Money, money, money. My, how the concept of cold, hard cash has its way with our world. In spite of all our best intentions, the issue of personal compensation has a way of corrupting all of us to varying degrees.

I won’t let any of you off easy on this point. We’re all human, after all. Those of us who profess to harbor completely cash-free tendencies are either saints or sociopaths. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe there are many exceptions to this rule.

And that’s where I’ll begin my non-apologetic discussion of the issues we vets face in real-life practice when it comes to pet food. Because we’ve all succumbed (at one time or another) to the easy money in our practicing-vet lives. Selling pet food falls into this quick cash category, but it’s the non-thinking person’s version of events that condemns all vets for this transgression.

For those of you who skipped the first two posts on this subject, I’m talking about how we vets recommend food and the problems we confront in doing so. Sure, some of that has to do with industry pressure, especially when every other vet down the street is carrying the food the pet food companies are expecting you to offer. Some of it has to do with our education, whereby we were inculcated into the belief that prescription diets can help almost any pet. And some of it has to do with the reality of vet practice economics, in which industry expectations, education and lack of resources (especially when starting out) can move you to sell foods to make up for the services you can’t yet move quickly or profitably enough.

Here’s where you might think all vets are in the pockets of the pet food companies—whether they think they are or not. And that may be true. But most of us recommend certain pet foods because we either know no better (for reasons related to training, explained in the previous post), because we want to do what’s best for our patients, and/or because we have few acceptably safe alternatives. And then there are the greedy (for the record, I don’t believe that’s most of us).

I consider my own decisions to be primarily related to the dearth of convincing research into pet nutrition and the lack of safe and convenient alternatives. Even then, I tend to recommend foods that our practice doesn’t carry—because we don’t stock foods, we only special order specific foods from a trio of companies when our patients need it. Sadly, it’s a rare hospital that follows our lead.

I’m ashamed to admit that, in spite of some more enlightened practices out there, my profession is somewhat driven by the financial prospects of the existing pet food paradigm—that is, the powers that be in the profession still refuse to acknowledge that a large percentage of us continue to elect to benefit from the ready cash the pet food companies supply us through unique retail agreements with vet-only brands—despite the conflict of interest the relationship denotes.

Let me explain:

Most small animal vets make a percentage of their income by selling pet foods—that’s a well-established reality no one refutes. But there’s nothing terribly sinister about this practice. We vets recommend foods we believe are wholesome and appropriate and which we believe will help our patients. We trust in these products and we want to continue to sell it—and to make a profit from it. We feel we deserve that income as much or more than any retailer does. After all, we recommend it based on our unique and specialized knowledge of animal physiology.

The problem lies in our dependence on these products for our livelihood, the same way drugs and services do. Our human tendency is to respond to manufacturer entreaties to consider their products not only for their innate benefits, but also for the income they’ll drive our way.

We know that pet food companies spend a lot of money on research and development of their foods. We also know that there’s very little hard-core research, besides theirs, on which to base our recommendations. It’s a bit of a catch-22, relying on the fox’s sell on the henhouse’s value. But what’s our alternative?

Consider, as an example, the recent popular interest in raw diets. What’s a responsible vet to do? There’s virtually no institutionally-sanctioned research on these feeding regimens. All we’re trained to assess in this regard is the downside of bacterial contamination. It’s no wonder vets are most often opposed to this practice. It goes beyond income; it speaks to the good training we do have—namely, a strong infectious disease background.

If we had an independent research body to investigate nutritional issues in light of the risks involved in feeding raw, then we might have a different model for how we’d recommend foods. As such, we have precious few alternatives.

At the heart of the issue, however, is the conflict of interest. Much as selling drugs is unethical for a doctor, selling drugs and foods should be considered as such for vets. That’s one bizarre difference between the human and animal medical professions. Studies show that pet owners believe that vets and human physicians are comparable in most respects, yet our culture holds these two professions to different ethical standards. What’s up with that?

Pet food is so important to some practices that it’s come to affect even the fundamentals of hospital design and pricing. New hospitals are physically planned for food retail and storage. It’s my opinion that even the pricing of vet services is often artificially reduced so that hospitals can compete on service price while making up the difference in food and drug sales. It’s no wonder this model won’t stand in human healthcare.

We vets have become complacent about the role of vet-targeted pet foods in our medical practices. We’ve allowed pet food companies to dictate the terms of their agreement to provide cutting-edge science for our pets’ well being. We’ve given them the power to determine what’s healthful without having the wherewithal to dissent. We’ve even granted them the ability to pay our bills.

Nothing’s going to change too soon, but the pet food recall has served to rouse some vets from our communal stupor on this issue. Changes in schools will likely need to come first. Changes in consumer (pet owner) awareness will probably follow closely. Unfortunately, changes in vet practices will no doubt be last on the scene. Institutionalized habits die hard.