Ripping Off Rover? Vetting the Practice of ‘Medical Food’ for Pets

A $60 million class action suit argues that pet owners are being fleeced by veterinarians with food prices for their furry friends.

Rami Shllush

Two years ago, after operating on his ears, Bobby’s vet told the doggie’s daddy, Yakov Babilo, that the golden retriever would have to go onto a special diet. Bobby needed “medical food” and would need to stay on it for life, explained the vet at Dr. Eyal Nachmias’ clinic at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. She recommended a Purina brand imported to Israel by Osem-Nestle – to which Nachmias serves as an adviser.

“I asked her where I could get the food. She said she didn’t know if it was available at pet stores, but she had some in stock,” Babilo recalls. He also remembers the vet wanted to charge him 550 shekels (around $140) for the 12-kilo sack of dog chow, and that stores did not routinely carry the brand. “Here and there I would find a bag of it, but I finally gave up and simply stopped giving Bobby the food,” says Babilo. “I’m not going to pay 550 shekels for a bag of food when regular kinds cost 200.”

He’s in good company. There’s no telling how many Israelis buy so-called medical food for their furry friends. The owner figures it’s therapeutic. But make no mistake, “medical” dog and cat food is not a drug and its medical properties are controversial.

Under Israeli law, any store can sell these “medical” pet foods. In practice, the importers (none are made in Israel) refuse to sell them to pet supply stores, marketing them exclusively through vets, or stores affiliated with vets. Two months ago, talking with David Kamar – the owner of a pet store in Ra’anana – Purina agent David Nissim refused to sell him medical food: the importer Osem says no, he explained.

Kamar heard the same from rival companies with medical pet food. The upshot is that Israel may have 600 pet supply stores, but only 20 work with vets, and only they sell this medical stuff. And are not ashamed to charge an arm, leg and paw for it.

So, a month ago Kamar and two other pet store owners filed a class action at Tel Aviv District Court, arguing that four pet food importers had created a cartel that was causing prices to be unreasonably high. (They also complained to the Antitrust Authority, though it remains to be seen if the watchdog will do anything about it.)

Prof. Yaron Zelekha, the only man on the planet to make front-page news as accountant general to the government, is also involved in the background. Back in academia, the highly respected former official looked into the subject. He ruled that pet owners have become captive to the power of the firms, which have gained artificial market power and are able to monopolistically set prices.

Another plaintiff in the class action is Givatayim’s Sharon Burak, who has five cats. Eight years ago, she noticed blood in the urine of one of the furry crew and the vet said he had to shift to special food. But Burak doesn’t live in a palace and can’t segregate the cats for meals, meaning all had to shift to the medical food – which is setting her back 500-600 shekels a month. Unable, like Babilo, to find it more cheaply elsewhere, she nonetheless feeds the fivesome on the fabulous food.

For pet owners, what the vet says goes. “I went to the vet in Zichron Yaakov with a limping cat. He said it was because the cat was too fat and recommended medical food,” says Sharon Azura. The limp did disappear, but since she had also stopped giving her beloved kitty treats, she’s not sure what lowered his weight. She still feeds him on the medical food, for fear the limp might return. “My cat is priceless,” she says. “I’ll do what I’m told, even if it costs me 100 shekels more a month.”

Puppy dogs’ tails and maybe additives

The claim also relies on the opinion of Dr. Boaz Averbuch, the vet in charge of food for the Health Ministry’s northern district. He looked into the composition of medical foods and concluded that they have no medical component whatsoever. Any representation that they do is false, Averbuch wrote. “Not only are they not drugs, they are food for any intent or purpose and have nutritional characteristics. There is no medical justification for their sale only by vets.”

If one’s pet is sick, one should consult with the vet about diet, Averbuch wrote – just as a person with high blood pressure might eschew salt at his doctor’s advice. But the vet shouldn’t become a non-drug food store.

Over the phone, he’s even clearer: Some vets have turned into salespeople and are making money hand over fist from this “medical food,” he snorts. “Take ‘medical food’ that’s supposed to be dietetic. If it was a person, his practitioner would send him to a nutritionist who would design a diet. You can do the same with a dog. The ordinary foods for dogs and cats have everything they need. They can simply consume less of it.”

The only helpful medical pet food is the kind that dissolves kidney stones for cats, but that can also be achieved with drugs, or vitamin C, Averbuch says. He also adds that there is no science of healing through food.

