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TCR talks Pet Insurance with Dr. Jen

Business Insider (Kate Taylor, 12/6/2022)

Emily Brill is back — and she’s terrorizing the pet industry

Quotation MarkWho was doing reliable, credible, in-depth reporting on pet insurance?” Brill asked. “Answer: Nobody.”

She’s gone after everything from dog-food startups to animal shelters. And she’s made enemies along the way. American Kennel Club Breeders of Merit formed a Facebook group to expose what they described as The Canine Review’s “anti-breeder agenda” after an investigation into the American Kennel Club’s methodology. Carlotta Cooper, the vice president of Sportsmen’s & Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance, urged dog breeders “to avoid speaking with anyone from this counterfeit publication.” ((Brill told Insider that “10,000 word investigation in 2019 uncovered the AKC’s quality control challenges and how its business model makes those quality control challenges unsurprising,” and that none of the five breeders disputed “any single FACT that we reported.”) Even bird lovers sent angry letters in response to photos of Brill’s Labrador, Nellie, on a hunting trip, delicately carrying a dead bird in her mouth.

Brill doesn’t regret any of it, even if one reader threatened to cancel their Canine Review subscription post-“bird massacre” photo shoot. As Brill puts it, the photos reassure readers that “I’m not a stereotypical sort of Manhattan, head-up-my-ass, agenda, PETA person.”

Brill was drawn to journalism from a young age. Her father is Steven Brill, the millionaire founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV. She attended Deerfield Academy, an elite East Coast prep school where she wrote for The Deerfield Scroll. Brill told Insider that her criticism of Deerfield’s administration was so controversial that the headmaster started confiscating copies.

 Brill writes deep dives on topics too obscure even for most pet owners — like pet-insurance fine print and dilated cardiomyopathy, a deadly heart condition linked to certain pet foods.


Quotation MarkEmily doesn’t ever write a story that doesn’t have a truckload of information in it,” said Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at New York’s Animal Medical Center who’s become one of Brill’s go-to experts.

Brill is considered an outsider — an aggressive one, at that — in a tight-knit pet community. Her unyielding techniques have alienated many, with the North American Pet Health Insurance Association’s president once emailing Brill to accuse her of “bullying and badgering tactics.”

In Brill’s world, the villains are unequivocal: “spineless” trade groups, “devil” pet retailers, and the silent “media elites” (also known as the owners of the cute-animal-centric media brand The Dodo). When the American Veterinary Medical Association declined Brill’s interview requests, she wrote an article lambasting what she called its “Kremlin-like practices.”

The Canine Review is modeled after Steven Brill’s The American Lawyer. Like her father’s publication, Brill is publishing paywalled articles about an under-covered industry. Earlier this year, the pet insurer Trupanion — whose executives are among the few who deign to grant Brill interviews — purchased a bulk membership, the equivalent of 5,000 subscriptions. It isn’t a bad start, but “she’s got a long way to go to make it really thrive,” Steven Brill told Insider.

Though Brill has yet to make her own fortune, the world she covers is booming. The pet-insurance industry grew 28% from 2020 to 2021, per the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, and by one estimate Americans spent $34 billion last year on pet food. Louise Story, a veteran Wall Street Journal journalist who has known Brill since taking a Steven Brill course at Yale, said readers would be unwise to laugh off The Canine Review. “Everyone thinks pets are just cuddly — but it is a big, serious business,” Story said.

At the same time, the pet industry is poorly regulated. Lax rules and little enforcement have allowed scammers to multiply. Writing about topics as seemingly simple as “fresh” dog food can be confusing and contradictory.

Brill is determined to take down the industry’s snake-oil salesmen and corporate bigwigs. After a career spent battling her editors — none of whom “has the spine that I have,” Brill said — she is free to publish whatever she wants without tempering her language. Brill used to hire freelance writers, but she found they lacked the “level of OCD” she demanded.

Her dream is to poach a New York Times reporter, and she’s already crunching the back-of-napkin math for a salary of up to $300,000. Brill hopes her aggressive reporting — such as coverage of the Food and Drug Administration’s canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy data — will attract applicants and mainstream attention.

“I want to get a Pulitzer Prize for this FDA story,” Brill said.

This story has been updated to include additional information on Brill’s AKC investigation.