Petco grooming promotion hits snarl

Retailer modifies advertising after veterinarians object

June 9, 2016 (published)
By Edie Lau

VIN News Service screen shots
Top: A screen shot of the Petco website taken May 26 shows a groomer implying that he is qualified to assess the health of pets.
Below: A screen shot taken June 6 of the same feature shows no references to health. Petco made changes after hearing concerns from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Click here for larger view

A marketing campaign that implied Petco grooming services include health checks was quickly recast after the national retailer heard concerns from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The AVMA contacted Petco following complaints from members and state veterinary medical associations that Petco commercials on television and online about its “7-point Pet Care Check” verged into the territory of unlicensed practice.

The “care check” entails a “visual and physical screening” of the pet’s eyes, ears, teeth, nose, under-side, skin, coat, nails and paw pads, according to a description on the Petco website.

Also on the website, a groomer identified as “Glenn, stylist/mentor since 2013,” previously was quoted as saying, “With my background in animal science, I’m able to give my clients much more than a bath and a haircut. I can delve into the health and the nutrition of the pet, and make sure they leave happy and healthy.”

By Monday, the quotation was replaced with, “It’s nice to get new dogs in and see my regular clients at the same time and know that we are providing a service that people really appreciate on a daily basis.”

A description on the website of the 7-point Pet Care Check now includes a disclaimer that it “is not a substitute for regular examinations and care from a licensed veterinarian.”

Petco is one of the two largest pet retail chains in the country, with about 1,430 stores. It offers grooming at more than 1,200 of its locations.

Dr. Gail Golab, chief advocacy and public policy officer at the AVMA, said company officials were receptive to veterinarians’ concerns. “Petco was very responsive, no question; very sympathetic to our position,” she said.

The AVMA first contacted the company about its grooming promotions on May 26 via a letter from Executive Vice President Dr. Ron DeHaven to Petco’s Charlie Piscitello, senior vice president and chief people officer, and Marci Whichard, vice president for industry and public affairs.

Golab followed up with a phone call later that day from Paris, where she was attending a conference of the World Organisation for Animal Health. Golab spoke with Whichard and Petco’s director of veterinary medicine, Dr. Whitney Miller.

Miller previously worked for the AVMA as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Having been co-workers with Miller and knowing other Petco contacts from previous consultations, Golab said it was easy to reach out and resolve the issue without delay.

“They immediately recognized what our concerns were,” Golab said. “It was certainly a cordial conversation.”

Asked for Petco’s perspective, a company spokeswoman provided this written statement: “At Petco, we wholeheartedly believe that an adequate health assessment can only be performed by a licensed veterinarian. We welcomed the constructive, collaborative engagement with the AVMA and, as a result, have voluntarily made clarifications to our recent grooming campaign.”

The spokeswoman declined a request for an interview with Miller, Petco’s director of veterinary medicine.

Golab said groomers and veterinarians can and do work in partnership.

“Most veterinarians acknowledge that done appropriately, the relationship between groomers and veterinarians [is] terrific,” she said. “Typically, people who have their animals [groomed] bring them in frequently to the groomer. It’s an opportunity for things to be noticed between veterinary visits. … That’s a dynamic-duo opportunity.”

The trouble with the Petco advertising, she said, was that it did not clearly delineate the roles of groomer and veterinarian. “Where our members became concerned and where the AVMA became concerned was the suggestion that somehow, those groomer visits could essentially serve as preventive health checks.”

Golab explained: “… I think where the line got blurred was when there was a suggestion that their groomers were going to be doing the assessments. There’s a difference between noticing a potential issue and assessing that issue and making a decision about what needs to happen.”

Among the veterinarians who were dismayed by Petco’s advertising were some members of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. In a message board discussion, Dr. Lisa Wilhelm, a practitioner in Iowa, said:

“Absolutely this crosses the line. Why should I take my pet to the vet for a yearly exam if the groomer can do it essentially for free (comes with the grooming). Since when does a background in animal science render one qualified to do a physical exam?”

Wilhelm acknowledged the value of groomers keeping watch for potential health problems but said Petco goes too far. “I’ve had plenty of people come in because their groomer noticed anal gland, skin or ear issues but those groomers didn’t have a written physical exam sheet nor did they advertise that they were doing physical exams. Alerting an owner of a potential problem is very different than the ‘care check’ list.”

In an interview by email after Petco agreed to modify its marketing materials, Wilhelm said, “I’m still not a fan of the 7-point Pet Care Check list. I feel like it implies an exam or a level of trust regarding medical care that shouldn’t be extended to a groomer. My hairdresser is good at what she does and I would be so grateful if she noticed an odd skin lesion on my scalp and told me so. But I would not be happy if she were to advertise doing a derm[atological] exam with every haircut.”

All the same, Wilhelm said she is pleased that Petco responded quickly to the AVMA. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

Golab at the AVMA, too, gave props to the retailer for acting swiftly as well as cooperatively. “Petco said they’d work on something and get back with us,” she said. “The speed with which they made those changes is impressive.”

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