When I was a second-year student in vet school, I received a tidy sum in scholarship money to help out with my escalating student loan debt. It was a Hill’s-sponsored subsidy based on an essay I’d written (on what topic I remember not — but it wasn’t nutrition, that much I recall).

While my friends at the University of Florida’s vet school received lectures on nutrition by Hill’s-funded faculty, ours at the University of Pennsylvania were independently delivered. Even then (early‘90s) there was abundant skepticism on the pet food issue at some schools.

But there wasn’t a lot of competition out there when it came to pet foods. And they were, after all, “supportive” of our needs as researchers and students. So we accepted their assistance readily, despite any reservations we might have had.

Hill’s and Waltham routinely paid for our parties, our canine blood-drives, our faculty awards, our own pets’ dietary needs, etc. etc … The list of all their contributions to US vet schools is taller than a tower of pet food cans stacked to the moon and back.

I, for one, am thankful of their contributions — and not just for my reduced indebtedness. It’s hard for us to imagine now (especially with the pet food recall still in full flourish) but pet nutrition was in the dark ages before these companies started legitimately researching pet nutrition. In fact, pets often died of nutritional diseases until Purina did its thing in the’50s and standardized pet food requirements with its Dog and Cat Chow brands.

In the 1980’s, Hill’s emerged as the top player in the novel, specialty foods arena. This crafty company had effectively assessed the changing pet healthcare market and sought to carve out a niche within it, thereby circumventing the mass-market power of the Purina behemoth. Through its association with our vet schools, it developed a specialized approach to addressing specific diseases through nutrition.

We ate it all up. Not only did Hill’s make pet food sexy with their well-designed packaging and vet school-oriented marketing, they made us vets feel like we were doing something good for our patients — without even trying. It was a win-win for the profession — and an understandable element in the evolution of the veterinary industry.

Since then, vet medicine has changed dramatically in how it’s served, most notably though specialization across a wide range of disciplines. Nutrition is glaringly absent among these, despite the growing role of pet foods in daily vet life. What’s more surprising is that vet schools have continued to allow the pet food concerns to become even further entrenched in our curricula.

Who has taught the last generation of vets? Pet food companies or large animal practitioners, of course. Who provides the grant money for the nutritional research conducted at veterinary institutions? Only those who have the money to ensure their products get the positive attention they need to maintain their market dominance.

Consequently, nutritional education has been lacking, to say the least. We thought we knew all there was to know about nutrition, now that obvious nutritional diseases had become extinct. But how many diet-“related” diseases do we now see? We‘re not really sure. Do we even know whether these prescription foods really work? Not always. Not independently. There’s very little competing research to tease out the reality given the intense supremacy of the marketing machines we’ve effectively sold our souls to. 

I fit wasn’t already abundantly clear, let me say outright that I believe the era of pet food-sponsored vet school nutrition has come and gone. Yet too many institutions rely on food-sponsored grants and scholarships (like mine) to relieve them of the very real burdens of running worthwhile, bleeding-edge programs in animal health. Essentially, we’ve subsidized the sexier service arms of our profession (surgery, neurology, internal medicine, dermatology, etc.) by outsourcing the bland field of nutrition.

To make matters worse, the influence of this pet food industry oligopoly on real-life veterinary practice is extreme. Not only does the modern vet practice believe in the science behind the bags of food, it has come to rely on the income these foods provide. Read the next installment of this series for a continuation of this discussion.