6 factors in declining veterinary visits

Study identifies client, environmental factors in frequency of veterinary visits for dogs and cats
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Some pet owners think that routine checkups are unnecessary for dogs and cats. The cost of veterinary care can be much higher than many pet owners expect. Plus, cats are plain difficult to take to the clinic.

These are the three primary client-related factors associated with a recent decline in the frequency of veterinary visits for dogs and cats, according to findings from the new Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study.

The study also identified three primary environmental factors associated with the decline—the recession, fragmentation of veterinary services, and use of the Internet as a source of information about animal health.

6 factors in declining veterinary visits

"Are pets overall getting the kind of care that they should be getting?" asked Ian Spinks, president of Bayer Animal Health North America, during an interview with JAVMA News after the release of the study results. "The data would seem to indicate that there's a ways to go yet."

Bayer Animal Health, Brakke Consulting Inc., and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues released the results of the study Jan. 17 during the North American Veterinary Conference. The study included a literature review, interviews with veterinarians and pet owners, and a national survey of 2,000 pet owners.

Even before the recent recession, AVMA data indicated a decline in veterinary visits for dogs and cats. Dogs averaged 1.5 visits in 2006, down from a mean of 1.9 visits in 2001, according to the AVMA's 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. Cats averaged 0.7 visits in 2006, down from a mean of one visit in 2001.

The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study and its organizers offer some recommendations to potentially reverse the trend, from promoting routine checkups to improving pricing strategies.

Client factors

The study found that 24 percent of pet owners completely agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that routine checkups are unnecessary, while another 23 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

At a time when many small animal practitioners have moved to a three-year vaccination protocol, the study found that 33 percent of dog owners and 41 percent of cat owners agreed that if their pet did not need to be vaccinated every year, they would not take it to the veterinarian as often.

Twenty-four percent of dog owners and 39 percent of cat owners would visit the veterinarian only if their pet were sick.

"They really ought to be having fairly regular checkups," Spinks said. "If you think about an annual checkup for a pet in the context of its lifespan, that would be the equivalent of a person only going for an annual physical every six or seven years."

Dr. Karen E. Felsted, NCVEI chief executive officer, said the veterinary profession needs to establish a consistent message about an appropriate frequency of checkups for pets—just as the human dental profession has established the routine of twice-a-year visits.

John Volk, Brakke senior consultant, noted that individual veterinarians can be clear with clients about what they believe to be the proper frequency of checkups.

Also noteworthy, the study found that owners of indoor pets were less likely than owners of outdoor pets to have taken their pet to a veterinary clinic in the past year. Owners of older cats were likelier than owners of younger cats to say they were taking their cat to its primary veterinary clinic less often than two years ago.

Regarding the price of veterinary care, 53 percent of pet owners think costs are usually much higher than they expected. Thirty percent would try another clinic that had a coupon or special, 26 percent would switch veterinarians if they found one who was less expensive, and 26 percent are always looking for less expensive options for veterinary services and products.

"We're going to have to start to explore the kinds of pricing strategies that you see in many other professions and in many other industries," Dr. Felsted said. "Pricing strategies are not just for retail things like electronics."

Dr. Felsted said veterinarians might need to reconsider simply raising fees by a certain percentage from one year to the next. Pricing strategies could include discounts for slow times or lapsed clients. Many pet owners in the study liked the concept of a wellness plan billed monthly.

Client perceptions of the cost of care are not about the dollar figures alone, Dr. Felsted said. She said veterinarians should communicate the value of services and offer financing options.

One key recommendation from the study is for veterinarians to create cat-friendly practices. The study found that 60 percent of cats visited the veterinarian within the past 12 months, in comparison with 85 percent of dogs. Cat owners were more likely than dog owners to say that their pet hates going to the veterinarian and that just thinking about a veterinary visit is stressful.

Environmental factors

The study found that environmental factors, which are less under veterinarians' control, may also be contributing to the decline in veterinary visits.

The impact of the recession is on the top of veterinarians' minds, according to the study. The study found that unemployed pet owners and pet owners with lower incomes were less likely than other pet owners to have taken their pet to a veterinary clinic in the past year.

Fragmentation of veterinary services is high on veterinarians' minds, according to the study. Pet owners now have the option of visiting clinics at pet stores, specialty practices, mobile clinics, and animal shelters as well as traditional clinics.

Some pet owners in focus groups said they had taken their pet to a mobile vaccination clinic but had a regular veterinarian for the pet when it was sick or even for checkups, Volk said. Veterinarians in focus groups expressed concerns, however, about full-service clinics losing starter services that establish a relationship with clients.

Fifteen percent of pet owners in the survey said that with the Internet, they don't rely on the veterinarian as much. Thirty-nine percent look online first if a pet is sick or injured.

Veterinarians in the focus groups said they had observed that clients were going to the Internet ahead of the clinic, Volk said.

"Before widespread use of the Internet, if a pet owner saw a pet that was off feed or limping a little bit or showed some other signs of distress, they might just pick up the phone and call the vet," Volk said. "Now many people go to the Internet, and they kind of self-diagnose."

As a result, said veterinarians in the focus groups, some pet owners delay contacting the clinic until the pet is sicker.

Also relevant to new communication technologies, one recommendation from the study is for veterinarians to take advantage of e-mail and text messages as well as traditional methods to help pet owners schedule and keep appointments.

Next steps

At press time, the study's organizers were planning a national survey of veterinarians to evaluate existing and potential approaches to increase veterinary visits.

Spinks added that a coalition has formed in response to the decline in veterinary visits. The coalition is analyzing findings from the study to help develop strategies to address factors in the decline.

Slides from an NAVC presentation on the study results are available from the NCVEI website at www.ncvei.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a finding from the survey of pet owners in the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. The article stated that 64 percent of cats and 86 percent of dogs visited a veterinarian in the past year, but that finding applies only to pets whose owners had visited a veterinarian in the past two years.