Secret Payments, Incentives & Bias

Updated November 29, 2020

The trust our pets give us seems almost like too much responsibility at times. What if we accidentally don’t do the best we can? That’s why we get our advice from trusted sources.

Can you still trust advice when financial interests and your pet’s interests don’t match? Thankfully, yes, just because animal lovers are some of the best people there are. However, I still want you to know of the ways sellers are being tempted to give biased advice.

I can’t apologise enough for not naming names but at least if they ever happen you should be able to spot these tricks, and even help me fix a few. 

Secret Payments On Flea & Worm Treatment

There’s an open secret in the pet industry. When you buy a certain parasite control product from a popular supplier, the seller gets paid $2.50. That’s in addition to the normal profit margins the business collects.

If you ask this employee which parasite control to use on your pet, you won’t know that they get paid more to sell one in particular. You might say, “they wouldn’t let the money influence their advice” but if that’s the case, why does the pharmaceutical company do it in the first place?

The reality is that it looks very successful. We see this product being sold in all sorts of inappropriate ways, most frustratingly when the animal is already on something else doing the same thing. So many times it just isn’t the best fit for that pet.

What To Do: It might seem rude, but until sellers have to disclose their incentives, why not ask? Believe it or not, vets are often accused of this and I do get asked (up to now, the answer has been “no”, but if it ever happens, ours will go to the domestic violence foster scheme).

More importantly, please share this with anyone who may know more, and get them to get in touch via the contact details below.

Unequal Profits On Pet Food

There’s another thing you don’t know. Not all pet foods are equal. Well, OK you do know that about quality, but it’s also true at a profit level. I regularly get suppliers and sales reps bring new products to me saying “you can sell this one at a higher margin than other pet foods.” In other words, it costs me less but I still sell it to you at similar prices.

This isn’t a trivial issue. Unless you’re told, you won’t know that the favourite pet food of your seller is making them more money than another line. You’d assume they all give much the same return.

I believe the base cost of pet foods is mostly due to ingredient quality. If you end up buying a product that was cheaper to make you may be buying a poorer quality product without knowing it.

What To Do: I can’t disclose profit margins without betraying years of trust, but there’s a way you can get an idea. Foods which appear in a wide variety of types of stores usually are sold at very low margins due to competition. Foods with a very limited distribution are more likely to not have that sort of price pressure.

Selective Misinformation

Here’s another one that really annoys me. Almost on a weekly basis, I sit down with a representative who either tells me or shows me facts about their product that make it look great. Often too great, as it turns out.

Unless you do what I do and be really annoying, you won’t find out that some of these claims have very little basis in fact. There must be plenty of reps who utterly hate visiting me, but I will call out this sort of thing. All you have to do is ask for a copy of the original study. Here’s what happens next:

  1. The data is from a secret company study and therefore worthless.
  2. The study is poorly designed or has a very small sample size. Read how to assess scientific studies here.
  3. The paper is being selectively quoted or misinterpreted (for example, a rep recently told me a disease has a prevalence of over 20% in Adelaide cats. I know this is in sick cats, not all cats).
  4. The results just aren’t relevant to your pet. I don’t care how good isoflavinoids are in a test tube, I need to know if animals get better if they are used in a controlled clinical trial.

These same representatives take their message all over town, into all the vets and pet stores. Many reps do not have science backgrounds and probably honestly believe in what they are told to say. Many other reps have genuinely good advice and products. Unless they come up against a grumpy old man like me, who is to say?

What To Do? By all means, buy your gear wherever you like, but take your advice from people who know BS when they see it. Not just vets, anyone who can critically appraise the evidence.

Towards A Clearer Future

In summary, I’m not anti-business or anti big pharma. The pet industry has done a lot of good for pets and it’s OK that they make good profits. It’s just that we all need them to do it transparently so our pets get the best advice for them.

Have more information on these or any similar practices in the pet care industry? I’d love to hear from you! (if your concern is over the cost of vet treatment please follow this link instead).

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.