Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
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When did pet food become contentious? As I’ve joked for the past 10 years, if you want to start an argument, ask someone what they feed their pet. Dog and cat food is an emotional lightning rod for many, inextricably interwoven with pet parenting styles, personal lifestyle choices and emotional attachment. Put another way, if you challenge someone’s pet food choices, you’re questioning how much the owner loves the pet. As my grandfather used to say, “Them’s fighting words!”
The reality is that given an abundance of pet food choices, clients can find one that reflects their dietary beliefs. The challenge veterinary professionals face is when those beliefs contradict nutritional science or potentially interfere with medical interventions. We must persevere as the pet’s advocate while communicating in an empathetic, nonthreatening, nonjudgmental manner. To be effective, the needs and health of the pet come first, and pet owners don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
A Therapeutic Focus
If you’ve lost your confidence or desire to recommend pet foods, try starting with therapeutic diets. Weight loss, kidney and urinary tract disease, joint pain and mobility issues, allergies, intestinal disorders, and many more conditions have a clear, evidence-based rationale for using a therapeutic diet.
When diagnosing a patient with a disorder proven to benefit from nutritional intervention, offer it as part of your treatment plan. Often, time is of the essence. The longer you wait to discuss or communicate all appropriate interventions, including nutrition, the more a pet’s health is at risk.
Meanwhile, too many pets leave an appointment without a written dietary recommendation. Without one, the pet owner seeks additional help online and is overwhelmed by companies promising cures and quick fixes. Unfortunately, clients often choose those products not because they ignored a veterinarian’s advice but because they had no other information.
Therapeutic diet recommendations are an exceptionally safe space to reclaim your stake in nutrition because you’re treating a medical condition. Recommending an interventional diet is like suggesting a prescription drug, surgery or other veterinary treatment. Take a few minutes to explain how the special diet can reduce the symptoms of disease, slow its progression or lower the risk of further complications. Provide written materials to allow clients to fully process the information at their pace in a comfortable setting. Consider a follow-up telephone call, text or email 24 to 48 hours later to answer any questions.
Even if clients don’t heed your guidance, the fact that your team shows its accessibility and care can foster loyalty and reinforce your bond.
How to Revive Food Sales
1. Sell Where They Shop
Clients clearly prefer buying pet food online, meaning your veterinary practice must be there if you want to remain competitive. Selling pet food online has never been easier, with many manufacturers providing access to e-commerce storefronts and plug-ins that integrate with your website. Access to online shopping is increasingly critical because an estimated 36% of all U.S. pet food was sold online in 2021, according to Packaged Facts. That figure is expected to surpass 53% by 2025.
2. Autoship Is 2023’s Easy Button
It’s no secret that subscription services continue to top the shopping lists of young pet owners. At the end of 2022, Chewy reported that over 73% of its sales were from auto-ship orders, earning the retailer nearly $2 billion in quarterly sales and servicing over 20 million customers.
Regardless of size or location, any veterinary clinic can and should encourage auto-shipping pet food, particularly therapeutic diets. “Empty bowl anxiety” is real, and you can help ease such client fear by providing a service that ensures a patient never runs out of nutritional treatment. All major pet food manufacturers offer the service, so contact your sales rep to enroll your clinic. Then, tap into the technology to help you stock pet foods more profitably and offload inventory costs with online sales.
Press that easy button.
3. Personalized Pet Food
I’ve long said that pet owners don’t care about what’s best for pets; they care about what’s best for “their” pets. Therefore, when you make a diet recommendation, reinforce why you’re selecting a specific formulation, brand or quantity. The specifics signal that you’re not just making a general recommendation but are providing a thoughtful, individualized selection.
I’ll continue to advocate for personalized language such as, “Because Buster has obesity, he needs to be on a higher protein and fiber, low-calorie diet like XYZ Therapeutic Weight Loss Diet. We want to find a food that Buster enjoys while achieving our goal of a healthy body condition. Weight loss isn’t about starvation; it’s about adaptation.”
The lesson is this: Make it personal (and delectable) whenever possible.
4. Value-Based, Not Price-Based
Many veterinarians hesitate to recommend therapeutic diets to some clients because of the price of the food. However, cost is an issue only in the absence of value. When comparing diets on a price basis, we risk devaluing the medical benefits. Instead, focus on the importance of the diet to a pet’s health, longevity and quality of life.
5. Exclusivity Is Elusive
Once upon a time, veterinarians held the advantage of offering products not found elsewhere. Then came the internet. If you can sell an exclusive product (or service), go for it. While those opportunities are exceedingly rare, I mention the lack of exclusivity because you need to know what competitors charge. Clients might question if your prices are high on a shopped item. Likewise, unreasonable markups on food could be interpreted as a policy of overcharging, leading clients to look elsewhere for products and services.
You’ll be fine if you price fairly and competitively.
6. Food Is Social
Utilize your social media to promote therapeutic diets. For example, create short videos featuring your staff explaining why certain ingredients or formulations can benefit a condition. (You get bonus points for showcasing patients or client testimonials, but get permission first.)
In addition, write 500- to 800-word blog posts for your website. Also, understand that Instagram and TikTok continue to appeal to millennial and Generation Z pet owners and might be excellent platforms to highlight your opinions.
You’ll likely find that communicating about ingredients, formulations and the role of nutrition in enhancing pet health is more effective than promoting brands or trade names. Of course, be prepared to block online trolls or haters and turn off commenting when necessary.
Unfortunately, many clients are fed a steady diet of poor pet food advice created by questionable social media sources. Veterinary professionals must be the healthy spinach on the internet menu of pet health advice.
It’s never too late to revive your therapeutic diet recommendations and sales. I urge you to prioritize your pet patients’ health and restore your therapeutic nutritional expertise.
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, founded by Dr. Ernie Ward, asked pet owners, “Has your veterinarian made a recommendation about the best routine or maintenance diet to feed your pet?” One-third replied, “Every year without asking.” Unfortunately, 43% said no, and 23% responded, “Yes, but I had to ask.”