Blog: U.S. demographics should put a smile on the face of every veterinarian

Rising population of pet owners poised to inject $5 billion yearly into veterinary market.
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Mar 31, 2014

Last week this blog examined the question of where Americans will find healthy dogs to meet our needs as the human population grows from 310 million people to 420 million people in less than 50 years.

The absence of meaningful dialogue about this topic is predictable, given the volatility of issues surrounding sourcing of dogs; nonetheless, it is alarming given that no one in industry, the veterinary profession or animal welfare organizations knows the answer to this question. Imagine any other consumer sector marching into the future ignorant of how it will meet even basic needs. Imagine Apple or Samsung having no clue where they will develop or produce smartphones.

So why should veterinarians care? It’s simple—and perhaps even motivating. The American Veterinary Medical Association, in its 2012 Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, reports that we have roughly 160 million pets in America. Let’s say sources are right and barely half of these pets seek annual veterinary care. That means 80 million pets (including 35 million dogs) support 55,000 small animal veterinarians in approximately 22,000 practices. At $200 per year in veterinary services, this adds up to $16 billion per year in small animal veterinary services.

Imagine if the status quo persists and another 25 million pets (one-half of 50 million) need veterinary care in the next two to five decades. This adds up to another $5 billion per year in new veterinary demand, and that’s assuming that no more pet owners in the 50 percent group—those who do not seek veterinary care for their pets—change their mind (which they may perhaps do if initiatives like Partners for Healthy Pets are successful).

Any other profession, particularly our human medicine counterpart, would have scores of consulting firms and analysts, not to mention professional schools, examining these scenarios and planning for how to capitalize on them for the benefit of patients and providers. So who is looking at these issues and planning for the future of small animal veterinary medicine?

Which land grant university veterinary college, school of animal science or agricultural institution has even one faculty member devoted to research and teaching in the area of humane production of dogs at a level meeting the projected needs of American society over the next few decades? We all know the answer—and it’s not what we want to hear.

Let’s shift the debate and hand-wringing over too many veterinary schools and expanding class sizes to how this profession should respond to:

(1) the unmet healthcare needs of half of America’s pets, whose owners spend vast sums on other services for their four-legged family members but not on veterinary care, and

(2) how to build value for the next generation of pet owners and the demand for 40 to 60 million additional pets in the United States to be obtained by our rising human population, which is conservatively a $5 billion-per-year new market?

The veterinary profession too often is its own worst enemy, poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Let’s change that. Whether we’re involved in individual practices, veterinary colleges, animal science departments or trade associations in collaboration across the pet healthcare sector, let’s put our considerable talent to work analyzing and planning for what should shape up to be a spectacular future for America’s pets and its healthcare providers.

If we don’t know where to start, simply asking the question may get the ball rolling and we can always look to other sectors or human medicine for more ideas than we could imagine (or ever study). Let’s just make it a priority to start looking down a promising road.

Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.

The Veterinary Policy Notes blog on dvm360.com helps veterinarians and other animal health professionals keep abreast of the growing number of issues, political challenges and regulatory initiatives affecting the veterinary profession, animal health industry and animal welfare movement.