A burning question that pet parents ask at some point is, “How much do vets make to recommend dog food?” Some people believe veterinarians get kickbacks or commissions from pet food companies to endorse or sell their products.
Maybe you’ve seen a veterinarian talking about a dog food they recommend in a TikTok or YouTube video. Perhaps a Facebook post pops up in your feed with a veterinarian showing the dog food brand his pups devour.
Maybe your veterinarian sells prescription dog food or recommends a particular brand for your pooch. As pet parents, we ask our veterinarian for help and advice on everything, so why not pet food?
Is this ethical? Is it truth? Are veterinarians getting monetary kickbacks from pet food companies to recommend the line to their clients and online community?
I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, and this article is the culmination of dozens of conversations with veterinarians, pet industry pros, first-hand experience, and facts.
Here’s what we discovered when we went digging down the proverbial rabbit hole to find out how much veterinarians make (if anything) to recommend dog food.
Dog Food Recommendations: How Much Do Vets Make?
Working as a pet writer means I am privy to a lot of online and IRL discussions about dog food. Aside from which dog food is best, another question that pops up deals with veterinary kickbacks from corporations.
The quick answer is though it is uncommon for most vets to receive kickbacks from pet food companies, they may receive free samples, sponsorships, or other incentives from pet food companies.
Strategic marketing applies to every business. The American Pet Products Association (APPA) reports Americans spent $62.7 billion on pet food and treats in 2023.
Dr. Judy Morgan is a well-known veterinarian who discusses the pet industry, better living with pets, and shares her knowledge online and at events.
In one of Dr. Morgan’s recent YouTube videos, she speaks with Dr. Conor Brady, author of Feeding Dogs, a book I own and treasure.
“There’s a new food on the market that made both of our heads go [insert boom gesture here],” Dr. Morgan explains to Dr. Brady.
The two discuss the new Hill’s Prescription Diet, ONC Care, designed for dogs with cancer. Sadly, according to Dr. Morgan and Dr. Brady, the ingredients are far from helpful to dogs with cancer.
“In 2023, with all we now know of nutrition, Hill’s Pet Food (and vets promoting products like these) are STILL promoting high carb, ultra-processed, chemically preserved crackers with an artificial nutrient supplement for patients with cancer,” Dr. Brady posted on his Facebook page.
Why is this important?
In her 02/17/23 weekly newsletter, Dr. Morgan writes, “Unfortunately, nutrition education for practicing veterinarians comes mainly from sales reps from big pet food companies selling ‘prescription diets.’
When I was in school, we had one company that was marketing a lot of these diets, and those diets were actually listed in the medical textbooks (and still are) as treatments for specific diseases.”
Do Pet Food Companies Court Veterinary Students?
Dr. Sharon Daley, a recent adult graduate from North Carolina State University (NCSU) insists students do not get any freebies from pet food companies.
“NCSU has a nutrition department that is not affiliated with any brand, and they are the ones who teach all about animal nutrition,” Dr. Daley says. “We have to learn about every essential nutrient and each disease process that may need certain nutrients in different levels than a healthy animal.”
She learned to calculate calories for any healthy or diseased animal. The only stipulation regarding brands, students learned, was to have the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) stamp of approval, indicating the food is balanced and complete for the intended species.
The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has a strict policy on pet food and brands engaging with students. In their official corporate sponsorship policy, Cornell writes:
How the AVMA Is Involved
Integrative and functional medicine veterinarian Dr. Laurie Coger, a Cornell graduate, calls attention to the University of California-Davis Veterinary College’s Pet Food Program. This program is under the jurisdiction of the student chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA.)
Coger’s research indicates every veterinary college has their own SCAVMA chapter, which makes discounted dog food rates available to students, faculty, and staff.
“I find now I am really not concerned with the money aspects,” Dr. Coger reveals. “I am far more concerned with how pet food companies are impacting the thinking and decision-making of veterinary students, staff, and faculty.”
Coger admits to using Cornell’s college food program long after she graduated. For $10, she was able to buy a 40-pound bag of Science Diet Maintenance, which was then considered the gold standard for adult dog food.
“When I finished and left college, I continued to buy Science Diet for my dogs, and I recommended it to all my clients,” she reveals. “I recommended their ‘prescription’ products for patients with health issues and didn’t even consider other brands. My loyalty and medical recommendations had been bought, ten dollars at a time, over my four years of veterinary college.”
According to Coger, Purina funded the Nutrition Center at Tufts University Foster Hospital for Small Animals and other nutrition centers are numerous veterinary colleges.
