Is it safe to take nutrition advice from your Vet?.
Pet food has become an important source of revenue for almost all veterinary practices over the years and veterinary foods – that is foods that are only available through veterinary practices, are the products of choice for countless vets across the country and the world.
But with so many food options and feeding philosophies out there, why are these narrow ranges from just a handful of companies so popular amongst vets?
In this article, we’ll be looking at what veterinary foods are, who makes them, and the extraordinary lengths these companies have gone to ensure that their foods are the only ones on your vet’s mind.
Pet food domination: The Big Three Corporations
We all know there are plenty of pet food options out there. All About Dog Food currently features well over 250 brands of dog foods and treats that are available in the UK and still have many more to go. Incredibly though, almost 90% of all pet food sales in the UK are from just three companies. Through relentless marketing and widespread buy-outs, ‘The Big Three’ corporations have come to dominate and define pet food in the UK and across the world.
These three giant multinational companies, Mars, Nestle, and Colgate Palmolive, absolutely dominate the pet food industry, together accounting for almost 90% of global sales. These companies also produce the world’s three most successful veterinary pet food ranges – Royal Canin Veterinary Diets, Purina Veterinary Diets, and Hill’s Prescription Diets, each of which is advocated by an army of vets worldwide.
Mars: Pedigree, Cesar, Chappi, Frolic, Kitekat, Pal, Nutro, Greenies, James Wellbeloved, Royal Canin, Sheba, Whiskas.
Nestle: Bakers, Beneful, Beta, Bonio, Felix, Friskies, Just Right, ProPlan, Purina One, Purina Veterinary Diets, Winalot.
Colgate-Palmolive: Hills Science Plan, Hills Prescription Diets.
But how have these three companies come to control the pet food market so completely? It must be because their products are so good, right? Unfortunately not.
Why Are They Bad?
Veterinary foods are promoted as the ultimate in dietary therapy for your dog – so good in fact that only your vet can give it to you. The pristine packaging, the massive price tag, the fact that they are only available through vets, even the names ‘Prescription Diets’ and ‘Veterinary Diets’ all give the overwhelming impression that these are not mere foods but medicinal treatments and must, therefore, be the best choice for your sick dog.
Unfortunately, in most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The most important thing to realize is that the majority of veterinary diets are just standard pet foods. Most of them don’t contain anything remotely medicinal and no prescription is required to buy them.
I say most because there are still a couple of instances where veterinary diets can be effective in removing some symptoms of your dog’s health issue. However not without great cost to the other aspects of your dog’s health.
Hypoallergenic diets for example remove full proteins (that dogs react too) from food and replace it with hydrolysed animal proteins, this means your dog doesn’t get full proteins, which is extremely detrimental to their overall health in the long run.
Kidney diets, remove nearly all protein so the owner and vets see a reduction in creatinine levels, but at the cost of every other aspect of the dogs health.
Certain veterinary diets are engineered to reduce symptoms in the cheapest way possible and not address the cause of the issue, thus tricking everyone into thinking they may be working.
Example: Hill’s i/d
Hill’s Prescription Diet i/d is probably the most popular veterinary diet in the UK. Vets recommend it for all sorts of gastrointestinal disorders from colitis to pancreatitis, IBD to bloat. According to Hill, it is ideal for these sorts of problems because of its high digestibility, low-fat content, and its high level of fibre. It also contains electrolytes to help replace losses caused by vomiting and diarrhoea.
Hills i/d dry ingredients: Ground Maize, Ground Rice, Dried Whole Egg, Chicken, and Turkey Meal, Maize Gluten Meal, Digest, Dried Beet Pulp, Animal Fat, Vegetable Oil, Calcium Carbonate, Flaxseed, Potassium Citrate, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Dicalcium Phosphate, Taurine, L-Tryptophan, Vitamins and Trace Elements. Contains EU Approved Antioxidant.
It doesn’t take a nutritionist to tell you that this is not great food, but I’m going to anyway. The first, and therefore most abundant ingredient in Hill’s i/d is maize – a grain that has become increasingly associated with dietary intolerance and actually causing digestive upsets. Add in the second ingredient rice and the added maize gluten further down and it’s clear that i/d is a very grain-heavy food. As dogs are primarily designed for digesting meat, this is not the best characteristic for food to aid digestion. Meat, in fact, is only the 4th ingredient on the list and since the percentage isn’t specified, the actual amount in the food could be very low indeed. The remaining ingredients really aren’t anything to write home about either – digest, unidentified animal fats, added salt, and even artificial antioxidants – all hallmarks of a low-grade food.
