The veterinary profession is facing some serious identity and financial issues. In a relatively short time, the KPMG Mega
Study grew into the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. The market projections have gone from an anticipated
surplus of veterinary services to a shortage of veterinary providers and now to an underutilization of veterinary services
by pet owners. It just goes to show that they don't make crystal balls like they used to.
In recent years, there has been a significant decline in veterinary visits in spite of an increase in the pet population.
Client numbers per veterinarian have declined by nearly 20 percent, and patient visits per veterinarian have dropped 15 percent.
The recent Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study identified six factors at play. Of those, three are actionable. Everyone wants
to point at the recession as the culprit, but we can't do anything about it . We need to face the fact that the recession
is with us, until it isn't. Other external factors include competition from industry fragmentation and the fact that information
via the Internet is at everyone's fingertips.
Factors we can influence every day in our own practices include the fact that cats and cat owners don't particularly enjoy
veterinary visits. Surprise! Additionally, the cost of veterinary care has, in some cases, outstripped the perceived value
of that care.
There appears to be no doubt that feline patients are underserved, and cat owners are not adequately using veterinary services.
I find it interesting that this has become the most addressed of the factors identified. Why? Because it's one we can solve.
It might mean some modest remodeling here, some new décor there, a better understanding of how cats respond to stress and
anxiety and—voila! You have a cat-friendly practice.
Unfortunately, many cat owners think they can get along just fine without veterinary care. Typically, an owner's perception
of cat care greatly differs from that of dog care. Grooming, dog park interactions, boarding facilities and training classes—these
give dog owners a different perspective on what it takes to keep a pet healthy. Compare that to the perception of cat care:
My point is not to discourage becoming more sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of cats and cat owners. To the contrary, I think
this is one of the most immediately gratifying steps we can take. However, this will be a slow change and somewhat limited
in impact by the other two issues: the cost of veterinary care and the lack of perceived value.
Veterinary care is expensive. There are no two ways about it. I have often observed that, were it not for employee discounts
and freebies, most veterinary staff couldn't afford proper care for their own pets. A reasonable estimate for veterinary care
and food can easily exceed an average of $1,200 to $1,500 a year per dog. Cats are somewhat less costly to maintain simply
because they eat less. But when you factor in annual physical examinations, required vaccinations, dental care and the occasional
abscess, you're talking about a respectable amount of money, especially in multi-pet households. And these projections don't
include major illnesses or injuries.
One solution is pet health insurance. Coverage has improved greatly over the years, and a number of established companies
now offer coverage. Premiums are a value at $20 to $30 a month. For the more than 20 percent of consumers (over 50 million)
who don't have healthcare insurance themselves, pet health insurance may be unsustainable for those families. But there are
other strategies as well.
The fastest and probably least palatable way to boost client visits is to lower fees. Cost-based competition is a reality
and is becoming increasingly of concern.
Consider the fact that many, if not all, veterinary services and products are available from low-cost providers. Some of these
prices are so low we can't compete. Humane societies, shelters, mobile vaccine clinics, Internet pharmacies and big-box stores—all
are competing to provide many of the same services and products as veterinary hospitals.