Pioneers for small animal medicine, nutrition, and practice: AAHA and Hill’s Pet Nutrition celebrate milestones
Innovation has always been at the core of small animal medicine. From 100 years ago—when the horse was still the primary model for the study of anatomy at most vet schools—to now, the profession has grown out of a sincere desire to nurture the human-animal bond and an insatiable quest for scientific discovery.
The enduring legacy of Dr. Mark Morris
Mark Morris, Sr., DVM, was born in 1900, when his homeland of Colorado was still a young state on the edge of the Wild West. He attended Rutgers University, where he earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1926. He went on to open what was only the second exclusively small animal hospital in the United States, Raritan Hospital for Animals, in Edison, New Jersey, in 1928.
In November 1933, Dr. Morris was among the small group of veterinarians who gathered at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago to officially launch the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), serving as the association’s first president until 1935.
Just before his death in 1993, Dr. Morris told Trends magazine: “My biggest challenge was to establish small animal practice as a legitimate specialty in veterinary medicine. My proudest accomplishment was to launch an association of veterinarians devoted to small animals with inspection of hospitals to upgrade the facilities and services for the pet-owning public.”
“The concept of continuous improvement is at the heart of this quote from Dr. Morris,” said Garth Jordan, AAHA’s current CEO. “And today, his legacy lives in our core purpose to ‘simplify the journey toward excellence for veterinary practices.’ He started the journey of continuous improvement for small animal veterinary medicine, and I trust he’d be happy to see—90 years later—that it’s still at the center of the value we’re striving to offer our entire ecosystem.”
From the kitchen to the lab
Soon after helping to launch AAHA, Dr. Morris turned his eye to the changing needs of the patients themselves.
Small animal medicine emerged during the height of the Great Depression, which was impacting how pet owners fed their animals. Dogs who once ate table scraps were now being fed cheap, low-grade meat byproducts—and the consequences were showing up in their health. Morris noticed a rise in dogs with kidney disease, and one dog in particular inspired his next innovation.
In 1939, a young blind man named Morris Frank was traveling the country with his dog, Buddy, who was suffering from kidney failure. Dr. Morris, building off research he began at Rutgers, set out to find a nutritional solution working out of his own kitchen, where he and his wife, Louise, crafted the first iteration of k/d dog food to support kidney health.
Encouraged by the results, Dr. Morris licensed his discovery to the Hill Packing Company in Topeka, Kansas. In 1948, Hill’s Prescription Diet k/d hit the shelves, becoming the first veterinarian-prepared food for the management of a canine disease—and formally launching Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
"At Hill's Pet Nutrition, we're inspired every day by the pioneering work of Dr. Mark Morris, Sr.," said Dr. Karen Shenoy, US Chief Veterinary Officer, Hill's Pet Nutrition. "As early developers of science-based pet nutrition, we have always held ourselves to a very high standard. That's as true today as it was when we were first founded, 75 years ago."
Morris expands his reach
Dr. Morris soon moved out of the kitchen and into the public sphere, where he helped shape the future of veterinary research by founding the Morris Animal Foundation. He also lobbied for clinical nutrition to be included in veterinary school curricula (work that his son, Mark Morris, Jr., DVM, continued as a renowned expert on the topic, serving as a founding member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and co-authoring Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, the standard textbook used in many veterinary schools to this day).
According to the AVMA, as president of their association from 1961–62, Dr. Morris advocated for many of the innovations that the profession still strives toward, including mentorship at the practice level, inclusion in professional associations, enhanced research into disease, and standardization of veterinary school admissions.
Dr. Morris said in his 1961 address to the AVMA Annual Convention, “With all humility, I pledge myself to the building of the structure for the future of our profession."
The future of pet nutrition
That future is now. Fast-forward 75 years and Hill's Pet Nutrition is on a mission to help enrich and lengthen the special relationships between people and their pets through pioneering research for dogs and cats using a scientific understanding of their specific needs.
And they’re doing it with the help of the patients themselves.
At the 180-acre Hill's Global Pet Nutrition Center in Topeka, Kansas, Hill’s scientists and veterinarians work with 450 dogs and 450 cats living onsite. These “pet partners” are the first testers of things humans can’t be the best judge of—like taste, smell, kibble size, and texture. Meanwhile, Hill’s R&D team is driven to develop innovative products that address the unique nutritional needs of cats and dogs.
