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The high price of feeding our pets (and why some vets are between a rock and a hard place)

Posted Nov 06 2008 8:16am

In case you hadn’t noticed, the price on that bag of pet food Fluffy eats is much higher than it was ten years ago. In fact, the consumer price index of pet foods is up by 23% over a decade ago.

And 10% of that? It’s hit us over the past year.

Rising fuel costs, grain costs, inflation and the weak dollar are all to blame for this recent surge in pet food prices—not to mention the incalculable effects of the pet food recall.

Soybean meal? It’s up 160% over the past two years. Rice meal? 146%.

These last stats make it clear that the financial pressures on all foods are up. It’s not just pet food. So whether you feed your pets home-cooked fare or supermarket kibble, you’re likely to be feeling the pinch.

It might have crept up on individual pet owners relatively slowly. But shelters, rescues, boarding facilities and veterinary hospitals have been running the numbers. We know what it means when we have to shell out substantially more for the pet foods we feed the animals we care for.

Veterinary hospitals are definitely feeling the squeeze. That’s why a VIN (Veterinary Information Network) news story recently tackled this issue (sorry, it’s available only on VIN, though PetConnection will soon be airing these stories, too).

The brief piece profiled the corner one Wilmington, N.C. veterinarian finds herself jammed into: To carry expensive prescription pet foods or to send clients elsewhere for their pets’ dietary needs.

Let me explain:

Most small animal vets carry pricey prescription diets we can send home with our patients as part of their therapy. Urinary diets for different urinary tract conditions, diets for allergic skin disease, and low-sodium diets for heart conditions, among others.

Some vets (my practice included) don’t want to carry these diets. Here’s why:

1-because we recognize that the cost of maintaining this inventory (restocking, space, theft) is unreasonably high relative to the low profit margin (an average of 20% but for our place a rock bottom 10% margin)

2-because we don’t like having to recommend one prescription brand over another,

3-because we don’t like the way some pet food companies behave,

4-because we don’t like being put in a position to market these foods for a manufacturer who shows no loyalty to veterinarians (they’d be just as happy to sell these foods at Wal-Mart if they could), and

5- because WE get the complaints when the price on an 18-pound bag of Z/D climbs beyond $75.

Nonetheless, veterinarians have little choice if client compliance is what we seek.

After all, dietary changes are crucial to treating many conditions. And most are (at least initially) unwilling to drive out of their way to comply.

You might well argue that a variety of home-cooked diets could rival (or improve upon) some of our veterinary prescription offerings. In many cases I wouldn’t disagree. The problem is that the vast majority of our pet-owning clients want their diets in a bag or a can.

***

I’m a veterinarian. I’m not a pet food retailer. I’d rather make my money off medical services than from selling cans and bags of jellied meats and kibble. But what about my patients? If I want what’s best for them isn’t it obvious that I have to offer their time-strapped caretakers an easy way to comply with my dietary recommendations?

Is writing a prescription enough? Sending them off to the nearest Rx diet-stocked PetSmart for their Hills or Royal Canin fix?

I wish it were. At least then the soaring price of pet food wouldn’t come home to roost at our  reception desk when clients condemn our increasingly “unreasonable” prices.
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