The ups and downs of pet demographics

Published on September 05, 2012
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Results of the AVMA’s 2012 study of pet ownership, veterinary visits, and spending in 2011 were an interesting mixed bag, noted AVMA CEO Ron DeHaven at a press preview attended by 30 media representatives Aug. 4 in San Diego at the AVMA Annual Convention.

The number of pets in the U.S. has decreased since the time of the last study (which was conducted in 2007 and collected data for 2006), for example, but veterinary spending has increased. Total veterinary visits have also increased.

Comparing highlights of the 2011 findings with those from 2006 was Dr. Karen E. Felsted, president of Felsted Veterinary Consultants Inc. and former CEO of the National Council on Veterinary Economic Issues. She said that because of the sample size of more than 50,000 households, the study “is the most robust study of pet ownership and spending.” The AVMA has conducted it every five years since 1983.

Dr. Felsted noted an overall decline of 2.4 percent in the percentage of U.S. households that own a pet, with the percentage of households owning a pet in 2011—56 percent—the same as it was in 2001. The number of households owning cats declined 6.2 percent, but the number owning dogs fell only 1.9 percent. Numbers of households owning horses and birds decreased 16.7 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively.

That means there are fewer potential clients, and practices must work harder to attract and keep them, Dr. Felsted said. “One of the most important aspects is going back to basics, which is more important than wowing clients.” She said although the study did not address reasons for the decline in number of pet-owning households, the economy is certainly one.

The study estimated veterinary expenditures for all household pets at $28 billion, a 14.3 percent increase from 2006 (without adjusting for inflation). Dog owners spent $19.1 billion on veterinary care, an increase of 18.6 percent. Cat expenditures rose only 4.2 percent, to $7.4 billion. Expenditures on specialty and exotic pets climbed by 34.7 percent.

Veterinary visits for dogs increased 9.2 percent to 130.4 million, while cat visits were down 4.4 percent at 60.5 million visits.

The study found that 6 percent of dog owners and 3 percent of cat owners carried pet insurance, indicating to Dr. Felsted that insurance coverage is catching on.

Dr. Felsted did express alarm at a creeping increase in the number of households not seeing a veterinarian within the previous year and by the percentages of dogs (51 percent) and cats (74 percent) that do not receive basic care.

Asked at the press event whether the finding that overall veterinary visits rose slightly conflicts with findings from other studies, specifically the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, which found veterinary visits had declined, Dr. Felsted said no, that each study was designed differently.

“To me, what I walk away from all these studies and look at is there are a lot of pets out there, there are a lot of pets that need continued care, and there’s much that we, the veterinary profession, can do to make that happen,” she said.

Another question was whether the study inquired about income, so that conclusions could be drawn as to how household resources affect pet-related decisions. Allison Shepherd, senior manager of market research in the AVMA Communications Division, responded that the 50,000 households were selected to be statistically balanced to reflect U.S. households collectively. She said the study determined the median household income to be about $50,000, and the full report will provide data breakdowns according to income groups as well as ethnicity, gender, and other demographics.

Educating and communicating better with pet owners, making clear recommendations to clients, narrating the veterinary examination so that owners understand its value, and paying attention to pricing are some things veterinarians can do, Dr. Felsted said.

Shepherd designed the study questionnaire and analyzed the results after the study was conducted by a research vendor, Irwin Broh Research, in spring 2012. Complete results will be published in the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, due for release this fall.