“As leaders in clinical nutrition, knowledge is our first ingredient,” said Dr. Shenoy. “We continuously strive for innovation with more than 220 veterinarians, veterinary technicians, PhD nutritionists, and food scientists working across all aspects of our business at Hill’s to develop breakthrough innovations and support veterinary teams in their mission to keep pets healthy.”
Vet clinics and pet specialty retailers worldwide stock Hill's Prescription Diet therapeutic nutrition foods, as well as the everyday wellness product line, Hill's Science Diet. And, as they celebrated their 75th anniversary in 2023, Hill’s launched two new innovations:
Prescription Diet ONC Care is the first therapeutic food designed to meet the unique nutritional needs of pets with cancer. With oncology patients in mind, the ONC Care formula contains Hill’s proprietary blend of prebiotics. It’s also designed to taste good and be easy for pets to chew and digest.
Coming full circle back to the work of Dr. Morris, Hill’s relaunched its Prescription Diet k/d in 2023 with a blend of prebiotics that supports kidney health.
And today, the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) has grown to become the largest nongovernmental sponsor of companion animal health studies, having invested in more than 2,945 animal health studies at veterinary schools worldwide—to the tune of more than $149 million.
The future of veterinary practice
Since AAHA’s founding 90 years ago, small animal practitioners have confronted an increasingly complex world of medical technology, as well as changing dynamics with clients and their teams.
In 1954, a reporter for the New Yorker interviewed an AAHA member at the association’s annual convention who said, “All of us want to remain students until we die. The search for truth is an unending process. . . . a good veterinarian is only secondarily an animal lover. Primarily, he’s a scientist.”
And that sense of discovery extends beyond just cutting-edge medicine. In the early 2000s, AAHA added standards for client services, continuing education, pain management, and practice leadership.
In 2023, AAHA released its first technician utilization guidelines, sponsored by Hill’s, recognizing that the empowerment of the entire veterinary team is essential to the future of the profession. The 2023 AAHA Technician Utilization Guidelines include free hands-on resources like the Veterinary Team Member Utilization Assessment tool; and the 2023 AAHA Mentoring Guidelines provide templates for conversations that guide both mentors and mentees toward career advancement and peer-to-peer support.
A look back—and forward
AAHA has grown up alongside small animal practices, shifting the focus of its standards over the years to keep up with changing priorities.
“Nearly 100 years later, we remain unwavering to our commitment as AAHA to ensure that our Standards of Accreditation not only endure, but also evolve to meet our progressive and compassionate veterinary profession,” said AAHA Director of Accreditation Anthony Merkle, RVT.
AAHA continues to explore the contemporary definition of “excellence” in vet med. In 2024, in addition to an updated Fluid Therapy guideline and a first-ever Community Care guideline, AAHA is releasing a new white paper, “Stay, Please,” which outlines a study of 15,000 veterinary professionals exploring the driving factors behind attrition and retention in multiple members of the veterinary team.
“We have already received tremendous interest in this important white paper,” says AAHA Chief Medical Officer Jessica Vogelsang, DVM. “We can’t wait to spend 2024 digging into what the profession needs to do to stop this talent drain and leading the way on defining actionable steps to curb it.”
A lot has changed since Mark Morris, Sr., DVM, and his contemporaries first launched the profession of small animal veterinary practice nearly a century ago. Yesterday’s visionaries may be gone, but their legacy lives on in organizations like AAHA, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and the Morris Animal Foundation, where the core values remain unchanged—to pursue advancements in science and innovations in veterinary practice that enhance the health of pets and the people who love them.
Watch the video
Dr. Karen Shenoy, US Chief Veterinary Officer for Hill's Pet Nutrition, and Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, AAHA's Chief Medical Officer, take a look back at 2023 and preview what is coming up for Hill's and AAHA in the coming year.
From industry to charity: The lasting legacy of Dr. Mark Morris, Sr., on small animal medicine (AVMA)
Hill's Pet Nutrition products and nutritional philosophy
History of Hill’s Pet Nutrition
The Morris Animal Foundation’s 75-year legacy of pioneering research (NEWStat)
Cara Hopkins is managing editor at AAHA.
Photos of Dr. Mark Morris courtesy of Hill's Pet Nutrition and AAHA.