Trusting your vet …
We have the utmost respect for veterinarians. Not only are they expected to know everything about all animal species we could potentially keep as pets and those that food us, have to master all of this in a space of five to seven years, but then are also expected to know how to navigate the ever expansive universe of veterinary medicine, health conditions, expected to be nutritional experts, and more, in our companion animals.
However, the amount of trust given to veterinarians compared to the amount given to the family doctor is truly amazing. It is virtually unheard of not to seek a second opinion when given a worrisome diagnosis by the family doctor. A healthy dose of “skepticism” is precisely what launched such successful websites as WebMD and online referral services for doctors. Yet, when it comes to the family pet, second opinions are seldom, if ever, sought.
Considering the global state of the veterinary industry, this lack of “scepticism” is dangerous both for the pet and your wallet.
“Thousands upon thousands of persons have studied disease. Almost no one has studied health”~Adelle Davis
A basic understanding of the structure of the veterinary industry is helpful to recognize the dangers it poses. First, in order to run a veterinary hospital or clinic in the United States or South Africa, a license to practice veterinary medicine is required. In the United States, licenses are issued by the Veterinarians Association, and in South Africa, by the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC), supported by the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA); in other words, by the profession’s trade union. This means that if a veterinarian angers the Veterinarians Association or Council, they run the risk of having their license revoked and thereby losing their livelihood. Trade unions do not have an obligation to act in the public interest, rather, their only obligation is to protect the financial interests of their members. This results in a veterinary industry controlled by peers. Minority viewpoints that risk harm to the financial interests of the profession are silenced through the threat of a revoked license.
Veterinarians, unlike their “huuman doctor” counterparts, do not make six figure salaries. Proof of this is found in trade publications like Veterinary Forum and The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which are filled with articles discussing low income-related anxiety. Although small animal veterinarians and some general practitioners earn close to the United States median household income in the United States, considering that these professionals have gone through training as rigorous and costly as that of physicians the median income is often inadequate. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find any equivalent data for South Africa yet. Even though slightly dated, the article published by Mogens Eliasen in 2004 is insightful (see: From the desk of Mogens Eliasen, Why you veterinarian cannot afford to always tell you the truth (PDF)). On the plus side, veterinarians don’t pay the huge malpractice premiums facing physicians, but they also don’t get their start in multi-million dollar hospitals with vast resources. Instead, most veterinarians either set up shop themselves with expensive start-up costs or join a small practice.
Consider the following: vets only make money if your fur kid is sick. Troubling though it may be, there is a substantial amount of truth to that statement. Veterinarians treating healthy patients have few products to “sell” other than vaccines and heartworm medications, which when compared to the substantial costs of running a clinic, don’t constitute nearly sufficient income. So if veterinarians aren’t earning the big bucks of physicians yet have big education and business expenses – where is the cash coming from? Unfortunately, many veterinarians rely on the trust of their patients owners and money from commercial interests for their “extra” income.
Ever noticed that the veterinarians office is often, if not always, filled with McKibble and McCan? The more the veterinarians sell their food to “clients”, the higher their commissions on the sales through incentive programs. Some manufacturers even offer cash bonuses to the vets. In the United States, the US Veterinarians Association itself is a major shareholder in Hills Science Diet, which perhaps explains its ubiquitous presence in veterinarians offices around the world and more so in the United States.
Hill’s, one of the US’s largest manufacturers of pet foods, trademarked the term “prescription diet.” Because of the trademark protection, competing manufacturers use the term “therapeutic” to describe foods that perform similar levels of nutritional function. What manufacturers are doing in terms of branding is illegal, but U.S. regulators are willing to look the other way if the diets are made available only through licensed veterinarians, provided that there is a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship 1 .
All that really matters in a pet food is whether it meets your pet’s nutritional needs. This can be achieved irrespective of the brand or cost associated, so long as what are being sold, contain the necessary nutrients in a digestible form. But some clinics push particular foods because the mark up on premium pet foods can account for as much as 20% of a veterinarian’s income. Plus, pet parents buying food through the clinic visit the clinic more frequently, increasing the opportunities for sales of other goods and services. If this doesn’t seem like a potential conflict of interest, imagine visiting your doctor’s office once a month to purchase “Ready-Made Healthy Meals” from their waiting room.
A veterinarian promoting a particular pet food isn’t necessarily detrimental so long as they are informed both about the needs of your pet and about the food they are selling. Sadly, this is generally not the case. Veterinarians are first introduced to commercial pet foods as students in veterinary school. Many manufacturers provide free products to the students, which come complete with glossy marketing materials. While such a cheerful introduction is not bad in and of itself, it can skew judgement regarding the quality of the product.
