Screenshot of Covetrus Great Pet Care email
After an email promotion of a program called Great Pet Care went out to more than 500 clients of Collier Animal Hospital without the hospital's advance knowledge, Collier's practice manager was left thinking that the company that sent the emails, Covetrus, is "a little too comfortable" reaching into clinic data and "doing whatever they want."
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More than 550 clients of Collier Animal Hospital in Atlanta received an email in February announcing that the hospital was "now partnered" with something called Great Pet Care. The clinic's logo dominated the top of the email, which advertised an online program for pet owners to manage their pets' medical records, reorder pet prescriptions and access veterinarian-reviewed medical content.
Thing is, no one at Collier knew anything about the partnership. Scarlett Fox, the practice manager, said she first learned about Great Pet Care when she received the email at the same time as clients.
Billed as "a pet health resource," Great Pet Care was purchased last year by Covetrus, a global animal-health services business. It is available on the web and as a mobile app and requires pet owners to set up an account. The email promoted the new service to a select group of pet owners — clients who buy medications and other products through clinic-branded online pharmacies, like Collier's, that are run by Covetrus.
Fox discovered after the fact that Covetrus had messaged the clinic about Great Pet Care before it sent the email blast to clients. However, the first message went to a general inbox, not hers. And it appeared to be spam, so it was overlooked. Fox suspects Covetrus wanted the email to go unnoticed because that reduced the likelihood that the clinic would opt out.
The upshot: "They beta-tested this rollout with us and our client list without our permission," Fox said. "The whole thing is icky."
This is at least the third time veterinary customers have complained about unauthorized emails being sent to clients by Covetrus or its precursor business, Vets First Choice. In 2018, several practices said that Vets First Choice sent multiple promotions offering discounts on pharmacy products to clients without the clinic's knowledge.
Earlier this year, two practices told the VIN News Service that Covetrus allowed a third-party pet insurance marketplace to access clinic data with the intention of sending promotional emails without authorization.
In email responses to questions from the VIN News, Covetrus described the Great Pet Care promotion that went to Collier clients as part of "the first phase" of a larger rollout. They said the pilot campaign was "well received" overall, as only eight of 500 clinics invited to participate "(or 1.6 percent) opted out of future communication of this new capability."
It's unclear whether the small number of opt-outs demonstrates satisfaction with the campaign or the fact that practices may have been unaware of the campaign or known they could opt out.
Nevertheless, the company said it has heeded criticisms and made changes, including clarifying how pet owners will be communicated with and making the opt-out link more prominent.
Bewilderment all around
When Fox received the Feb. 2 promotional email, she was dumbfounded. "I'm like, 'What is this?' " She noted that the body of the email referenced Collier's online pharmacy, so she telephoned what she called Vets First Choice. (Vets First Choice merged with Henry Schein Animal Health in 2019 to form Covetrus, and some pharmacy customers still refer to it by that name.)
"I immediately — I mean, immediately — call Vets First Choice customer service, and they don't know what Great Pet Care is. And I'm like, 'That's really interesting because I have an email from you guys basically saying that you and us are both partnered with Great Pet Care.' "
Fox then tracked down the name of the clinic's sales representative at the company and called her, asking, "What is this email? And she's, like, 'Yeah, I don't know. I've never heard of Great Pet Care.' "
The representative asked to put Fox on hold so she could check around. While waiting, Fox texted the clinic's former Covetrus representative, who had recently moved to another position in the company. "He, also, has never heard of Great Pet Care," she recounted.
Questions about notification
Fox eventually learned that the Great Pet Care email was sent to clients who receive quarterly "customer engagement" emails for Collier's Covetrus-run online pharmacy. Fox receives previews of those emails before they go out to clients. As an example, the January 2023 preview email had the subject line "Client Engagement Email Preview!" and was sent to Fox's work email.
That protocol wasn't followed with the message that preceded the Great Pet Care email blast.
About 10 days before that promotion went out, a message was sent to the clinic's general email address with the subject line "Great Pet Care — Beyond the Exam Room." The message read, in part, "you and your clients now have exclusive access to a new offering." Unlike regular engagement previews, this one hardly touched on the fact that emails sent to clients would follow.
