‘Free’ Hill’s cat food samples not exactly free

Veterinary clinics report accepting samples triggers orders for more

Published: October 24, 2011
By Edie Lau

A marketing push by Hill’s Pet Nutrition of its new Prescription Diet y/d for hyperthyroid cats caused a stir among veterinary clinics over apparently unauthorized orders.
Veterinary clinics across the country that accepted offers of free “starter kits” of Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s new y/d diet for cats with thyroid conditions discovered afterward with dismay that accepting the samples meant they would receive shipments and bills for more food. 

Practitioners from Florida to Washington reported on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, that taking the samples apparently automatically signed them up for paid orders. 

“As far as I know, I never signed any type of documentation that would initiate the auto delivery,” said a veterinarian in Florida who posted the experience on VIN to urge colleagues to check their Hill’s invoices carefully. “The Hill’s representative did not mention that more food would be ordered and billed.”

Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which introduced the feline Prescription Diet y/d this month, denied using unauthorized automatic ordering to market the product, and attributed the problem to confusion. In a statement provided to the VIN News Service by email, the company said: 

“Hill’s intention is to ensure that veterinarians providing starter kits of Prescription Diet y/d have an adequate supply to meet the ongoing feeding needs of pet owners for their cats. Our integrity and our relationship with the veterinarian community are of paramount importance to Hill’s Pet Nutrition. 

“Hills does not participate in, nor does it condone, unauthorized automatic shipment programs. We strive to be clear with all our customers about our ordering and delivery process. We regret any confusion and as always, are prepared to honor our generous return policy for veterinary customers.” 

Dan Smith, Hill’s Pet Nutrition communications manager, said he was unable to elaborate on how the promotion was supposed to be handled and or how the confusion arose. “We can only share what’s in that statement,” Smith said. 

At Blue Mountain Animal Clinic in Port Angeles, Wash., office manager Molly Dickson said that a Hill’s sales representative visited the clinic to introduce the y/d diet. “He brought sales paraphernalia and case studies,” Dickson recounted by email. 

“The rep asked if we would be interested in receiving some free y/d starter kits; I agreed, indicating that we would give them a try after receiving approval from the clinic owner,” she recalled. "It sounded pretty good to me, but I am not a doctor.

“...He then asked about pre-purchasing the diet (did not specify that it was required to receive the kits). He indicated that there would be a ‘limited’ supply when it was released. At that point, I indicated that we would have to see if it a) met with owner approval and b) worked.”

Later, the clinic received a fax from Hill’s stating that the company would be sending the food. 

“The gal that places the orders came to me and said, ‘What is this? I didn’t order this,’ ” Dickson related in a telephone interview. “I asked her to call Hill's and cancel the order. She came back and said she was told we couldn't cancel, that we were expected to accept and pay for the order. I immediately called them back to indicate no, we didn’t order it, we didn’t want it, don’t bill us, don’t send it to us.” 

Hill’s protested, Dickson said, insisting that the clinic had placed the order. Dickson was equally insistent that the order be canceled. “I said, ‘If you mail it to us, you might as well throw it in the garbage can; that is what is going to happen.’ ” 

Owing to the clinic’s remote location on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, more than 80 miles and a ferry ride from Seattle, Dickson said that Hill’s does not physically retrieve unwanted product. “If a bag is slightly ripped or something, they don’t come back and pick this food up. They just have us throw it away,” she explained. 

Although Hill’s did not agree to cancel the order, as of this morning — more than two weeks since the contentious telephone conversation — the shipment had not arrived, Dickson reported. The box of starter kits had been delivered, however.

“Believe me, had we known it was going to be this sticky wicket, we never would have agreed (to trying the samples),” she said. 

Clinic owner Dr. Sharon Jensen said she was unhappy about the Hill’s promotion even before she learned about the unauthorized order because the sales representative peddled the therapeutic diet to the office manager rather than to her, the medical director. 

Dr. Michelle Wilbanks, a clinic owner in Texas, lamented what she sees as a shift in Hill’s approach and a resulting diminution of the company’s credibility. 

“Hill’s is credited with being instrumental in establishing therapeutic diet benefits ...” she noted in the VIN discussion. “I think they have lost complete sight of their goal and now try to make as many new diets for whatever ailment they can as fast as they can and then force it down our throats like the pate industry tries to force grain down the throats of geese.” 

The founding of Hill’s Pet Nutrition dates to 1939, when Dr. Mark L. Morris Sr., a veterinarian in Edison, N.J., developed a specific diet for a German shepherd guide dog with a kidney condition, according to an account on the Hill’s website. Morris later contracted with Hill’s Packing Company of Topeka, Kan., to can the food, and the partnership evolved into Hill’s Pet Nutrition. 

In 1976, the Colgate-Palmolive Company bought Hill’s Pet Nutrition and continues to own it today. Hill’s sells myriad diets tailored to specific conditions in cats and dogs, including issues with bladders, sensitive skin, allergies, gastrointestinal systems, livers, kidneys, weight and hairballs. 

Some, like the new y/d formulation, are billed as a “prescription diet," a marketing term trademarked by Hill's. Legally, there is no such thing as prescription food.

As for the apparent automatic-enrollment program, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), such schemes may be lawful if not employed deceptively. 

“If you’re going to engage in this kind of marketing practice, which can be legitimate, you’ve got to disclose upfront: ‘This is what to expect. This is what we’ll be sending you every month, and what we’ll be billing you.’ You must give full disclosure upfront,” said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman. 

The agency describes automatic-shipment programs as negative option plans or continuity plans. In a consumer alert titled " 'Free Trials' Aren't Always Free," the FTC invites anyone who feels he or she has been wrongly charged for a free trial offer to report it to the agency.

The practitioner in Florida who posted on VIN about the automatic shipment from Hill's said that as a solo practitioner, he's good at scrutinizing his bills. But he worries that other clinics may overlook unauthorized charges. "I wonder how many office managers see just another Hill's invoice, y/d included, and will pass it on to get the check signed (and) move on to the next bill," he said.

The veterinarian asked not to be named because, he said, "While I don't think Hill's acted with malicious intent, I think it displayed a disconnect between active business owners/practitioners and Hill's Pet Nutrition."

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