The typical veterinary program offers only one course in animal nutrition during four years of study in the United States. In South Africa, this is typically only covered in the Master’s or doctoral elements of available veterinary degrees, and only a few Universities offer veterinary degrees. This course must cover all animals the student will eventually treat in practice, not just the companion dog or cat. A typical small animal veterinary practice will treat hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, rats and reptiles. Considering that the class must also cover livestock and other large animals, this doesn’t leave a lot of class time for cats and dogs. With substantial education debt and hundreds of patients to see, most veterinarians only have a tiny amount of time and funds to further educate themselves. As stated by Dr. Lea Stogdale, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM and Dr. Garcea Diehl, DVM in 2003 in their public rebuttal titled “In support of bones and raw food diets“; “Becoming competent in nutrition requires a great deal of reading and research — most of which is boring, contradictory, and confusing. We understand why the majority of veterinarians do not elect to spend their continuing education time on studying this field; it’s so much easier and more efficient to recommend a bag of commercial pet food.” 2.
Dr Brennen McKenzie, MA, VMD, (also known as SkepVet) wrote the following in the blog article titled “What do Veterinarians Know About Nutrition?” (see: Dr Brennan McKenzie, (Blog Article)) “Like most bad arguments, this one contains a few bits of truth mixed in with lots of unproven assumptions and fallacies.
Most veterinarians [in the United States] do have at least a semester course on nutrition in general. And a lot more information on the subject is scattered throughout other courses in vet school. So the idea that we know nothing about the subject is simply ridiculous.
However, it is fair to acknowledge that most veterinarians are not “experts” in nutrition, if by this one means they have extensive specialized training in the subject. The real “experts” in this area are board-certified veterinary nutritionists, individuals who have advanced residency training in nutrition and have passed the board certification exam of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition” (ACVN).
Reading Dr Shawn Messonnier, DVM, book titled, “Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats“, and his comments on nutrition, then one observe a disparate view of the situation. You can read Dr Shawn Messonnier’s comments in his own words here (PDF) (requires Adobe PDF Reader).
So here is the kicker – how many qualified pet nutritionist do you think is registered in the U.S.? Answer below – watch the video clip by Rodney Habib (Pet Nutrition Blogger) for the answer!
Moreover, much is still being discovered about the nutritional needs of humans. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) promotes a “five-a-day” program to encourage people to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables, despite the overwhelming availability of vitamin supplements. This is because studies have shown that individual nutrients like Vitamin A and E have not prevented cancer as well as real fruits and vegetables. If research is still uncovering new findings about human diets and nutrition, how can anyone possibly know everything there is to know about animal nutrition? Any claim that veterinarians, let alone AAFCO or the NRC, know everything about canine or feline nutrition therefore appears disingenuous.
Veterinarians, perhaps the most qualified party to conduct research on nutrition, lack any incentive to do so. Many veterinarians in the U.S. work for the pet food industry, or are affiliated with universities and institutes that are funded by the industry in the United States. Consider the former chairman of Colgate-Palmolive, who decided to have veterinarians endorse Science Diet, afternoting the huge success of Colgate’s use of a dentist endorsing its toothpaste. Science Diet obtained these lucrative endorsements by promising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund research at each of the 27 U.S. veterinary colleges. The success of this strategy is clear: With a fraction of the marketing budget of it’s competitors, Hill’s has developed from a small company with US$40 million in sales in 1982 to fourth-largest producer of pet food in the world with US$1.5 billion in net sales and an operating profit of US$412 million in 2001.
But the money trail doesn’t stop at funding research. A quick review of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Pet Health Resources (see: The AAHA Online Nutritional Resources webpage (Website)), reveals Hills’ again as the primary sponsor (see: Your Step-By-Step Guide for Making Pet Food Recommendations (AAHA Website) (PDF)). Practicing veterinarians selling prescription commercial diets earn much higher profits as any item labelled as “prescription diet” is only available via vets, and can therefore incur a price premium. The minority of veterinarians who conduct their own private research are typically forced, for financial reasons, to work primarily with commercially-fed pets. Thus, any topics reflecting negatively on commercial diets will not be researched at universities, and financial restraints preclude such investigations by private veterinarians.
Please note that we are not trying to portray veterinarians as money-grubbing narrow minded people. We have a tremendous amount of respect for the industry and professionals in South Africa. Rather, it is simply meant to enlighten certain pet parents’ to the fact that not all vets (yes, a very broad generalization ..) necessarily have your pets’ best interests in mind, and in South Africa, you, the pet parent and guardian, have the right to a second opinion. Please checkout our directory for vets that support raw feeding.
Veterinarians and vet technicians: please respect the rights of your clients. Respect their wishes to food a real or raw diet, and they will respect your skills as a trained professional. Be open to their choice to food fresh whole foods to their pets instead of letting prejudices get in the way. When it comes to the welfare of their fur kids, you should be one of their strongest allies instead of one of their harshest antagonists.
Additional Articles and Videos
Good reference articles & videos further reading available at:
- Rodney Habib – Pet Nutrition Blogger video response to several “Nutritionist” based on blog article (PlanetPaws), offbeat and worth the watch! Answer to the question above – only 93 registered veterinarian nutritionists with the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) globally as accessed on the 29th of June 2016 …
References and Research
- 1.Fiala J, Spero SW. Confusion abounds concerning status of therapeutic pet foods . WINNews Services. https://news.vin.com/VINNews.aspx?articleId=17531. Published February 1, 2011.
- 2.Stogdale L, Diehl G. In support of bones and raw food diets. Can Vet J. 2003;44(10):783; author reply 783-4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14601674.