PET TIPS: Retailers venture into veterinary care

There are lots of things you can do at Walmart, such getting a haircut or getting your car tires rotated. And soon (in some cities) you might be able to add another one: getting your puppy vaccinated.

Yes, the world’s largest retailer is the latest company to jump on the bandwagon by offering wellness services for pets. Walmart already has 21 in-store veterinary clinics operating in six states, but within a year, the goal is to increase that number to 100.  Walmart contends that these “Essentials PetCare” clinics will not compete with existing veterinarians, because the target consumer is someone who can’t afford to take their pets to the vet on a regular basis.

The Essentials clinics are able to charge discount prices because there’s less overhead. They focus on basics such as wellness exams, vaccinations, and flea/tick prevention. If your pet has a serious, complicated illness, you’re still going to have to take him to a full-service vet, one who can provide life-saving (and expensive) treatments including surgery and hospitalization.

Still, I think we can all agree that it’s better for an animal to get at least some health care rather than none at all.

Now, here’s the more controversial part: Walmart also wants to get into the burgeoning pet pharmacy business, both online and in stores.

The retail giant has just launched walmartpetrx.com, in a not-so-subtle bid to compete directly with Chewy.com. The Chewy website started out as a service that delivers big bags of pet food to your door, but now it’s attempting to be a one-stop shop for pet products (and yes, it just happens to be owned by PetSmart).

But neither Walmart nor PetSmart is apparently satisfied with just selling merchandise online. They want to be in the lucrative business of pharmaceuticals, once dominated by 1-800-PetMeds.

There seems to have been a shakeup throughout the industry. I used to buy pet medications from Drs. Foster & Smith, a respected company founded and owned by two Wisconsin veterinarians. But it was bought out by PetCo, another national chain that competes against PetSmart.

Now, PetCo’s pharmacy division is run by Express Scripts, the same company that handles pharmacy benefits for many medical insurance plans. Here’s the problem with that arrangement: My dog is on a prescription drug that is FDA-approved only for veterinary use, not for human consumption. Since Express Scripts’ main business is medications for humans, it may not sell drugs that are intended solely for animals. (Luckily, I was still able to find Daisy’s medicine at 1-800-PetMeds.)

Okay, now let’s get back to Walmart. With its online pharmacy and in-store vet clinics, the mega-retailer claims that its goal is to make pet ownership more affordable. Presumably, prices will drop across the board as other companies try to compete with Walmart.

But I am deeply skeptical. I think these corporations are far more concerned with boosting their bottom line and padding their shareholders’ profits than with improving the health of our pets.

My advice for consumers is the same as always: Do your homework ahead of time to find the best prices, and buyer beware.

Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for 50 years and won numerous AKC obedience competitions with her late Sheltie, Sunny. She lives with her current Sheltie, Daisy.

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