’s the selling stuff,’” said Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT. “You can’t ignore the therapeutic benefits of diets, whether it’s treating disease or preventing disease. When you look at how you can prevent disease, you really only have three things you can do: immunization, lifestyle management—reducing stress, increasing physical activity, and so forth—and diet.”

Paying more attention to ingredients, more selection

Responding to both consumer demand and nutrition research, manufacturers of veterinary therapeutic diets have refined certain ingredients or taken a fresh approach to diet marketing.

“In general, there is a trend similar to the trend in OTC pet food of trying to make the ingredients more pleasing to pet owner,” said Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, DACVN, assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass. “Commonly, the reasons pet owners are unhappy with therapeutic diets are typically things that have absolutely nothing to do with nutrition or the best diet for their pet—they’re marketing things or philosophical things. They want an organic diet or they want to avoid specific ingredients. A few of the therapeutic companies are working a little bit harder in that regard.”

Veterinarians have more therapeutic diets to choose from than ever before thanks to the introduction of diets tailored to treat more specific conditions.

“We’re seeing more than just generic prescription diets, we’re seeing things being designed with the idea of actually treating conditions,” said Robert Lawrie, BSc, BVM&S, MRCVS, medical director of VCA Old Marple Animal Hospital in Springfield, Pa. “In the past, these were more generalized, like ‘intestinal diets,’ as opposed to [specific diets to] treat conditions like megacolon or hyperthyroidism. Combination diets labeled for multiple conditions (i.e., kidney and mobility) are becoming more popular. In the past, you had to pick whichever condition was more important. Now diets are formulated for multiple conditions.”

Variety is the new normal in therapeutic diets, with many more options to entice finicky patients, such as different flavors, and the addition of stews and patties to compliment the old standby kibble and canned.

“Particularly for foods for diseases that are known for having poor appetite, like kidney diets, several companies have introduced additional flavors and textures of foods with the goal of increasing palatability for pets with kidney disease where it’s a known consideration,” Dr. Heinze said. “When you must have a specific nutrient profile, having more options that fit that profile is certainly a benefit in terms of overall pet compliance. The stew formulations or the chunks in gravy type seem to be popular right now; those have become more popular in traditional pet food as well, not just the therapeutic market.”

Watching purchasing trends

Gone are the days when the only option clients had was driving to the veterinary clinic to buy their pet’s prescription diet. Today, pet owners can price compare and shop online, and even have a specialized diet created specifically for their pet’s individual needs. To regain some of that lost revenue, some clinics use online portals to offer clients competitive prices for therapeutic food and other prescription meds, as well as the convenience of home delivery.

“Without a doubt the trend that we’re going to be talking about in 2018 is the explosion of home delivery and personalized pet food formulations,” Dr. Ward said. “We’re seeing more whole-food diets that look like home-prepared meals and are personalized to your pet’s needs and then delivered to your home. I see tremendous opportunity for vets to get in that slipstream, stay relevant to the pet owner, and to get their messages out. You’re only going to get a small percentage of it, but that’s OK. More important than just the revenue from the sale, it’s also the access to that consumer’s information and your ability to be a part of that communication.”

Using a third-party website for food sales can provide hidden benefits, said Dr. Lawrie.

“If they’re already price shopping, they’re happy because they’re buying their food online, it’s being auto delivered and they feel like they’re price-comparing things,” he said. “In some ways, it’s almost better for them to buy food through a portal because when they come in for their office visit they feel like they have more money available because they’re not spending it on food anymore. If they only have an X amount of dollars left, then a portion of that isn’t going toward feeding their pet anymore in their mindset.”

Talking to clients about nutrition

Today’s clients have many more pet nutrition choices, including OTC options that seem to be comparable to prescription diets, but at a lower cost. Couple this with increased interest in and internet research into their pet’s nutrition, and some clients are reluctant to feed the therapeutic diets you recommend.

“A number of companies have over-the-counter diets that are marketed very similarly to therapeutic diets and that is actually a big concern,” Heinze said. “First, that encourages pet owners to use those diets instead of the therapeutic diets because in advertisements they seem like they’re an even swap. The venison and potato from the pet store looks an awful lot like the venison and potato that you’re recommending; however, they’re often very different.”

That’s where client education comes in, and it’s more important than ever when it comes to nutrition.

“When the therapeutic diet is legitimately the most appropriate recommendation, tell clients why; that can sometimes help overcome the sticker shock,” Heinze said. “Sometimes I tell clients that I’m using the food like a diagnostic test: ‘I want you to feed this hydrolyzed diet as a test for food allergies. This $100 bag of food is not any different than if you spent $100 on an X-ray.’ When they see it as a vet bill for treatment or prevention or diagnostics versus ‘just food,’ then it’s a different budget system in their mind and potentially literally a different budget system in the family budget.”

The conversation about nutrition need not be limited to therapeutic diets alone.

“I’m a strong believer in selling maintenance diets within your clinic simply because the cornerstone or foundation of good health begins at the food bowl,” Ward said. “We’ve really transcended the old days of four major brands. If the vet is limited in their knowledge and understanding of brands, then they just come across as not knowledgeable.”

