Veterinarians and the pet food industry

Many pet parents have questions regarding veterinarians and their nutrition education or their role in the pet food industry. There are also many myths surrounding veterinarians’ relationships with large pet food companies. “Big Pet Food” is a nickname for the higher grossing pet food companies in the industry, and “The Big Three” is a nickname for the three manufacturers veterinarians typically recommend. Read on to learn about veterinary nutrition education, the relationship between veterinarians and the industry, and why some companies employ veterinarians.

Does “Big Pet Food” pay for vet students’ education?

No, pet food companies do not pay for veterinary students’ education.

The cost of four years of veterinary school tuition in the United States is between $150-400,000, depending if the student is a resident of the state in which they attend school. Just like other professional students (e.g., medical, law, pharmacy), veterinary students receive as much as they need in student loans from the federal government, which covers tuition and fees plus the estimated cost of books, housing, transportation, and other living expenses. These loans are paid back to the federal government when the students graduate from the program.

Veterinary students may also receive scholarships to help fund their education from private or professional organizations, school endowments, state veterinary medical associations, or other sources. Scholarships can be based on merit, financial need, or other factors. Scholarships do not have to be paid back; they are a gift to the student.

Very few pet food companies offer scholarships to veterinary students, but less than half of the 30 veterinary schools in the country have scholarship funds set up by pet food companies. These are typically merit-based scholarships, and they award between $1-2,000 to a single veterinary student per school (if offered), per year. This is an extremely small sum when compared to the cost of tuition – less than 1%!

Some pet food companies also have student representatives at many veterinary colleges. Typically, one student per class is employed by the company and is given a small stipend of around $2,000 per year. These students learn about the company, their mission, research, and products, and then convey this information to their classmates and colleagues at their school. They also organize lunch and learns, where a veterinarian employed by the company will give a lecture on the latest research or trends in the field of nutrition. This is not exclusive to pet food companies; many pharmaceutical and medical supply companies, corporate hospitals, and other veterinary organizations do the exact same thing. The job of student representatives is not to sell products; rather, it is to provide veterinarians and students with access to the tools they need to make informed decisions regarding patient care and nutrition. Veterinary schools only allow these programs because the companies that offer them employ veterinary specialists, do research, and have a good relationship with veterinarians.

Why does “Big Pet Food” donate money to vet schools?

Donations from many sources are used to help schools become better and more advanced, and to benefit students and patients in as many ways as possible. Some pet food companies donate money to veterinary schools at their discretion. These donations are usually used to build new kitchens, laboratories, or wards in university animal hospitals. Donations from pet food companies greatly benefit receiving schools, many of which are in desperate need of funding for their nutrition programs. The pet food companies also benefit by building a positive relationship with veterinary schools.

Only a few pet food companies are in the position to make donations to veterinary schools. These companies are the ones who employ board-certified veterinary nutritionists and perform research. These companies have proven they are science-based, reliable, and honest, so veterinary schools welcome their donations.

Are vet students taught to recommend “The Big Three” and nothing else?

No. Veterinary students are taught to collect as much data and information as possible, keep up with current research, conduct thorough examinations of their patients, and talk to pet owners before they make a recommendation regarding pet food. Three specific pet food companies are often mentioned and recommended by veterinarians because these companies employ board-certified veterinary nutritionists, have extensive quality control, conduct and publish research, and are honest and reliable. 

How much nutrition schooling do vet students receive?

Nearly all veterinary schools in the United States offer at least one nutrition course. Some schools have elective nutrition classes, some have nutrition clinical rotations, and others teach nutrition in a block with other subjects. Most schools are realizing the growing importance of nutrition in the veterinary medical field and are adjusting their curricula accordingly.

As with any subject, students are unable to learn everything about nutrition by sitting in a classroom. Much of what veterinary students and veterinarians learn takes place in the clinic or on the job. The most important source of learning is through continuing education (CE) after graduation. CE is how veterinarians stay up-to-date with topics and research in the ever-evolving field of veterinary medicine. CE is offered online, at veterinary conventions and conferences, and at universities. It is in a veterinarian’s best interest to take CE courses in topics pertinent to their career, so small animal practitioners should attend CE in nutrition, since this is a big part of their job.

Do “Big Pet Food” salespeople teach veterinary nutrition courses?