“The right term for this food is clinical food or dietetic food,” says Pnina Oren-Shnidor, head of veterinary services at the Agriculture Ministry, which supervises Israel’s vets. “From our perspective, there’s no reason why this food can’t be sold everywhere – it isn’t a drug.”

The market for pet foods consists of three basic categories: ordinary, premium and “medical.” In recent years, the proportion of medical food sold has grown to 30%. Usually, vets who sell medical foods sell only one kind, working with only one importer. But there are other kinds.

According to assessments in a 2011 survey by the Economy Ministry, Israelis have 350,000 to 400,000 dogs, and 200,000 house cats. For regular pet supply stores to sell medical food to them, they have to fool the importer. One says a vet agreed to pretend to be working with him, but that’s sick, says the store owner.

Although the foods have no drug component, says Averbuch, some have nutritional additives for specific medical conditions. Regarding ingredients, some “medical” foods are indistinguishable from “premium” – “diet medical food” pretty much equates to “premium lite.”

Zelekha did the math of how much damage is being caused to pet owners and stores by using medical instead of premium foods. He looked at a 12-kilo bag of Hill’s Science Diet food for diabetic dogs. Vets pay 216 shekels for it (before VAT) and sell it for 366 shekels, before tax, netting 70%. Hill’s ordinary dog food with similar properties, “lite,” costs stores 155 shekels and they sell it for 219 shekels, netting 42%.

Zelekha concluded that the damage to consumers in that specific case amounted to 27.7%. He checked four cases altogether, and thus the class action for 230 million shekels was born. That includes a loss of 62 million shekels to stores whose customers stopped using their services because they shifted to medical food.

“It’s crazy,” says Kamar. “A third of my clients have started using ‘medical food’ in the last few years. The problem is that going to the vet becomes a package deal. The dog gets a shot and, in parallel, the topic of ‘medical food’ comes up. Clients accept what the vet says like gospel, and don’t exactly distinguish between ‘medical food’ and drugs.”

Dr. Avi Lilian of Ramat Gan protests the descriptions. He sells “medical” food – not by a specific importer, but according to what the client asks for. He rejects the allegation that the food has no medical properties. “There definitely are some problems that the medical food helps resolve,” Lilian says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of the medical therapy I provide. There is no question that it should only be sold by vets. I have no problem with stores selling it, too, as long as it’s by prescription. Do you know how often I see animals suffering because stores sold their owners the wrong food?”

He also feels it’s a smear to call vets who sell food “traders.” “I am a veterinarian first and a businessman only after that. When I give service to people who have no money, am I a doctor or a trader?” He’s owed tens of thousands of shekels at any given time, and the chance of collection is nil, Lilian adds.

Only one of the four importers would talk with us – Purina – which commented, “Insofar as we know, the medical-paramedical food for pets is sold at some stores, not only at clinics, subject to demand and the requirements from the stores.”

Rami Milton, owner of manufacturer Beit Erez, calls the class action an “utter fabrication designed to serve as a source of income for a frustrated store owner having difficulty in life.”

According to Milton, “It’s not a drug. There’s no argument about that. As far as the law is concerned, it could be sold anywhere. But the international companies said there is a risk that a pet could suffer if it’s sold the wrong food. There is nothing more sacred and important to us than the health of our beloved pets. I am confident we will prove in court that our intention is simply to maintain the welfare and health of pets.”

The association of Israeli vets, which represents 700 of them, agrees with the importers, saying the “medical” pet foods are “materially different” from ordinary types. “They have the potential to benefit but even greater potential to do harm, if used incorrectly. The best example of damage, but surely not the only one, is animals getting low-protein food from the vet for kidney conditions. Then the pet owner goes to a store, asks for food for kidney trouble and gets food that’s good for kidney stones but is rich in protein. It can be deadly.”

Dr. Eden Vogel of Petah Tikva wrote in response that pet life spans today are 25% longer than when he finished veterinary school in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago. Dogs today reach 15 and cats can reach 18-20, primarily because of the development of “complete and balanced” foods. “As a veterinarian who sells – and I do not apologize for it – foods for pets, I check the source and receive assurances,” he says, adding that vets around the world work with pet food companies to develop foods for animals with chronic or acute conditions.

Also, Vogel points out, when a dog is brought in with diarrhea, he can recommend that the owner cook some rice and chicken – but most would prefer just to leave with a bag of the appropriate food.