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Vet Schools in Bed with Pet Food Companies

Alexi Polden investigates the hand that feeds the nation’s leading veterinary schools.

Opening slide from Dobson lecture
A lecture slide used in Dobson's lectures at the University of Sydney.
A lecture slide used at the University of Sydney.

Serious questions are being raised about a cosy relationship between many pet food manufacturers and many of Australia’s leading veterinary schools.

Only weeks out from exams Honi can reveal a particularly worrying example at the University of Sydney’s Veterinary School. In 2015 the nutrition portion of the third year Small Animal Medicine and Therapeutics I subject was presented by Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s (maker of Hill’s Science Diet, among other pet foods), Dr Penny Dobson. Dobson taught two lectures and one tutorial over the course, which covers many areas of small animal health.

This has occurred while the University of Sydney, and many other leading universities, have allowed pet food manufacturers to advertise extensively throughout their facilities, directly to students. This association is not hidden, the University of Sydney’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s website boasts its close association with Hill’s on its website.

Dr Dobson, is also the owner and director of a private veterinary practise lists her job on LinkedIn as the “Manager Hill’s HelpLine : Senior Veterinary Nutritional Consultant”. She describes the role, in part as “Assisting with sales, marketing and veterinary affair education program’s [sic] with nurses, practices, Universities ,AVA, Tafes, conferences, and the consumer.”

Why someone self-described as working in “sales and marketing” for one of Australia’s biggest pet food manufacturers is seen by the University as the most appropriate person to teach veterinary nutrition is unclear.

The University’s External Interests Policy 2010 requires that “Staff members or affiliates whose external, personal or financial interests actually, or potentially, impact or might be perceived to impact upon the objectivity of any academic presentation or publication in which the staff member or affiliate is involved must ensure that the presentation or publication is accompanied by a public declaration of the relevant interest.”

Some of Dr Dobson’s slides are branded with the Hill’s logo, and the opening slide identifies her as an employee of the company. She refers to her work with Hill’s during some of her lectures, and directs students to Hill’s resources, including the Every Pet. Every Time website, which provides details of pet nutrition. Hill’s owns the website and holds copyright over its content—though it does not feature any prominent Hill’s branding, nor did Dobson identify it as a Hill’s resource in the lecture Honi has heard.

Most strikingly, in course materials seen by Honi Soit, Dr Dobson repeatedly refers to Hill’s products and services, and emphasises the importance of feeding small animals processed pet food. In one lecture, she responds to a student’s question about feeding dogs and cats raw meant and bones by saying “I don’t recommend bones at all”. She also tells the student that her cat died from “salmonella toxicity” after she fed “human grade” frozen chicken. Dobson also warns that uncooked meat and bones present “risk factors to the person that you may be recommending them to, they may be undergoing chemotherapy…”

Honi has chosen not to publish the lectures for legal reasons, however different lectures by Dr Dobson, recorded for an online continuing education course and on slightly different topics, are available here.

Throughout her lectures and materials Dr Dobson advocates maintaining a processed diet for cats and dogs. In the two lectures she gave Dr Dobson refers to studies that support her conclusions. What is not said during the lectures that Honi has viewed is that a substantial portion of Dobson’s references were funded by Hill’s, or in some cases, published by an entity closely associated with Hill’s, the Mark Morris Institute. The institute says it was founded to honour a “pioneer in the field of clinical nutrition who helped improve the quality of life for millions of beloved pets around the world”—Mark Morris sold his pet food formula to Hill’s in 1948. Several of the institute’s employees, including its executive director, are employed by Hill’s, documents filed with the United States Internal Revenue Service show that Hill’s provides much of the institute’s funding.

All this is striking not only because there is significant competition between manufacturers of processed pet food, but also because there is significant debate amongst veterinarians about whether processed food is the correct way to feed animals in the first place.

In September Richard Malik, formerly a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, now a veterinary specialist at the Centre for Veterinary Education, wrote a piece for The Conversation, stating “Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has endorsed overseas policy guidelines that recommend feeding commercially prepared dry and canned food to cats and dogs. This is in stark contrast to how veterinarians and animal nutritionists feed carnivores in zoos.” In March Malik sent a detailed letter to the Registrar of the Veterinary Practitioners Board of NSW raising concerns about the close ties between pet food manufactures and the veterinary industry, both practicing vets and Veterinary Schools.

Malik, in his piece for The Conversation, writes that the funding of dietary research by the pet food companies allows them to “determine the research agenda, and the “evidence base” for canine and feline nutrition.”

The readiness of veterinary schools to seek funding from food companies is, in part, due to massive funding gaps faced by the schools. In the current climate the government prefers to fund valuable livestock studies, or research our natural wildlife. Food manufactures have swarmed to fill that gap.

The infiltration by pet food manufacturers is not limited to teaching and research. Many now exist across the whole student experience. The University of Sydney’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital boasts about its close ties to Hill’s on its website, and the scrubs that students have to wear during their practical units are emblazoned, not only with the University’s insignia, but also with a prominent Hill’s logo. Outside the classroom, the mailing list which all vet students are in is regularly used to send students “special offers” for Hill’s and Royal Canin food.

It also isn’t simply an issue at Sydney, many other vet schools have been engaged in similar practices. Dr Tom Lonsdale, a veterinarian who long opposed processed pet food, recently obtained a number of documents under Freedom of Information which demonstrate the nature of the close arrangements between many leading universities and pet food companies.

While the variety of deals between Universities and pet food companies is striking, among the cache of documents released to Lonsdale, extensive redactions make it difficult to tell exactly who is doing what. Honi has been able to piece together a few examples, it is important to note that they are individual examples, and that many vet schools have a range of different agreements with different providers in the pet food industry. Murdoch University pocketed $135,000 cash and $30,000 in kind support from Colgate Palmolive (parent company of Hill’s) between 2013 and 2015. In 2014 Royal Canin offered an expenses paid trip to the “Royal Canin scientific conference” in France to a representative of Melbourne University. And in the same year a representative of Adelaide University actively sought out “give-aways” from Royal Canin to give to students during orientation.

The detail of the University of Sydney’s arrangements is more scant, though Honi has obtained some documents, heavily redacted, through freedom of information provisions. The documents are included in full below. One agreement with Hill’s includes “Clinical Nutrition and Gastrointestinal Disease Lectures” listed under the heading “Teaching and Student Engagements” in Schedule A, “Sponsorship Fee and Sponsorship Benefits” of the agreement. The agreement also includes “Research Engagement with Charles Perkins Chair in Comparative Nutrition”. There is a similar agreement with Royal Canin, however many more of the details have been redacted.

Of course, there is extensive debate in the veterinary industry over the best way to feed pets. While it may turn out that the style of feeding advocated by Dobson is correct, there is obvious potential for subtle conflicts of interest to arise with universities letting companies in with such open arms. There is a reason that medical schools shy away from doing anything similar with pharmaceutical companies—there’s good evidence that if you soak young medical professions in branded promotional material, they’re likely to use your products when you graduate.

With estimates of the pet food market in Australia running upwards of $3 billion a year, this is the best investment pet food companies could possibly make.

Honi’s investigation is ongoing.

The University of Sydney was contacted for comment but was unable to respond in time. Dr Penny Dobson did not respond to requests for comment. When contacted by Honi Soit, the Dean of Veterinary school said she was overseas and unable to comment until she returns. Honi will be interviewing her upon her return.

  Documents for Release REDACTED by USYD_Honi_Soit