She says savvy pet parents should look at the end of any veterinary journal articles for disclosures or conflicts of interest to see what companies have provided funding.
“Being human,” she says, “we cannot help but be influenced by our experiences.”
Interestingly, this disclosure at the bottom of the Tufts Nutrition Center homepage:
What About Online Veterinary Influencers and Dog Food
I have a lot of experience and insight when it comes to FTC disclosures on pet products. Like all online influencers, if a veterinarian takes too social media, talks about a product and is paid to do so, this must be revealed with a sponsored label and hashtag on every single post.
For example, here’s an online influencer who was paid in exchange for a social media post about shoes. She incorporates her dog into the fabulous photo and reveals she is being compensated with the “paid partnership” tag and the #sponsored hashtag.
Nike’s Air Jordans are another example. If Michael Jordan wears them, endorses them, and his name is branded onto the shoes, then of course millions of people want them. The product is still excellent, but he is a brand spokesperson and is being compensated handsomely.
I’ve worked with many pet brands over the last 15 years, and legally I am required to disclose any paid exchange, whether in product or money. I will only work with brands I use, trust, and believe in. The hope is others are doing the same thing in the influencer space.
If someone is being paid and isn’t disclosing the relationship, this is against social media and FTC guidelines and they can be fined and have their accounts closed.
How Much Nutrition Training Do Students Receive in Vet School?
“Veterinary faculty recognize the need to address the underrepresentation of nutrition in veterinary medical curricula and tackle the lack of confidence of upper-year students with respect to nutrition counseling,” according to a white paper published by the National Library of Medicine.
Most alarming is this statement,” While most students had favorable attitudes towards nutrition education in the veterinary curriculum, they perceived low emphasis on nutrition education in comparison to other areas of veterinary medicine. Less than half of incoming veterinary students anticipated that their veterinary nutrition education will prepare them to confidently discuss nutrition with future clients.”
In his book, Feeding Dogs, Dr. Conor Brady spent years interviewing experts and newly qualified veterinarians.
“They often tell me they can’t remember a single canine lecture in their 5 years studying outside of the pharmacological use of some vitamins and minerals with certain diseases,” he writes.
Most nutrition courses are taught by board-certified veterinary nutritionists, PhD or MS animal nutritionists, or DVMs with extensive training in the subject and not by big brand salespeople or representatives.
In my research for this article, I stumbled on Nutrition Credentials and Their Role in Pet Food Formulation on DVM360’s website. Blue Buffalo sponsors the article. I am grateful they disclosed the information as required, but just food for thought.
BONUS FACT: A textbook used in most pet nutrition courses in just about veterinary school, Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, is written by the Mark Morris Institute. Mark Morris founded Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and his son endowed the Institute in his father’s honor. The Mark Morris Institute provides pet nutrition education for veterinarians and students of veterinary medicine around the world through publications and university veterinary nutrition courses.
Bottom Line: Are Vets Receiving Kickbacks from Pet Food Companies?
The idea that veterinarians are being paid to recommend specific dog foods is largely a myth. Big pet food brands are involved with veterinary schools, training, and nutritional books and classes. There is not a secret, but a widely known truth.
Some veterinarians may have preferences based on their experiences. Still, it is their oath and duty to base their recommendations on factors like nutritional content, quality, and the specific needs of your dog.
In her article on veterinarians and nutrition, Dr. Caitlin Marie writes,“Things like prescription diets are not money makers for the practice. Veterinarians are not the profiteers of the pet food industry. While diets may be offered at a discount to a clinic that opts to regularly stock them, this discount is often passed on to the client, for the sake of convenience.
Even with a mark-up, the profit margins for pet foods in a clinically setting is notably low. More money can be made off of a routine toe-nail trimming than selling a bag of food. “
So what’s a pet parent to do when buying dog food you can trust?
- Read our article: The Best Food For Your Dog which is packed with research, questions to ask yourself, and more.
- Become acquainted with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s (WSAVA) Guidelines on Selecting Pet Food.
- SPOILER ALERT: “Pet food companies are not required to conduct or sponsor nutritional research in order to produce and sell a food, but when they do, it indicates a commitment to animal health and wellness.”
- Use the Pet Food Manufacturer Annual Report and Calorie Calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance (scroll to the bottom of the homepage.)
- Talk to your veterinarian, a veterinary nutritionist or dietician, and/or your holistic veterinarian for further guidance.
- Beware of so-called “Nutrition Specialists” who likely took an online program of 100 hours or less. They may have learned some things but not like trained veterinary nutritionists.
- Refer to the Truth About Pet Food website which is supported by pet food consumers.