At the risk of raising another firestorm on Dolittler (remember my last post on Mr. Millan?), here’s a topic that’s got vets hopping mad. 

Seems vaccine, drug and flea product manufacturer Merial (the behemoth behind Frontline) and celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan (of Dog Whisperer fame) hosted a wedding––theirs––to which none of us were invited. 

I, for one, wish they’d at least sent a simple text informing me in advance of the festivities. Instead, I found out only when Merial faxed me a little promotional letter telling me they really hope I’ll be happy about how many more pet owners will be bashing down my door to buy Frontline now that they can get a Cesar Millan DVD for FREE when they purchase this product from me. 

I mean, if Cesar says it’s good stuff then I should be expecting the flood of customers

Darn. No good. I’m thinking maybe that’s because Merial allowed over $200 million of this EPA alert-worthy stuff to get diverted into the gray market instead of to vets...and because most of my clients would rather buy it at Costco for 20% less––sans FREE DVD. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think Frontline is  a solid product that helps LOTS of pets. I also use some Merial drugs (Heartgard, for one) and vaccines with great success. But that’s not the issue.

At issue is that Merial believes I, as a veteriarian, will be uber-tickled to have Cesar Millan as a spokesperson for their product line. That I will somehow accept this exciting union of science a targeted marketing tactic devised to benefit me.

And no, it’s not just the gimmick factor that irks. It’s that Merial says it’s researched veterinarians and found an overwhelming 90% approval of Cesar Millan among us. Which is... Just. Not. So. Smacks of, “3 out of 5 dentists use this product.” (Yeah, and all five are its brand managers.)

Anyhoo, this issue raised a ruckus over on VIN (the Veterinary Information Network) where veterinarians like to congregate to discuss issues and ideas––not all of them scientific. Let me summarize: Disgust. Annoyance. Anger. And the rare, “What's the fuss?” sentiment. 

On the surface, the Cesar Millan factor is troubling because ANY celebrity endorsement of a veterinary product is a cheesy, trivializing ploy that risks devaluing the good done by the products we recommend. If they’d had Rachel Rae star in  DVD showing us how to apply Frontline to her gorgeous pitty, Isaboo, we’d think it was obnoxious, too. 

But when you add a dog training video to the mix, some of us who might otherwise shrug off another straight-to-consumer marketing tactic (think Bob Dole selling Viagra) can get really up in arms. After all, Cesar’s approach is the bane of most veterinary behaviorists' existence––and in no way well loved by my the majority of my colleagues.

Here’s the official line from my board-certified veterinary behaviorist colleagues:


Dear Veterinarian:

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) wants to call your attention to the controversial promotion program featuring a partnership of Merial with Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. Merial has included Millan display cases and DVDs with their Heartgard and Frontline products, as well as free coupons for clients to download videos by Millan on dog behavior and training. 

AVSAB and the veterinary behavior community are deeply disappointed that a veterinary healthcare company has chosen to endorse Mr. Millan and his out-dated and potentially dangerous training techniques in spite of the recommendation against such partnership by behaviorists . 

Mr. Millan's philosophy runs counter to the standard of care promoted by veterinary behaviorists and taught at veterinary schools. We find it disturbing that a major pharmaceutical company would ignore the recommendations of veterinarians in their field of expertise.

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT) have uniformly spoken out against the punishment-based techniques employed by Mr. Millan on his television show "The Dog Whisperer". (Read the position statements at www.AVSABonline. org). At best, the show is entertaining, but misleading to pet owners. At worst, Mr. Millan's techniques and misinformation have contributed to increased aggression and anxiety or resulted in physical injury to the pet and/or pet owner.

So there you have it. The problem in a nutshell. Veterinarians don’t want to be associated with Cesar Millan. Merial is clueless enough not to know––or cynical enough not to care. Either way, Cesar gains more cred. And Merial? Who knows. At the moment, they have this to say:

Merial is committed to the principle that encouraging pet owners to take their pets to a veterinary clinic for checkups and other essential veterinary services is critical to maintaining their health and well being. 

Each year we devote a significant portion of our resources to do just that, including the use of experts and celebrities to promote the many benefits of veterinary care. The company’s association with Cesar Millan, who is well known to millions of pet owners, is based on his stated philosophy that pets need regular veterinary attention.

While Merial believes that proper training enhances the lives of dogs and their owners, we do not endorse any specific training regimen. We encourage pet owners to speak to their veterinarian about the appropriate training options for their pet.

Yet veterinarians protest: How can a company so publicly committed to science (at least when it comes to their declarations to veterinarians) partner with a celebrity dog trainer in wanton disregard of the folks they rely on to recommend their products to the masses? How can they ignore us when we obviously feel so strongly about this? 

So what’s my take? 

With marketing tactics like this, one can only wonder how much careful consideration actually goes into the rest of their business strategies...or into their products, for that matter. Ouch!