No. Veterinary nutrition courses are taught by board-certified veterinary nutritionists, PhD or MS animal nutritionists, or DVMs with extensive training in the subject. Course directors vary by school and who they have on staff. Many schools are fortunate enough to employ one or more board-certified nutritionists, but some rely on a PhD or MS animal nutritionist to teach their veterinary students.

What are veterinarians expected to know about nutrition when they graduate?

The American College of Veterinary Nutrition has established a list of competencies that all new veterinarians should possess at the time of graduation. This list is extensive; there are 53 nutrition-related skills that all small animal veterinarians should have, including:

Do vets and vet students get free food and kickbacks from “Big Pet Food”?

Veterinary students, veterinarians, veterinary nurses, hospital managers, and clinic support staff may have the opportunity to buy discounted food (for their personal pets) from certain pet food companies. Discounts may range from 10-50% off the retail price, depending on an individual’s role within the practice, but food is never free. This discount is applied as a way of saying thank you for continuing to have a good relationship with the company.

Veterinarians are not paid by pet food companies to stock and sell their food; contrarily, they must pay the company to stock their shelves. This means they buy the food at “cost” straight from the manufacturer, and then mark it up a certain percentage so they can sell it to pet owners. The markup for pet food is usually very small (less than 50%) because of the high initial cost of the product. By contrast, veterinarians can mark up some drugs by 200-500% because their initial cost is so low. See below for an example.

Veterinarians who choose to stock drugs and therapeutic diets do so as a convenience to their clients. They must mark these items up for many reasons: to cover the cost of loss when items expire, to cover the cost of pill bottles and labels, to cover the cost of paying a veterinary technician to dispense these drugs in a responsible fashion, and to earn the business a small profit. In turn, the client receives a product that is guaranteed to have been stored, handled, and dispensed properly, and they buy it directly from their veterinarian, which is a personal and convenient experience.

Veterinary clinics make far more money off of services than they do off diets or drugs. For example, a nail trim costs the clinic about 5 minutes of a veterinary technician’s time, plus the cost of a pair of nail clippers ($10 max). Most clinics charge a reasonable fee of $10-15 per nail trim. All of the profit goes directly back to the clinic because there is no product involved that they have to pay for or stock.

For many veterinarians, the cost of stocking pet food (and even drugs) is not worth the return, so they choose to write prescriptions or make suggestions for certain diets. When veterinarians send pet owners elsewhere, they do not make any money off the foods they suggest. Instead, the pet store or online pharmacy makes money off their own markups, which are usually much higher than the markups at veterinary clinics.

Do all board-certified nutritionists work for “Big Pet Food”?

After graduation, veterinarians have the option of pursuing an internship or residency in any particular subject. Nutrition is a small specialty, but more veterinarians are joining residency programs each year. In the United States, only nine schools currently have the ability to offer residency programs. Obtaining board certification in nutrition involves completing three years of residency, conducting research, managing cases and patients, becoming published, and passing a board certifying examination by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

The American College of Veterinary Nutrition has had 94 total diplomates since its establishment in 1988. Of around 70 diplomates who are currently practicing in the United States, only 19% work for pet food companies. The rest work in education (55%) or in private practice (24%). Most board-certified nutritionists work in education so they can help the next generation of veterinarians learn about nutrition.

Why do pet food companies employ veterinarians?

Pet food companies who are based in science and perform quality research employ both board-certified veterinary nutritionists and general practitioner DVMs. They may also have specialists like veterinary toxicologists or internists on staff. Honest, reliable pet food companies employ these experts because they want to produce a product that is safe and effective.

Not all pet food companies have these same good intentions. Some manufacturers may employ general practitioner DVMs, but no truly qualified nutritionists or scientists. Some of these companies use a celebrity veterinarian as the face of their brand, who markets and sells their products. Companies who engage in these practices are often unreliable and do not meet the WSAVA nutrition recommendations.

For more information on reliable pet food companies, see How to pick a pet food, part 1.

So, should I trust my veterinarian's nutrition recommendations?

A thorough veterinarian will take the time to get a good understanding of your pet’s nutrition history, body condition, and health status. If your veterinarian attends CE for nutrition, keeps up-to-date with the AVMA’s nutrition policies, and refers you to the WSAVA nutrition guidelines, their recommendations will be backed up by science, and therefore be accurate and trustworthy.