Online pharmacies get comfortable at veterinary conferences

Veterinarians' displeasure muffled by resignation

March 5, 2020 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service photo
1-800-PetMeds and Chewy were among the 700 or so companies that exhibited in January at the VMX Meeting & Expo in Orlando. The show is owned by the North American Veterinary Community, previously known as the North American Veterinary Conference.

Animosity by the profession toward online pharmacies was at one time so contentious, 1-800-PetMeds dumped plans to exhibit at the world's largest veterinary convention amid outcries from angry practitioners.

The company — which had a reputation for undercutting veterinary practices on drug sales and hounding them to authorize prescriptions — instead hosted a roundtable to field complaints from veterinarians.

Much has changed since that meeting at the 2012 North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Florida, and PetMeds has worked to boost its standing among veterinarians. After lying low for six years, PetMeds re-entered the exhibit hall in 2018.

This year, the annual four-day conference and trade show, still owned by NAVC but renamed Veterinary Meeting and Expo, or VMX, drew some 18,000 attendees, about 40% of them veterinarians. The event in mid-January again included PetMeds at the trade show, as well as the online pet products giant Chewy — another company that competes with private practitioners for sales of pet parasiticides, medicines and foods, in what's become a dwindling profit center for veterinary practices.

After three years of exhibiting at VMX, PetMeds officials say they feel comfortable enough to branch out on the show circuit. Now they are finalizing plans to attend another large convention, the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas, next February.

Officials at Western confirmed they've received PetMed's application for booth space, and it's under review. In an interview with the VIN News Service, a PetMeds senior management official explained that the company, based in Pompano Beach, Florida, has two objectives for entering a veterinary show: gathering feedback and improving relationships with practitioners.

Initially, the company's presence at VMX drew a negative response, said Issiah Owens, senior management of pharmacy operations and strategic planning. "Veterinarians wanted us to change how we reach out to practices, [and] we took that back and changed things based on that feedback," he said, referring, for example, to the company's habit of repeatedly faxing veteriarians. "We're trying to move away from that."

The 2019 show was less contentious, he said, and this year's VMX "was the best show we've ever been at."

Several show attendees confirmed with VIN News that drama between the online pharmacies and veterinarians was not apparent during the most recent VMX. 

"I can't tell you how positive it was for us," Owens enthused. Asked what he thought led to veterinarians' apparent acceptance, he surmised that they perceive PetMeds as a veteran among a bevy of new online pharmacies that know little about the nuances of the profession. "They're the ones now getting the black eye," he said of the newcomers. "Us being 24 years in the business, we know how to market and how the veterinarians want to be communicated with.

"I take pride, and the company does, too, in building these relationships," he continued. "The veterinary community definitely has turned a 180 in accepting us."

If a lack of public vitriol indicates the profession's approval of PetMeds, that's news to some veterinarians.

Dr. Don Woodman, a practitioner in Clearwater, Florida, says attitudes haven't softened toward online pharmacies, but opinions have changed about VMX. "Veterinarians no longer have the sense that VMX is 'their' territory," he said on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession.

"It went from a place to learn stuff (the conference) to a place to buy stuff (the 'Expo')," concurred Dr. Tony Johnson, an emergency specialist and VIN consultant near Chicago.

"I'm over it. Both online pharmacies and VMX," said Dr. Meghan Ellis of Sanford, North Carolina.

Dr. Glenda Paredes-Smith expressed similar dismay. Reached by phone, the practice owner in Parkland, Florida, she doesn't want to see a PetMeds booth at VMX. "But there seems to be nothing we can do about it," she said.

Her response was subdued compared with her reaction in late 2011, when she first learned that PetMeds aimed to be at the convention. "I just want to express my disappointment [in] NAVC for allowing PetMed Express to exhibit!" she wrote on the NAVC Facebook page. "This company has done nothing but paint veterinarians in a poor light and I find it disrespectful that they will be exhibiting."