"It looks like junk," Fox said. "The main body is just very, you know, 'Blah, blah, blah, tips for great pet care, blah, blah, blah.' And then, at the very bottom is, like, 'Oh, opt out.' "
Fox said she believes it was designed to slip under the radar.
An operations manager at a clinic in Texas described to VIN News an experience that closely matched Collier's. That practice did not want to be identified, fearing that criticizing Covetrus would cause problems with their business relationship.
Like the practice manager at Collier, the operations manager in Texas said she didn't see the opt-out email. "Somehow, they sent the email to our financial manager's email, which was not listed as a contact for Covetrus anywhere," she said. "[The financial manager] did not notify me or forward the email. So, yes, they did send it but not to any email that was designated to our account."
The operations manager said that during conversations about the email with Covetrus, a company representative tried to put the responsibility on the clinic for having missed the opt-out notice.
She pushed back on that idea. She said Covetrus should have done more to be sure clinics bought into the idea.
"If this was going to represent our hospital, why did we not get the opportunity to 'opt in' instead of it being automatic?" she said. "I would not have chosen to participate in this, had I known."
When asked about the perception that the email notifying clinics about the rollout seemed designed to go unnoticed by clinic gatekeepers, Covetrus said by email: "We appreciate the feedback. The majority of pharmacy customers, however, did not view this new capability in this way. All the veterinary practices included in this first phase of the introduction rollout are Covetrus pharmacy customers so it is to be expected that they would be familiar with company communications like this."
The company did not address the experiences at Collier and in Texas, where managers said the notification was sent to an address different from the one normally used for Covetrus pharmacy communications.
In fact, Covetrus stated, before the program rolled out to pet owners, clinics should have received three emails: "The first email announced the program; the second one focused on the content library and the third was a survey requesting feedback."
In response to feedback from clinics about the first phase, Covetrus revised the introduction email to clinics. In addition to explicitly stating that clients would receive emails, the opt-out link now appears in a green button that is more clearly a call to action than the previous hyperlinked type.
Covetrus also said the company is "now using new communication channels, such as webinars, to support driving awareness and engagement with veterinarians about the Great Pet Care offering prior to client communication."
Asked why it does not offer the campaign on an opt-in basis to ensure that clinic participants proactively support the program, Covetrus said: "Opting in or out is legally compliant. Since Great Pet Care is an extension of the Covetrus pharmacy, we already had permission from the practice to send information to their pet parents who have utilized our Covetrus pharmacy."
That characterization is a surprise to Fox, who was asked by VIN News for her view of the company's reply.
"Their response reads as if they think it's acceptable to blur the lines between a practice and a supplier through technicalities and 'gotchas,' " Fox said by email. "No practice would anticipate that by agreeing to pharmacy marketing, we'd someday contend with clients getting an email from us announcing a 'partnership' for an entirely separate entity. That's not reasonable within the agreement we originally signed. It might be legal (not sure), but it's clearly unethical."
Fox also said stumbles in the rollout reflected poorly on the clinic. Great Pet Care was advertised as free, but clients were charged $10 by Covetrus for retrieving records from the clinic. "It looks bad," Fox said. "We would never charge our clients to release records."
Covetrus said the charge "was an oversight" and should not have been included. "The fee was a legacy program that has been discontinued. Pet parents can work with their veterinarian to upload medical records into their Great Pet Care profile at no cost."
Fox said the few Collier clients who signed up for the service were refunded their $10.
'We can't un-send this email'
Once Fox understood what had happened, she said she asked for a retraction letter from Covetrus/Great Pet Care.
"You guys need to help me write a retraction letter because this is really embarrassing," she said she told Covetrus. "We can't un-send this email, but we need to somehow mitigate the message because we're not associated with you."
She was disappointed with the draft. "It was basically like, 'Oh, we apologize for any confusion. Collier Animal Hospital is not associated with Great Pet Care. Great Pet Care is a great new product, blah, blah, blah.' It was another chance to sell it."
Collier didn't send the letter. Fox said, "We decided to just sort of let it quietly die."