A major national study has found that the decline in the number of veterinary visits over the past decade is rooted in six major factors having a common theme: Relatively few pet owners fully appreciate the value of professional veterinary services.
The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study was commissioned by Bayer Animal Health and conducted by Brakke Consulting and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. It identified the six causes as the economic impact of the recession; fragmentation of veterinary services; the Internet, primarily healthcare research; feline resistance; a perception among pet owners that regular medical checkups are unnecessary; and the cost of care.
“Veterinarians must learn to manage pricing and communicate the value of regular care to avoid deterring pet owners from making annual visits a priority,” said Ron Brakke, president and founder of Brakke Consulting.
“Veterinarians can take specific actions to grow client traffic and improve pet care. As a profession, veterinarians need a consistent message about the importance and frequency of veterinary care. It is likely that the trend can be reversed if the proper actions are taken.”
The three organizations reported key findings of the study, as well as possible remedies, at the North American Veterinary Conference in January.
“By far the most important finding, from a health perspective, is the misperception by many pet owners that regular medical checkups for pets are unnecessary,” said Ian Spinks, president and general manager of Bayer Animal Health North America.
“This could be driven by the absence of professional patient-care guidelines that recommend annual physicals. The unintended consequence is that many pets aren’t getting the care they need for healthy, long lives.”
The groups explained the six root causes:
- Economic impact of the recession. Although the study does not estimate how much of the decline in veterinary visits is attributed to the recession, it does indicate that the recession has exacerbated the situation, said Karen Felsted, DVM, CEO of NCVEI.
- Fragmentation of veterinary services. Options for veterinary care are increasing, the study noted. Pet owners can take pets to mobile vaccination clinics, referral centers (with the potential loss of chronic cases), animal shelters and pet store clinics. These visits may preclude annual visits with animals’ regular veterinarians, according to the study. Also noteworthy: The number of companion animal veterinarians is growing faster than the number of pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
- Consumers substituting Internet research for office visits. Fifteen percent of pet owners surveyed said that with the Internet they don’t rely on the veterinarian as much. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed look online before consulting a vet if a pet is sick or injured. Such research could prevent the pet owner from calling the clinic and being urged to bring in the pet to be checked, said John Volk, a senior consultant with Brakke. Although many of those animals would recover on their own, others will become sicker, he added. The organizations downplayed the effect of the availability of parasite preventives and other veterinary drugs on the Internet, noting a difference between veterinary visits and transactions.
- Feline resistance. One-third of cats owned by study respondents have not seen a veterinarian in the past year. This, in part, is attributed to what the study called feline resistance: the hiding, aggression, vocalization and stressed and fearful behavior cats exhibit when crated and transported to unfamiliar surroundings. Unwilling to do battle with their pets, cat owners become more comfortable with longer time between exams, according to the study.
- Cost of care. Fifty-three percent of pet owners surveyed reported that the costs of a veterinary visit are usually much higher than they expected. Affluence also plays a role, according to the study’s findings. As household incomes decline, so do veterinary visits. Key finding: Price is an issue.
- Perception among some pet owners that regular medical checkups are unnecessary. Sixty-three percent of dog owners and 68 percent of cat owners question the need for regular veterinary care, the survey found. Respondents believed by a wide margin that older pets require less medical attention than younger animals, even though older animals are susceptible to a range of chronic and costly illnesses like diabetes, cancer and arthritis, according to the study. Respondents also indicated that indoor pets need next to no veterinary care because they are less exposed to environmental threats.
The sudy recommended various steps for the profession to counter these factors and increase the number of veterinary visits. Foremost was to “develop industry-wide and clinically supported guidance on annual veterinary visits and promote that standard among pet owners.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the NCVEI, 56 percent of surveyed veterinarians reported that patient visits for the first nine months of 2010 were down compared to the year-ago period. But declines in veterinary visits have been documented as far back as 2001, despite increases in the number of pet dogs and cats, according to the three groups behind the study.
Other suggestions for countering the trend include communicating to pet owners the health and economic value of regular exams and treatment; making veterinary practices more “cat friendly”; making it easier for pet owners to schedule and keep appointments; and considering alternative pricing strategies and providing pet owners with information on financing and health insurance options.
“People often associate clinic visits with shots or vaccinations,” Felsted said. “But that’s not all that happens during a visit. A client might think the vet is petting the animal. But the veterinarian is performing a full physical exam, looking for problems with the eyes, ears, skin, internal organs and other body systems. Pets, like people, can develop health conditions that, if undetected, become costly to treat chronic illnesses.”
Additional recommendations include offering competitive product prices, extended business hours and wellness plans billed monthly; lowering exam fees to reduce price resistance; and offering strategic discounts, for example, marketing to lapsed clients during slow periods.
The study included individual interviews and focus groups with veterinarians, focus groups with pet owners and a nationally representative survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners to determine the factors contributing to the decline in veterinary visits.