Dr. Peter Weinstein owns PAW Consulting and is the former executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association and the former chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee. He teaches a business and finance course at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine.Read Articles Written by Peter Weinstein
In the 1990s, when supplements were introduced to the veterinary field, there was great confusion as to where they fit into the greater scheme of things. They weren’t a prescription medication, so they could sit in the lobby and anybody could buy them. They weren’t FDA regulated, so you didn’t have a legal entity to vouch for them. But many of the supplements came from highly respected companies that we did business with. And others had human equivalents.
Today, pet supplements are hugely popular in the United States, achieving sales of $800 million in 2020, a 21% jump from the year before, according to Packaged Facts. Which raises this question: Can they be a profit center for veterinary practices? Can we compete with the online retailers, pet stores, grocery stores and big-box stores that sell them? Or should we just stick to legend drugs?
The Veterinarian’s Role
Your clients contribute to the estimated $123.3 billion market for human dietary supplements. Given their fondness for such products, they frequently come to you with questions about what they are using or have read about online and ask, “Would something like this help my pet?” They want you to consider alternatives to the traditional medications you prescribe. They want options they think will be safer than or supplement your legend drugs. And with the headlines about cannabis products, they are convinced that CBD cures everything.
So, as the experts on animal issues, we should do what we can to educate pet owners about the differences between drugs and supplements and even the terms “supplements” and “nutraceuticals.” And we must teach ourselves about the different products and certification organizations and understand our state’s CBD laws.
Nutraceuticals vs. Drugs
One of the primary differences between dietary supplements and drugs relates to their health claims. Whereas a dietary supplement is meant to provide nutrients, a drug treats illness or disease. Nutraceuticals are pharmaceutical-grade nutrients consumed for a health benefit. In reality, they are vitamins, minerals, herbs and extracts.
So, in order to maintain classification as a dietary supplement and avoid the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s strict drug-approval process, supplements and nutraceuticals cannot claim to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases. No label claims, for example, about alleviating pain or blocking cancer.
Among the more common supplements and nutraceuticals are:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Specific vitamins
- Chondro-protectants such as glucosamine and chondroitin
- Milk thistle
- Probiotics and prebiotics
- Digestive enzymes
- Tea tree oil
The conditions they are most commonly used for include:
- Skin and coat disorders
- Digestive disorders
- Metabolic disorders
- Immune disorders
- Abnormal bacterial flora
- Supplement pancreatic enzymes
- Anti-inflammatory needs, such as with arthritis
It is our role as veterinarians to vet all the medications and supplements we dispense to animal owners. We tend to accept FDA-approved medications as having passed muster. On the other hand, with supplements not as heavily scrutinized, we should fully test and experiment with supplements before we commit to one.
Empirical reports from colleagues are valuable in your decision making. First-hand experience — “I tried it on my dog” — can provide peace of mind to a pet owner and give you greater credibility in the product.
We know that clients ask for pet supplements. (The U.S. veterinary channel sold nearly $370 million worth in 2020.) According to research done by Diggo, 4 in 10 pet owners believe that learning from veterinarians about the pros and cons of various pet supplements and receiving product recommendations is highly important. Additionally, two-thirds of pet owners want to learn about supplements from their veterinarian.
Many veterinarians are reluctant to stock supplements because they aren’t drugs. Too many of us still live in the world of the doctor-centric practice. In this day and age, however, veterinary practices must be client- and patient-centric and meet and exceed the needs of the pet owner. This means testing products that consumers might want in your practice and selling them on your website or at your clinic. If you aren’t the source for supplements, somebody else will be. And that somebody else doesn’t have the education and understanding of the other medications the pet is taking and the potential interactions.
After you educate yourself and your staff, it’s time to educate your clients. If by educating your clients you also pique their interest, make sure you can source the product for them.
Supplement Your Revenue
You have tested supplements and they work. What are the barriers to making supplements a part of your armamentarium? One is being able to provide the product at a competitive price when every other source — online, pet stores, flea markets, county fairs — sells supplements, too.
Do you want to add the inventory to your brick-and-mortar clinic or do you want to sell supplements only through your online store? Both.
Think the 3 C’s: cost, convenience and client-centric. Any profit you make in the sale of supplements is profit you might not have had otherwise. So, be cost-competitive with online and pet store competition.
From a convenience standpoint, make it easy for clients to keep their pets on the products. Either offer auto-ship through your online store or make the supplements easy to pick up when clients need a refill.
If you are cost-competitive and convenient, you have taken huge steps in keeping the client bonded to your practice. At 2 a.m., when they realize they are out of a supplement, they can refill it from your website rather than somewhere else.
We’ve Come a Long Way
The image of the snake oil salesman at the back of the Conestoga wagon selling solutions for baldness, impotence, obesity and lack of energy lingers in the minds of some health care providers. Have we come full circle? Veterinarians must take the lead in recommending safe products for patients.
Hippocrates was quoted as saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Nutraceuticals and supplements fit into the concept of medicine being food. As a health care provider, you must become the most recognized source of knowledge and of products that are in the best interest of your clients and their pets.
By performing due diligence, by trialing products with your staff and pets, and by being fully transparent with clients about non-legend products, you can meet the needs of a consumer population that is spending more and more time looking for alternative therapies for themselves and their pets. Safely combining prescription medications and supplements can make your practice more successful and your clients happier.
Clients want options. Don’t be the barrier; be the supporter for the safe and appropriate use of supplements.
Here’s how to earn a share of the animal supplement market as a seller or build upon what you’ve already done.
- Do research. Choose one or two supplements to try on your own pets, your staff’s pets and a select number of client pets for the conditions on the product label.
- Identify measurable outcomes, either objective or subjective. For example, look for improvements in laboratory tests or a patient’s physical activity.
- Note the animal’s status before the trial and then after a set period. Determine whether the pet should be kept on the product. If yes, consider adding it to your dispensary. If not, consider additional trials or remove the supplement from your interest list.
- Conduct a staff meeting to educate everyone about the supplement you chose to sell and its uses.
- Understand what the NASC Quality Seal means.
- Set up an online pharmacy that provides auto-refills so that the client doesn’t have to call or come in.
- Make sure your staff and the client know that the supplement does not require a doctor’s OK for a refill.
- Set prices that are competitive with online stores and nearby retailers. Remember that any profit is better than no profit and will keep the client bonded to your practice.
- Set reminders for follow-up calls with clients to check their pets.
- Repeat the steps above for other supplements and related health conditions.
- Legend drugs: Controlled by prescription because many of them, such as pain medications or antidepressants, are habit-forming.
- Non-legend drugs: Over-the-counter medicines such as Tylenol, Nyquil and aspirin that can be bought at any store without the supervision of a medical practitioner.
- Dietary supplement: Include ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and enzymes. Dietary supplements are marketed in forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, powders and liquids.
- Nutraceutical: A term coined in 1989 by Dr. Stephen de Felice, the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, by mashing “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” The term is commonly used in marketing but has no regulatory definition.
- Botanicals: Another example of a dietary supplement. A botanical is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor or scent. Herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health are sometimes called herbal products, botanical products or phytomedicines.
- NASC: The National Animal Supplement Council is a nonprofit industry group. It works closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Association of American Feed Control Officials on regulations considered fair, reasonable, responsible and consistent nationwide. The NASC also vets supplement manufacturers, awarding its Quality Seal to companies “committed to quality, vigilance and continuous improvement to promote the well-being of companion animals and horses.”