Some clients think they should ask their veterinarian for medical advice and the pet-store employee for advice about what food to feed. Change this mindset by discussing nutrition at every appointment from the first puppy visit on.

“Your clients need to know that you care about food and that you’re recommending it not because you sell it but because that’s the best thing for their pet,” Lawrie said. “When a client asks, ‘What do you think about this food or what should I feed?’ that is your golden opportunity to promote what you believe in. If you aren’t prepared, you likely won’t get another chance. If you make a recommendation about an appropriate wellness diet, it will become easier to transfer them to a prescription diet in future.”

Amping up sales

“Food sales can and should be a legitimate revenue stream for your clinic,” said Lawrie, who has seen prescription sales in his clinic increase year to year for the past five years. “It’s all down to attitude and education. We do well because we have a positive attitude to food and consider it to be both a prescription and a medicine. In my experience, doctors don’t make recommendations when they don’t know about the diets. Take your time to educate yourself and it will pay off tenfold.”

Although most clinics simply don’t have the room or overhead to stock every therapeutic diet available, offer an ample selection. This is most important for diseases where diet is imperative and patient appetite is likely to be questionable. Selling food through an online portal is helpful because you can essentially offer limitless brands and flavors without needing to physically stock every item.

“For diseases where we use the diet less commonly or appetite is less of an issue, it may be OK to have only one hydrolyzed diet,” Heinze said. “I would try very hard not to limit yourself to only one company because I think that no one therapeutic diet company has a diet appropriate for every disease that is the best of the options.”

In the hospital, don’t neglect the appearance of your display shelves and inventory.

“If you have half-stocked shelves or it looks like your food is all expired, out of date or covered in dust, your clients are going to get the impression that food is an afterthought,” Lawrie said. “Actively showcase food. Display food by condition or by brand. Don’t mix cat and dog foods together. Rotate your stock and make sure it isn’t expired. If you have empty space on your shelves and don’t want to stock additional food, then consider consolidating it or look at different display alternatives.”

Finding confidence in your recommendations

Above all else, do your research to stay up to date on available therapeutic diets and be confident in your diet recommendations.

“When a veterinarian is struggling in food sales, it’s typically because they don’t have confidence,” Ward said. “I don’t sell anything. My staff doesn’t sell anything. We simply share advice and experiences. I never recommend anything to my client that I don’t strongly believe in.”

Heinze urges veterinarians to understand the evidence to support the various therapeutic diets.

“Sometimes we recommend therapeutic diets when they’re unlikely to be of any benefit,” she said. “When you recommend a therapeutic diet, be very explicit about the benefits of that diet; the pros and cons. Recommending
a diet for a disease where diet is the main consideration is no different than recommending an antibiotic for an infection. Be able to say to clients, ‘This is really important’ versus ‘This is an option.’”

Pet food trends follow human food trends, so it’s no surprise that grain-free and gluten-free pet food diets have emerged in recent years. When foods follow fads rather than research, it’s possible to create a problem that wasn’t there before.

“There is information out there in the golden retriever community about heart disease developing in golden retrievers who are eating certain—primarily grain-free—diets,” said Kelly Diehl, DVM, DACVIM, scientific communications advisor for the Morris Animal Foundation. “The suggestion is that some golden retrievers might have difficulty manufacturing taurine, or be less efficient at it. Some diets may exacerbate this problem, resulting in heart disease.”

There appears to be an increase in the number of golden retrievers diagnosed with taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study has collected a large amount of nutritional data on a defined group of dogs and is monitoring the cohort for the development of heart disease.

“Nutrition is a major study focus—what are these dogs eating, when are they eating, how much are they eating … 3,000 dogs getting fed different diets with different veterinary guidance,” Dr. Diehl said. The hope is that this data, along with additional research, will help shine a light on what could be causing the uptick in DCM in goldens. Josh Stern, DVM, Ph.D., DACVIM, a Morris Animal Foundation-funded researcher, veterinary cardiologist, and owner of a Golden Retriever Lifetime Study participant, is currently investigating the link between diet, taurine deficiency, and DCM in golden retrievers.

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3 thoughts on “How therapeutic diets can help boost the bottom line

  1. Having had cats for almost 35 yrs., at some point I’ve had to try practically every veterinary “therapeutic” diet for various disease conditions of my cats. My vet clinic has always “touted the praises” of the brand(s) they sell, and only seem to “tow the party line” of these brands, without knowing if they actually “work”. I have always maintained that – A “veterinary/prescription” diet is only good IF the cat will eat it. In my experience, very few (if any) of these diets are palatable and I’ve only ever had one cat in 35 yrs. that would actually eat any of them! In my opinion, the manufacturers of these diets really need to take a look at the ingredients in these diets, and remove all the unnecessary “crap” in them, and make them into something that a cat will actually eat! It’s very frustrating for a veterinarian/clinic to constantly tell you that there’s nothing wrong with the diet, and just chalking it up to my cat(s) being “finicky”! When enough of their clients tell them that their cats won’t eat the diets they sell, maybe they should stop and think that it might just be the DIET??!!