In the minds of most veterinarians there’s a plan for just about every pet they see to ensure that pet’s immediate and long-term medical needs.
But the reality, according to proponents of wellness plans, is that those details too often go unrelated to pet owners.
"We really do have a full-year plan for their pets in our head,” said Carol McConnell, DVM, MBA, chief veterinary medical officer with Veterinary Pet Insurance of Brea, Calif. "When a pet comes in you look at the age, where they live, and other factors, and you formulate a plan.”
It’s a detailed plan, Dr. McConnell said, adding, "But we’re clearly not good an explaining it to clients.”
VPI in January launched a wellness service for veterinarians to offer clients called "Preventive & Wellness Services, which McConnell pronounces as "paws.”
"We are basically positing ourselves as a silent partner with veterinarians,” McConnell said.
She said the service is proving popular, with between 2,000 and 3,000 plans across the U.S. in place through more than 100 practices.
Jeffrey S. Klausner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield Pet Hospital of Portland, Ore., which has enrolled more than 1.6 million pets in its healthcare programs, said the company’s focus has been to make wellness plans as enticing for clients as possible.
Whether a veterinarian uses a service such as VPI’s or develops one on her own, wellness plans often cover unlimited office visits, comprehensive physical examinations, recommended vaccines and early screening. Discounts on other veterinary services and products, like prescriptions and additional lab tests not included in the plan, are often included as well.
"We know that pets age more quickly than people, so it’s important they receive veterinary care at least twice a year to ensure they remain healthy and allow for early diagnosis for any potential medical problems,” Dr. Klausner said.
Banfield offers three levels of wellness plans for dogs and for cats. Its basic "Essential Care” plan includes vaccinations, parasite prevention and diagnostic blood tests, while higher-level plans can include an annual dental cleaning, chest radiographs and urinalysis.
Higher-level plans can include chronic disease management, such as blood glucose curves for diabetic pets, anesthetized ear cleaning for pets with chronic ear infections and more advanced diagnostic testing for pets with other metabolic diseases, Klausner said.
VPI offers similar plans and will work with a veterinarian to customize a plan to his or her specifications.
Greg O’Brien, MBA, owner of O’Brien Veterinary Management, which manages six veterinary clinics in the Greater Chicago area, has two clinics offering the VPI plans.
One began offering wellness plans in July, the other in February. Between the two operations they have nearly 600 clients enrolled, O’Brien said.
"We’re having success,” he said. "They’re doing what we thought they were going to do.”
Clinic staff members are finding that people are attracted to the plans for different reasons. For some clients, O’Brien said, it’s the ability to give their pets a higher level of care, while many pet owners are attracted to the ability to make monthly payments.
Those who are least interested in such plans or increased levels of healthcare are the owners of healthy adult pets, so O’Brien has his staff emphasize the benefits of discounts and unlimited free exams to those people.
Wellness plans typically include core vaccines, fecal tests, early detection, and wellness exams with additional diagnostics, so those are features that can be promoted to pet owners.
One of the best tools for convincing clinics to offer wellness plans is that the plans get pets in to see the doctor sooner and more often, he added.
Pet owners with wellness plans tend to bring them in at the first sign a pet is "acting funny,” O’Brien said, like excessive scratching or not eating.
"I think they’re more in tune,” he said of wellness-plan clients. "And it removes the financial barriers to getting them in clinic as soon as possible.”
And financially speaking, a visit nearer the onset of symptoms may leave a pet owner much happier as well.
"When [the client comes] in early, there is a good possibility he is going to have a $75 visit,” O’Brien said, noting that costs often go up as a pet gets more ill.
"And you know what? Clients love a $75 visit.”
To Mike Deal, a human resources director in Rapid City, S.D., Julius Caesar is a family member, and Deal and his wife cherish the 18-year-old Yorkshire terrier.
About five years ago they took the dog to the vet he had been visiting his entire life, and she suggested a wellness plan.
They thought that made sense.
"If you’ve got vision insurance, you make sure you go in and get your eyes checked once a year,” Deal said. "With a wellness plan, you go in twice a year, you have regular checks, and if anything comes up you can address it right away if it’s a serious issue.”
Not long after they purchased a plan for around $40 a month, a heart murmur was discovered and the veterinarian put Caesar on a daily dose of enalapril malate.
"That would not have been discovered if not for the wellness check,” Deal said.
Partners for Healthy Pets
McConnell points out that VPI’s plans modify the Partners for Healthy Pets guidelines for veterinarians.
Partners for Healthy Pets is the face of the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare, a committee of the nonprofit American Veterinary Medical Foundation. The alliance of more than 20 veterinary associations and animal health companies has a goal of improved overall health for pets.
What is the strongest point of wellness plans?
"It’s being able to package these services as a bundle,” McConnell said. "If you talk to Mrs. Jones about Fifi, about one complete plan priced $360 for the year, the average client is willing to pay that $360 that day.”
Another strength of such plans is they can be priced monthly. For example, McConnell said some clinics charge a startup fee of $55, then $30 a month for the rest of the year on some plans.
"You tell the client, ‘You can build that $30 a month into your household budget,’” said McConnell, who noted that VPI also trains staff to talk to clients about wellness plans.
If a client wants to be financially prepared for the worst, she can look into pet insurance in addition to a wellness plan, but McConnell and Klausner both stress the importance of making sure clients know there’s a difference between the two.
"It’s important to convey that wellness plans are not insurance,” he said. "Wellness plans are designed to make essential preventive care convenient and affordable and help remove any barriers to a pet receiving regular care. Wellness plans do help offset the costs of other care not included in a plan, including emergencies.”