Pet Food Delivered to Your Door (and Why Veterinarians Like Me Love It)
Last reviewed on January 19, 2016
More than ever before, people like you are buying your non-human family’s food from direct-shipping sources. And believe it or not, veterinarians are increasingly comfortable with this unorthodox arrangement.
In case you’re unaware of the reasons why this this growing pet food marketing practice might raise eyebrows within my profession, let me offer you some history:
In the 1980s, veterinarians began to recognize that sales of prescription pet foods were bolstering their incomes significantly. Along with antibiotics and other drugs, pet foods could now legitimately (and ethically) be sold for a profit through their hospitals. Hence, the trend took off like a wildfire and soon there was a "profit center" for food in every hospital in the U.S.
Fast-forward to 2000-2005 when the trend was at its apex. Veterinarians were enjoying an incredible uptick in client compliance in the area of pet nutrition as pet owners clamored for better fare for their pets. Since then, however, things have taken a decidedly downward turn.
Because the cost of pet foods has risen so dramatically (an average of about 30 percent since that peak in profitability), veterinarians have felt increasingly compressed—crushed, even—by consumers’ unwillingness to bite at these higher price-points. Fewer sales = reduced retail prices = big squeeze.
Add in higher property and labor costs and it’s no wonder plenty of veterinarians are backing off from selling food for extra profits. After all, when space is at a premium and your staff’s time is stretched to the limit in the stocking and selling of the stuff — never mind the occasional bags that break — it stands to reason that food would begin to look way less attractive as a reliable moneymaker.
Indeed, at a recent in-hospital pizza lunch sponsored by Royal Canin (a company I do respect), I felt compelled to set the marketing exec in attendance to rights:
"Look," I said, "progressive vets are recognizing that not only do they not want to look like they’re trying to sell you something so they can make more money off you, they’re really not making very much money off you in this arena anyway. So why should vets bother? After all, the fact that I don’t make money on pet foods doesn’t mean I won’t be recommending better nutrition wherever my patients can get it, right?"
Blank stares, all around.
No matter. It seems that (as usual) the pet owning consumer is way ahead of veterinarians on this score. You’re the ones demanding better quality foods, higher quality ingredients, and more assiduous oversight over pet food safety.
Veterinarians, instead, are busy packing lecture halls with seminars on the subject of raw food rejection and the tacit acceptability of any diet billed as "balanced" (among other industry-touting topics).
Is it any wonder that pet owners are bypassing their veterinarians in an effort to get the best for their pets? Is it any wonder that mail-order sources are gaining ground over veterinary hospitals — even over high-end retailers? After all, when you’re undertaking extensive research online, does it not stand to reason that you’ll ultimately make your purchasing choices here, too?
By way of further explanation of this trend, here are the most common reasons so many pet owners are moving in this direction:
The proliferation of specialized pet foods in the marketplace means lots of different kinds of foods for lots of different kinds of problems. And doesn’t it stink when your veterinarian doesn’t have the food you need in-house at the time you need it? We couldn’t possibly keep all the brands we might like to recommend to clients. It’s too costly.
That fancy pet store with a zillion brands? Do they always have your exact formula in stock? Perhaps you prefer a highly specialized food that has finally cured your cat of her chronic vomiting. Maybe you’ve done extensive research of your own and that one company’s food you really want to try is only available by mail.
If I didn’t work where I do, I wouldn’t want to schlep to the specialty pet place to buy my pets’ food every couple of weeks. Between the gas, mileage, time, and traffic stress, I’d definitely be willing to pay that ten percent premium. Especially when they’re willing to dump the hermetically-sealed stuff on my doorstep. It’s bliss for the busy.
Or maybe you live in the God-knows-where rural backwoods and your FedEx dude or UPS gal is your most reasonable link to the commercial world.
Sometimes it’s not even a ten percent surcharge we’re talking about. No, sometimes it’s a win-win in all directions, shipping included. And unless you go out of your way to do the math, you’ll never know. Is your pet food source cheaper? If it is, consider this: How does the extra expense of directly-shipped pet food stack up against the price of gas, the time you’d save, and the fact that you can select among a wider array of brands?
I’d always rather buy from a source that keeps food moving consistently. Too many rely on a hefty dose of preservatives to keep foods longer on the shelves. But not all do. Some brands will even release their exact manufacturing date. For example, I happen to know that Nulo is one brand that ships direct with a guarantee of freshness. Plenty of direct pet food suppliers will offer similar services. And you can imagine why they’re capable of doing so — selling larger volumes with just-in-time supply chain management means they can afford to do so.
Then there’s this issue: After the last recall (which included Rx foods we carried), our hospital spent umpteen hours calling clients to offer credits (i.e., cash back) for food, offer explanations (you can imagine how long this takes), and issue apologies for someone else’s mess.
Can you expect the same careful attention if a recall should befall you after you’ve bought your food at a big-box pet retailer? I don’t think so.
You deserve to be the first to know when things go wrong. And direct-ship sellers are more than capable of getting the word out to you when you’ve been affected by a recall. That alone is a big selling point for me.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ll confess to taking an excessive interest in this distribution approach by way of passing the buck. I never want to serve as a retailer in a pet food recall situation ever again. I’ve said it here before, and will reiterate it again and again:
- Prescriptions foods (aka therapeutic diets) are not regulated by the FDA. They are "prescription foods" in name only. It’s only the marketing and distribution that require a written Rx for pet foods. Brilliant marketing, actually. That is, if you want veterinarians who make money as the exclusive sellers of your food to market them for you.
- I didn’t go to veterinary school so I could make my money selling pet foods. The very thought of it is distasteful. The reality of pet food distribution, however, forces reluctant veterinarians like me to carry these foods for your convenience.
Which is why some of us are actively touting these food delivery services. As in, "No, we do not carry these foods but we do have a relationship with a company that will ship this diet directly to you." Our hospital uses two different pet food distributors (annoying that we can’t just have one, but that’s another symptom of the pet food problem for vets), one of which offers a direct-shipping service to our clients, and we are actively letting people know about them, along with a couple of other responsible direct shippers out there.
So, in the absence of your veterinarian’s direct recommendation, how do you find a good one?
For starters, you could ask your veterinarian directly. Even if they don’t actively push the service, they may well know of it or be well-disposed to looking into it for you.
Veterinarians like me are also increasingly aware of these services because a few of our clients may use them to purchase prescription foods, for which we must actively provide written prescriptions. Via this second-hand exposure, we’re in a position to be familair with some of the direct shipping services our clients rely on, and whether they’re satisfactory or not.
You can also do your own due diligence. Ask the company you’re considering doing business with whether their policy for recalled foods includes a personal contact to alert you as soon as the recall is issued (via e-mail or otherwise). I would accept nothing less from a direct shipper. It’s part of the premium you pay for cultivating a personal relationship with this distributor-retailer hybrid.
That’s all I’ve got on this subject—for now, anyway. Now it’s your turn. Does your veterinarian offer direct shipping? Do you use one of these services? If not, would you consider it? If not, what’s the hangup? As a veterinarian who sees pet foods moving in this direction for the benefit of both pet owners and veterinarians, I really want to know.
Dr. Patty Khuly