Veterinary visits up but pet ownership down

New AVMA survey results offer mixed prospects for profession

August 10, 2012 (published)
By Edie Lau

Within a set of mainly downbeat statistics about pet ownership yielded by a new survey of some 50,000 American households is a bright note for companion animal veterinarians: Veterinary visits by dogs and cats reached 190.9 million in 2011, a rise of nearly 4.5 percent from 2006.

The finding marks the reversal of a much-lamented decline in small animal veterinary visits between 2001 and 2006.

But the aggregate numbers mask an interesting nuance: View visits by dogs and cats separately, and the trends diverge. Dog visits alone did not decline in 2006, but have been on the rise since 1996. And cat visits alone have not risen in the past five years, but have been sliding since 2001.

The latest figures come from a pet ownership survey conducted this spring by Irwin Broh & Associates Inc. for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The survey, which has been repeated at four- to five-year intervals since 1983, is the basis of data in the association’s U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook.

An updated publication will be available for sale this fall; the AVMA provided a preview last weekend at its annual convention, which took place in San Diego.

Among the highlights: Ownership of dogs and cats decreased for the first time in at least 20 years. This is true in numbers of dogs and cats owned as well as the percentage of households owning dogs and/or cats at the end of 2011. Ownership of horses, birds and specialty and exotic pets as a whole (which includes rodents, fish and reptiles) also was down compared with five years earlier.

Dr. Karen Felsted, a veterinary consultant in Dallas with a DVM and CPA among other degrees, said the decline in pet ownership is particularly worrisome for the profession in light of the rising population of companion animal veterinarians.

A recent study by Brakke Consulting, Inc., Bayer Animal Health and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues — which Felsted headed before it disbanded in September 2011 — found that the number of companion animal practitioners exploded at a rate of 48 percent in the decade from 1996-97 to 2006-07, reaching 44,785.

“We’ve got a smaller potential client base at a time of potentially increasing numbers of companion animal veterinarians,” said Felsted, who presented the pet ownership survey findings at the convention on the AVMA’s behalf. “There are now more moving parts when you’re looking at the health of the profession.”

The survey did not reveal reasons behind the decline. Felsted said the stagnant economy of the past five years is a likely suspect. “I think everybody makes the assumption ... that the current economic situation is a piece of this,” she said in an interview. “Whether that means a dog or cat passed away and (the owners) didn’t replace it or they relinquished it, we don’t know.”

Other possibilities exist, as well. Dr. Chip Beckett, owner and manager of a companion and farm animal practice in Glastonbury, Conn., and a recent member of the AVMA’s House of Delegates, attributes the decline to societal shifts.

“I think the younger generation is much less focused toward pets than we were in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Beckett, who has been in practice for 29 years. “We have battery-powered dogs and cats. We have iPhones and iPads and iPods. I think that all competes for our time and attention.”

People have other priorities, too, such as wanting to travel without having to worry about what to do with a pet while they’re away, Beckett said. One acquaintance told him years ago that his son wanted a pet but he — the father — demurred, not wishing to take on the responsibility. “Now the son is about to start high school and they’ve never gotten a pet,” Beckett said.

But the outlook is not all grim, he noted. Despite a drop in pet ownership of 2.4 percent, pets are part of more than half of all U.S. households — 56 percent, the survey showed. “There are still a lot of people who own pets,” Beckett said.

Another piece of welcome news for veterinarians is that veterinary spending for dogs and cats rose 14 percent from 2006 to 2011, reaching $26.5 billion, the survey found. Spending for all pets, including horses, was $28 billion.

The figure is derived from survey respondents’ answers about how much money they spent at the veterinarian in 2011. Such purchases may have included a gamut of things, from physical exams to diagnostic tests; from food and grooming to boarding and behavior counseling.

Although the dollar figure rose, Felsted noted that when inflation is factored in, spending essentially was flat. “If you make the assumption that vet fees went up similar to inflation, dollars spent are greater but the purchasing power was not much greater,” she said.

Beckett said he believes most clinics have seen their earnings drop since 2008. “Before, we had a lot of growth,” he said. “Now people are happy if they are flat. And that doesn’t help our new graduates get a job.”

The survey showed, moreover, that mean veterinary expenditures per animal was minimal — $227 per dog, $90 per cat, $14 per bird and $133 per horse.

In reality, no money was spent for veterinary care on many individual pets.

Forty-five percent of cat-owning households surveyed reported making zero veterinary visits in 2011. In 2006, by comparison, 36 percent surveyed didn’t visit the veterinarian all year.

Among dog-owning households, 19 percent reported not visiting the veterinarian in 2011. That figure was 17 percent in 2006.

“There’s still a real concern that both species, but cats in particular, aren’t getting the regular preventive care that you would like to see them get,” Felsted said.

“The need is certainly out there,” she added. “It’s converting need into demand. There’s definitely room for growth, without a doubt.”

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