Catlett predicts bright future for veterinarians

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Lowell Catlett, PhD
Lowell Catlett, PhD

Every day, millions of people read their horoscope in the hope that it might offer guidance for their lives. Lowell Catlett, PhD, professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business at New Mexico State University, is not a mystic or a fortune teller. But his background as an economist and futurist, researcher, teacher, and consultant to the USDA, Department of the Interior, and the US Army does mean that he is in the best position to predict the future. And, fortunate veterinarians who attended the General Session on July 22 at the AVMA Annual Convention in Salt Lake City got to hear his well-informed calculations regarding the future of veterinary medicine.

Lacking use of tea leaves or crystal balls, how does Dr. Catlett predict the future? "I'm an eclectic reader," he told the JAVMA. "I read in just about every field, because I find that the biggest impact that causes an industry to change will often come from outside that industry."

Dr. Catlett had addressed the AAHA and the AAEP within the past year and gathered firsthand information from veterinarians, while also gathering data involving marketing trends, economics, demographics, and technology.

Although he's spoken to many organizations, Dr. Catlett has a special place in his heart for veterinarians. In his dynamic, animated keynote speech he said he has always believed that veterinarians have "without question, the most honorable and most wonderful profession that exists on this planet."

Accordingly, he was pleased to announce that he had good news for the profession he holds in such high esteem. "The future's so bright for veterinarians, you're going to have to wear sunshades," he said.

In his address, he said that we are living in an era during which, for the first time in 6,000 years, there are four generations of people alive with large amounts of discretionary disposable income, and that actuarially and demographically speaking, once the oldest generation dies, there will be the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth that's ever occurred in recorded history as the baby boom generation begins to inherit from its predecessors.

Fortuitously for veterinarians, he said, it appears the boomer generation and those generations hence are more willing than ever to spend their money on products and services, including veterinary care. He cited factors such as veterinary pet insurance, (something he said his father or grandfather never would have considered) and the specialty care for animals that is becoming increasingly popular.

He spoke about generational differences from personal experience, relating the story of his grandmother, who, when she had to move into an assisted-living care facility in the last year of her life, did so without her two beloved cats, because the facility wouldn't accept them. "The most tragic moment of her life," he called it.

"We're going to change that in my generation," he assured the audience, garnering a round of applause.

He reminded the audience that although 31 percent of current households have children, 62 percent have a pet. Dr. Catlett said the baby boomers have 40 percent more income than their parent's generation, and they will want to spend a good portion of that for veterinary care.

Citing a recent AAHA poll, he said 83 percent of pet owners would lay down their own life for their pet. He also said his own informal polls indicate that the typical horse in America (now increasingly used for recreational purposes rather than transportation purposes) is ridden only twice a year. "But we spent 17 billion dollars last year alone with you, on their care."

Dr. Catlett reiterated many times over that it's a different world we're living in now. He told JAVMA that he believed veterinary practice would change more in the next decade than it had in the past 50 years. Dr. Catlett sees these changes as positive for the veterinary profession. He added that if there is one constant in an ever-volatile future, it is the human desire to have direct contact with plants, animals, and people.

"Demographics, economics, values — they are all on your side," he told veterinarians. "The demand for specialties in veterinary medicine will know no limits in the future."