Acrimonious history

The tension between veterinarians and online pharmacies has evolved since PetMeds opened in the late 1980s, starting a trend that would forever change the pet prescription business. At the time, veterinary prescriptions primarily were filled at veterinary clinics, with in-house pharmacies serving as profit centers to offset prices charged for medical care. With the growth of online shopping, consumers demanded greater access and price competition on pet health products, and corporate America responded, raising concerns in the veterinary community about product quality, appropriate counseling in drug use and lost revenue for veterinary practices.

Veterinarians complained that pharmacists, untrained in animal physiology and pharmacokinetics, sometimes changed dosages or questioned the use of certain medications. Others resented the fact that online and retail pharmacies stocked up on merchandise they surreptitiously purchased from some veterinary practitioners — merchandise they then turned around and sold to pet owners. These diversion tactics typically involved brands of flea and tick killers and heartworm preventatives that manufacturers purported to distribute solely through practices.

PetMeds bore the brunt of veterinarians' angst for more than a decade before protests began to wane. Today, the company isn't as ubiquitous as it once seemed, with a growing number of online and brick-and-mortar retailers and pharmacies jockeying for space in the lucrative veterinary pharmaceuticals arena.

However, selling veterinary drugs outside of practices brings its own problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, warned of counterfeit pet parasiticides sold by online sellers, some of whom have been said to peddle fake or expired products on Amazon.

Dying breed

Meanwhile, many veterinary practices are dispensing less and relying more on outside pharmacies, said Dr. Race Foster, retired co-founder of Drs. Foster and Smith, which until last year sold pet pharmaceuticals and products online and by mail order. Drs. Foster and Smith was acquired in 2015 year by Petco, which closed the operation in February 2019.

Reflecting on his three-plus decades in the business, Foster said the landscape of veterinary medicine has changed since Drs. Foster and Smith opened in 1983, before the proliferation of corporate chains. With independent practices selling to the likes of Banfield Pet Hospital, National Veterinary Associates, VCA and many others, fewer veterinarians are business owners in a position to care about being undercut on medications.

"Not long ago, a third of your revenue was generated out of the pharmacy and dispensing," Foster said. "Now, so many veterinarians work in the corporate structure, they don't worry about the pharmacy. They prescribe and do not dispense as much."

Managing a pharmacy in 2020, he continued, is more burdensome than when he started in veterinary medicine. Now working occasional shifts at a clinic he sold long ago in Wisconsin, Foster marvels at the drug industry's size compared with when he was in full-time practice.

"It's a lot harder than it was 30 years ago, when the number of drugs was limited," he said. "Veterinarians don't want the cost of all the available drugs in their pharmacies now, and there's a lot more regulation."

Chewy at VMX

A few days after Christmas, veterinarians received an invitation from Chewy by email: "Stop by our booth to learn about the tools we're building to simplify your workflow, expand your reach on social media, and maximize your impact beyond the clinic."

Two weeks later, Chewy's booth appeared among some 700 exhibitors at the trade show. Despite the historically strained relationship between online pharmacies and veterinarians, Chewy's appearance attracted little attention, said Robin Pence, NAVC vice president of public relations.

"[T]here was a little pushback to Chewy exhibiting this year," she said by email, referring to some negative posts on the NAVC Facebook page, "but it was minimal."

In a statement provided by Pence, VMX said it is "committed to promoting dialogue, discussion, and education between industry partners, including online pharmacies, and our veterinary professionals."

Representatives of Chewy, headquartered in Dania Beach, Florida, did not respond to requests from VIN News to share their perspective.

Woodman, the practice owner in Clearwater, Florida, learned while visiting Chewy's booth at VMX that the company is marketing a software platform that enables veterinarians to approve prescriptions through the Chewy website.

"They seemed surprised and non-plussed that I wasn't as excited about this as they were," he reported in the VIN message-board discussion.

To Woodman's mind, what they're offering is just "a way to get vets to give away their pharmaceutical business quicker."

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