Study Reveals Causes For Yearly Decline In Vet Visits

A new study reveals why companion animal veterinary visits have been declining over the past several years. The reasons, as cited by the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, are: the economic impact of the recession, fragmentation of veterinary services, consumers substituting Internet research for office visits, feline resistance, perception among pet owners that regular medical check-ups are unnecessary and the cost of care.

Bayer Animal Health, Brakke Consulting and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues released the study today.

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.

According to a recent survey conducted by the NCVEI, 56 percent of 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, according to the three groups behind this new study.

The six root causes defined:

• Economic impact of the recession—Although the study did not reveal an exact figure on how much of the decline in veterinary visits is attributed to the recession, the study does indicate that the recession has exacerbated the outcome, according to Karen Felsted, DVM, CEO of NCVEI.
• Fragmentation of veterinary services—Now, more than ever, pet owners can take pets for treatment to veterinarians at mobile vaccination clinics, animal shelters and pet store clinics. These visits may offset annual visits with their regular veterinarians, according to the study.
• Consumers substituting Internet research for office visits—Fifteen percent of pet owners said that with the Internet they don’t rely on the vet as much. Thirty-nine percent look online before consulting a vet if a pet is sick or injured.
• 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 is called “feline resistance,” which the study defines as the hiding, aggression, vocalization and stressed/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.
• Perception among pet owners that regular medical check-ups are unnecessary—Pet owners who responded to the survey 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.
• 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.

“By far the most important finding, from a health perspective, is the misperception by many pet owners that regular medical check-ups 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.”

Dr. Felsted also commented on why regular check-ups are important.

“People often associate clinic visits with ‘shots’ or ‘vaccinations,’” she said. “But that’s not all that happens during a visit. Veterinarians perform a full physical exam on the pet during which they look 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.”

In terms of veterinary pricing, “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.”

Brakke Consulting and NCVEI are also assisting in developing solutions to increase veterinary visits.

1/17/2011 4:45 PM

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