One of the basic tenets of the small animal veterinary profession as a business is that product sales make for a big slice of its revenue pie. This is not how it was twenty-five years ago when I was coming up in the ranks (as a junior vet assistant). The biggest issue in product sales back then was whether or not to carry Filaribits (remember them?).

The trend towards greater adoption of a wider variety of veterinary products (that is to say, vet-only products) came about with the advent of successful flea treatments. Although technically not prescription products, the drug companies made the strategic decision to market them through veterinarians, banking on the pet owners’ respect for vets’ opinions as the primary driver for product sales.

It worked.

An example: Though Hartz stocks products on supermarket shelves nationwide, most vets won’t touch them. In fact, we actively warn clients against them—and not just because we sell [and make a profit on] a competing product. The convenience of an in-office sale while the information is still fresh (and while the checkbook is already out) is yet another factor. (BTW, Hartz products may be inexpensive but this vet thinks they suck.)

Big drug manufacturers bet on the vets [and our respectability] and they won. And so did we. We got a hefty chunk of the sale price on the Advantage and Frontline and every high-end heartworm product out there. It’s a marriage made in heaven—or perhaps you’d argue for somewhere else if you’re a cash-strapped consumer.

But now the times they are a-changing—again. The Internet has opened up new avenues for veterinary product sales. And the few bucks you save can really add up—especially if you have two or more large-breed dogs. I’ve done the math—and for me it might not be worth the headache of an online purchase but for the average consumer…why not save a little cash? (N.B.: Most online pet pharmacies are reputable but always check the expiration date on the products you receive.)

The problem? We vets got used to the income garnered from product sales. Our memories are short; we can’t even remember back to a time when we had to rely solely on our skills and our talent. Our incomes are so dependent on Heartgard and Frontline and Clavamox and Antirobe that we can’t even bear to bring generics into our offices. Talk to 100 vet practice owners and 80 will tell you they fear the online pharmacies and the lower price of generics.

Never mind that we are not pharmacies. What are we? We are doctors educated in the medical and surgical prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease in small animals. We should be content with our role as such and leave the big pharma promises of gold at our feet far behind.

But will we? I don’t think so. Not completely. Pharmaceutical companies will still need our buy-in to get new products into our clients’ hands. We’ll still remain instrumental in picking out new drugs and other therapeutics—and we’ll always have the convenience sales. But online pharmacies will increasingly play a profitable game of catch-up.

It’s the nature of the beast. Those with the most money build the best drugs and sell them to the best salesmen—us. Only later will they let the bottom-feeder (and I say that with the greatest respect) pharmacies have at their products.

I don’t mind the system so much the way it’s evolving now. We seem to be reaching a comfortable equilibrium: Vets are still able to vote for the best products, putting their reputations on the line in promoting promising therapies. But once the wider market gets a chance to weigh in, these products should be available everywhere for the careful consumer’s better price.

We vets deserve our cut for weeding out the loser products, but it’s time we went on a diet and accepted a smaller piece of that product revenue pie.