Veterinarians, schools emphasize yearly pet checkups

Survey finds more pet owners concerned about cost of care

August 15, 2014 (published)
By Edie Lau

A campaign by a veterinary coalition to highlight the value of preventive health care for pets finds practitioners and veterinary schools giving more attention to the concept of wellness exams.

At the same time, the number of veterinary visits remains flat as more pet owners express worries about the cost of care and describe veterinary visits as stressful.

The findings are laid out in a new white paper, Reversing the Decline in Veterinary Care Utilization: Progress Made, Challenges Remain, from the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), leading members of a coalition called Partners for Healthy Pets.

The partnership — operating under the nonprofit American Veterinary Medical Foundation, the charitable arm of the AVMA — formed in 2011 in response to a decade of declines in visits to veterinarians, a trend made more troubling to the profession by the fact that pet ownership has been on a largely upward trajectory since at least 1995.

The coalition is focusing on the value of annual checkups to maintain pets’ good health and to catch brewing medical problems early, much in the same way the dental profession promotes regular twice-a-year cleanings and exams.

A public service announcement currently airing on television, including during the World Cup recently, makes the case that “a yearly checkup with your friendly vet is as essential as food and love.”

The message is a hit in the veterinary community, judging from a survey commissioned by the coalition and conducted by Jeremy Kees, an associate professor of marketing at Villanova University.

The survey involved 1,117 veterinary practice team members (veterinarians, technicians and office managers); 69 deans and faculty members at veterinary schools; and 28 representatives of Partners for Healthy Pets associate member organizations.

The survey found that among veterinary practice team members, more than 60 percent said their practices have increased the emphasis on preventive health care, including through more communications to pet owners about the value and benefit of preventive care. More than 70 percent said they increasingly underline the importance of the annual checkup instead of just recommending specific elements, such as vaccinations and heartworm prevention, to prevent disease.

In veterinary schools, the shift to promoting wellness checks is even more pronounced. The survey found:

• More than 90 percent of deans and 70 percent of faculty said their clinics are giving more emphasis to providing preventive health care.
• More than 80 percent of deans and 70 percent of faculty reported an increase in changes to curriculum and clinical-service education related to preventive health care.
• More than 80 percent of deans and 70 percent of faculty said their institutions have increased efforts to communicate the value and benefit of preventive health care, versus simply making a recommendation for preventive health-care services.

A separate survey conducted online with 1,100 owners of dogs and cats shows that the new attention on regular checkups isn’t having an effect with pet owners to date.

The survey was conducted by Brakke Consulting, Inc. and builds on an analysis from 2010 during which 2,000 dog and cat owners were polled. The smaller number of respondents in the follow-up study came from the same pool of pet owners as the earlier study and matched that group demographically, according to Brakke consultant John Volk.

Viewing 2014 results against 2010 results, Brakke found the proportion of owners reporting having seen the veterinarian in the previous year essentially was flat:

• The share of dog owners who visited a veterinarian during the preceding 12 months slipped from 86 percent to 84 percent.
• The share of cat owners who visited a veterinarian during the preceding 12 months slid from 66 percent to 64 percent.

The survey also found pet owners comfortable with longer periods between visits. In 2010, dog owners, for example, said they were comfortable waiting an average of 11.4 months between visits. In 2014, the interval had stretched to 16.9 months.

The proportion of pet owners who expressed the view that routine veterinary checkups are unnecessary dropped from 24 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2014, which statistically amounts to “no appreciable change,” as the report puts it.

But significant shifts showed up when the survey plumbed the reasons pet owners may be visiting the veterinarian less frequently:

• 59 percent agreed with the statement that costs of routine visits are higher than expected, up from 53 percent in 2010.
• 32 percent said they probably would switch veterinarians if they found one who was less expensive, up from 26 percent.
• 51 percent said their pet dislikes going to the veterinarian, up from 45 percent.
• 38 percent agreed with the sentiment, “Just thinking about taking my pet to the veterinarian is stressful,” up from 30 percent.
• 48 percent said that the Internet is their first option when a pet is sick or injured, up from 39 percent.

AVMA CEO Dr. W. Ron DeHaven distributed the white paper with survey results at an industry gathering in Portland, Oregon, this week. DeHaven said he is “somewhat disappointed” that the downward trend in visits hasn’t reversed but that he is confident of a turnaround in five to 10 years.

The white paper suggests the same. “The history of fundamental change in health care tends to be incremental rather than abrupt,” it reads. “Smoking cessation in the U.S. was a generational transition, and the appropriate role of physicians in the process was not universally accepted. … The paradigm shift in dentistry from treating tooth decay to prophylaxis and periodontal care did not happen overnight … Evolutionary change will probably occur as well in the wider delivery of high-quality preventive pet health care care …”

Dr. Greg Nutt, co-owner of Riverstone Animal Hospital in Canton, Georgia, had a similar thought after reading the report online. “I think that we all realize that this is going to be a long, never-ending process of client/public education,” he said in a post on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession.

“We as a profession have failed miserably in the past in educating the public on the importance of examinations and regular preventive care,” Nutt continued. “It will not happen soon, and we will need to focus a much greater percentage of our resources to public education. This is a start.”

Joining the message-board discussion, Dr. Shelby Riddle, co-owner of Southampton Pet Hospital in Benicia, California, said that clients’ growing concern about the cost of veterinary care is based on real increases in the cost of service. “Our capability to provide excellent care keeps getting better and better, and that excellent care costs lots of money that most people don’t have lying around,” Riddle said.

Describing one client who obtained a reverse mortgage on her house to pay bills, including for veterinary care, Riddle expressed empathy for pet owners’ position. “It’s very stressful for them,” she said. “… If they come in for a well-pet exam, who knows what we’ll find….”

At the same time, Riddle, Nutt and others observed, clients have multiple competing claims on their discretionary income, including costly monthly services such as mobile phone plans, data subscriptions for tablets and cable television.

“The ones that pay for the (veterinary) care know that it costs as much as a vacation, or as a cable-TV yearly subscription, or as much as the dentist,” Riddle said. “And those of us who are lucky to see those clients on a daily basis get an opportunity to not just educate them, but through them, their friends and family and kids (the next generation). I think it's an in-the-trenches education, one by one …”

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