So why do vets sell veterinary diets?
There are several reasons why prescription diets have become so prominent within the veterinary industry: Firstly, as disillusioning as it might be, many vets just don’t know any better. Nutrition makes up a very small part of veterinary training and of the few modules that are available, many are ‘sponsored’ by the manufacturers of veterinary diets themselves. Veterinary undergraduates learn that a dog suffering from condition x must be fed veterinary diet y. Other brands and feeding philosophies just don’t get a look in so by the time newly graduated vets join their first vet practice, veterinary diets really are the extent of their dog food knowledge.
Then, of course, there’s the money. Veterinary diets are incredibly expensive, the markup for the vet practice is huge and since you can’t get them elsewhere, it makes good business sense for a vet to get you on to them. The manufacturers and distributors of the veterinary diets also offer massive cash incentives to practices that meet their sales targets – so large in fact that winning or losing the bonus can make a considerable difference to a practice’s prosperity. With so much at stake, it’s no surprise to find vets pushing veterinary diets so vigorously.
How This Affects Veterinary Health Care?
‘The Big Three’ are affecting the veterinary health care system in a number of ways.
Veterinary diets – as discussed.
With their clinical, medicine-like white packaging, veterinary diets are generally pretty easy to spot. Their similarity with medicines is no mistake. The manufacturers are very keen for you and your vet to think of these foods as specialist and medicinal – that these remarkable foods will cure your pet of whatever ailment he or she is facing. As discussed.
Sponsored vet schools
In the UK there are seven universities offering degrees in veterinary science. Many would argue that nutrition is not given nearly enough attention on these courses, often only coming up as a side topic two or three times over the five years of study. Nevertheless, it is this small amount of nutritional study that will provide the foundation for a vet’s future food recommendations and The Big Three have not been slow in realizing its importance.
Due to chronic underfunding (or in some cases just greed), many universities are very open to external sources of revenue and are happy to accept ‘sponsorship’ from companies despite glaring conflicts of interest. Over decades, The Big Three have exploited this situation to develop ever closer ties with vet schools around the world, providing funding and support in return for a few concessions.
All students need textbooks and for small animal nutrition, there is only a handful to choose from. But guess what, they are also made by the Big Three!
The most popular text on the subject, entitled “Small Animal Clinical Nutrition” is made by Hill’s. They also make the accompanying “Quick Consult” guide and the “Key to Clinical Nutrition”. Royal Canin’s best-known texts are the Encyclopedia of Canine Clinical Nutrition and the Encyclopedia of Feline Clinical Nutrition.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that these texts are not what most people would call ‘impartial’ on the subject of pet food. The two Royal Canin Encyclopedias of Clinical Nutrition (you can see an online version of the canine edition here) are particularly brazen. As an example, the Canine Encyclopaedia dedicates more space to promoting Soy Protein Isolate Hydrolysate (a common Royal Canin ingredient) than it does to exploring the entire subject of home-preparing pet food.
But what’s possibly even more worrying is the way these books seamlessly merge nutritional science with the science of making money. The entire last chapter, entitled ‘Integration of Nutrition into Clinical Practice’ is essentially one long set of instructions on how to sell as much Royal Canin as possible. It includes info on how to best position the foods to boost sales and even includes the below diagram illustrating the optimal shelving arrangement.
The very last sentence in the entire textbook perfectly summarises how Royal Canin consider your sick pets: “Ideally, space should be organized in such a way that owners are led to buy a new supply of food for their dog, and even to buy new products for the dog that they have not seen before (e.g., chewing bars for dental hygiene)”.
Remember that this book is one of the primary sources of information on pet nutrition for budding vets.
Ongoing Training and Education
Throughout their career, most vets will continue to expand their knowledge through attending lectures, seminars, and conferences and by following veterinary papers and journals. The trouble is, the Big Three have these well and truly covered too.
It is the same universities and their Big Three staff members that are giving the lectures and acting as speakers at seminars and conferences. They also account for the majority of scholarly articles on pet nutrition and are the ones carrying out the all-important peer review. And if you take a look at the sponsor list for any of the big veterinary associations and events around the world, you will soon notice that the same three company names coming up again and again.
So, is it safe to take nutrition advice from your Vet. If they’re advising a processed dog food made by Royal Canin or Hills, Purina… NO.
If they are recommending fresh food diets, YES.