Merial Frontline/rabies vaccine promotion draws fire

New Mexico law could stifle deal

Published: April 18, 2011
By David DeKok

Dr. Robert Noto doesn’t have anything good to say about a recent Merial promotion offering a free rabies vaccination for any dog or cat whose owner purchases a six-month supply of Frontline Plus flea and tick control, calling it a “gimmick.”

“I try to be protective of the profession,” said Noto, a Scranton, Pa., practitioner and one of more than 30 veterinarians who have discussed the promotion on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). Most of the comments have been negative. “I know if I agree to do it, I’ll have problems for the next three years. This is a really badly thought-out promotion."

The Merial deal ends in May. Even so, Noto envisions that in 2014, owners will bring in their dogs or cats for a rabies inoculation — given every three years — and expect a freebie.

Dr. Beth Stropes at the Crossover Veterinary Clinic just outside Fayetteville, Ark., was slightly more open to the promotion, saying she can understand where Merial is coming from. But Stropes, too, called it a “gimmick” and wishes Merial would have consulted with practitioners before announcing it.

Natasha Mahanes, a spokeswoman for Merial in Atlanta, said in an e-mailed statement that the purpose of the promotion was to make sure pets are being protected and that pet owners are getting the appropriate counsel from their veterinarian when purchasing products. She said the incentive was meant to drive pet owners into clinics, giving veterinarians an opportunity to engage in meaningful medical dialogue about pet wellness and care.

But that turns out to be part of the problem, as some practitioners see it. Merial plans to reimburse veterinarians $20 for the cost of the rabies vaccine but not for the wellness exam that normally accompanies inoculation. Veterinarians will continue to bill pet owners for the cost of the exams, even if Merial is paying for the rabies vaccine. They fear that might cause hard feelings if people have the impression that the entire visit will be free.

For that reason, the deal might be invalid in New Mexico. Frances Sowers, head of the New Mexico Board of Veterinary Medicine, points out that the state's regulatory code reads: "A veterinarian shall not use or participate in the use of any form of representation or advertising or solicitation which contains a false, deceptive, or misleading statement or claim."

A false, deceptive or misleading claim is defined as one that "advertises or represents that a service or product is free or similar language, which is coupled with any required service or product for which a fee is charged."

Merial's Mahanes could not be reached immediately for the company's take on whether New Mexico's regulatory language represents a snag for the promotion in the state.

At his practice in Pennsylvania, Noto performs a wellness exam every time he administers rabies vaccine. Stropes tends to waive the exam requirement if it is the only way to get an owner to have a pet vaccinated in Arkansas or other states with a rabies problem. She said the Arkansas state government sponsors an annual rabies clinic offering $10 shots with no wellness exam required, so it isn’t that much of a stretch for her clinic to make an exception and bend the rules at other times to get an animal vaccinated that might otherwise go unprotected from rabies.

Dr. Nancy Beeman runs a housecall-only veterinary practice around the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York. She wrote on VIN that Merial ought to have given veterinarians more notice that the promotion was coming rather than just springing it on them. She raised an additional concern: She charges more than $20 for a rabies shot, plus an appointment fee and physical exam.

Dr. Joe Waldman, who practices in Calgary, Alberta, comes at the issue from a different perspective. The Merial promotion isn’t valid where he works because Frontline is not licensed in Canada. In addition, the Canadian prairie provinces don’t have much of a flea and tick problem because of their dry, cold climate, he said.

That aside, Waldman thinks a promotion like Merial's could be used to encourage more visits to veterinary clinics.

Canada’s economy, especially in oil-rich Alberta, is doing better than the U.S. economy. But he said even Canadian veterinarians have seen a drop-off in clinic visits. Drawing animals and their owners into a veterinarian's office through promotions could be of benefit.

“I see the silver lining," Waldman said.

Veterinarians are not required to accept the coupons; participation is voluntary. “That said, we have received very positive feedback from many veterinarians who are seeing an increase in clinic visits and revenue due to this promotion,” Mahanes said.

Some veterinarians wonder whether the impetus for the promotion stems from the broad-spectrum insecticide fipronil — the key active ingredient in Frontline Plus — going off patent. As a result, Sergeant’s Pet Care Products, Inc., is expected to begin shipping FiproGuard Plus, which it bills as a generic equivalent to Frontline Plus, in the second quarter of this year. The product already has appeared on some pet pharmacy websites.

A listing at PetVetDirect for the feline version of FiproGuard Plus calls it “the first retail generic equivalent to Frontline Plus for cats, FiproGuard Plus contains Fipronil and (S)-methoprene — the active ingredients used in Frontline Plus for cats.”

Asked whether the debut of a generic fipronil product played a role in the rabies vaccine promotion, Mahanes said: “Merial has always had competition in the flea and tick market, and our marketing messages will continue to emphasize Frontline’s features and benefits. It is important to understand that Frontline Plus is not just fipronil. The unique combination of a patented single spot delivery mechanism, S-methoprene, and proprietary manufacturing technology all contribute to the efficacy of Frontline Plus.”

Stropes said her clinic would be open to considering FiproGuard Plus, noting that her clinic is not wed to any particular product. Meanwhile, Noto predicts that Merial will come out with a “vet’s version” of Frontline Plus and turn the existing products into over-the-counter medications.

David DeKok is a freelance journalist based in Harrisburg, Pa.

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