Bayer Veterinary Care Usage study analysis: Why clients are skipping your exam room


Pet owners don't know as much as we think they do about taking care of their pets—and their ignorance is jeopardizing your patients' health. Here's what you can do about it.

Veterinarians and team members have been working for years to educate pet owners about the care pets need to stay healthy. And undoubtedly we've made progress. Many pet owners simply don't understand the need for routine care throughout their pets' lives. They're ignoring your recommendation for checkups and wellness visits and think of the veterinary clinic as a place for pets who need shots, not regular care. The bottom line is, pets aren't getting the care they need, and dangerous illnesses are going undetected and untreated.

Results from a recent study show that we still have a long way to go. This finding comes from the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, a research initiative conducted by Bayer Animal Health, the National Commission on Veterinary Economic issues, and Brakke Consulting. Concerned that the number of dog and cat visits to veterinary clinics was decreasing at the same time the pet population was increasing, the study's authors set out to measure what exactly pet owners thought about the need for veterinary services and whether pets were getting adequate care.

The study identified six key reasons that visits have been declining: the U.S. recession, the fragmentation of veterinary services, the Internet, a lack of understanding about the need for care, sticker shock, and feline resistance to transportation to the veterinarian. (For details, see "6 factors that lead to fewer visits to the veterinary practice"). While you can't necessarily do much in your practice about the recession or the fragmentation of services in the market, there are many things you can do to address the other four factors, starting with educating pet owners about the care their pets need.


Like many veterinarians, you likely spend so much time immersed in pet care that you forget not every pet owner knows what you know. This study is clearly a wake-up call. Thirty-six percent of pet owners surveyed said that were it not for vaccinations, they wouldn't take their pet to the veterinarian. And 24 percent said they thought routine checkups were unnecessary. (See "Pet owner attitudes toward routine exams").

This lack of knowledge is alarming. It indicates that many pets aren't getting even the minimum level of care they need. When pet owners don't bring their pets in for regular exams, they miss the chance to have a veterinarian spot something like heartworm disease or kidney failure—invisible conditions that have serious consequences if left untreated. These pet owners also miss the opportunity to learn how to take better care of their pet at home—for example, feeding the best kind of diet and keeping the pet on a parasite prevention program.

Perhaps no surprise, clients with "indoor pets" (and we all know there's no such thing as a pet that never ever goes outdoors) thought their pets needed less care than outdoor pets and were less likely to have visited the veterinarian in the past year. In fact, 15 percent of pet owners said they thought indoor pets didn't need checkups at all. These pet owners don't understand that while an indoor pet is less likely to be hit by a car or involved in a fight, it's just as likely to get cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, or another serious ailment.

More surprising is the fact that pet owners with older animals were also less likely to have seen the veterinarian in the past year. The idea that older pets need less care than younger ones makes no sense, but that's exactly what pet owners seem to believe.

On a positive note, survey participants indicated that education can make a difference in the care they provide their pets. A large percentage of dog and cat owners said they would take their pet to the veterinarian more often if they really believed the pet needed exams more often, if it would help their pet live longer, and if they knew they could prevent problems and expensive treatment later. (See "Reasons clients would visit the veterinarian more often")


It's clear from this study that we need to increase our efforts to educate pet owners about the importance of veterinary care. To do this, the profession must launch a multi-pronged approach.

First, we need something similar to dentists' twice-a-year teeth cleaning message or the USDA's "5 A Day" fruit and vegetable campaign. Pet owners must be as convinced of the need for regular pet care as they are of the need for dental care and nutrition. But we need to be convinced about what that care looks like—and we have to communicate it constantly.

At the practice level, here are some specific actions you can take to help pet owners better understand the importance of veterinary care. As you can see, at the heart of each of these is communication.

Develop standards of care within your practice. Make sure everyone in your practice understands not only what your recommendations are but also why they're important. It only confuses team members and clients if one doctor recommends annual visits and another says to come in twice a year. Decide what your practice promotes as the best care and include this information in your staff training so everyone gets it.

Set up systems to communicate your standards to every client. Assign roles to individual staff members and use checklists, posters, and handouts to illustrate points. For example, your annual exam discussion checklist might include 12 key points ranging from dental care to nutrition to flea and tick prevention. Decide which topics the doctors will cover and which the technicians will address. Have each party check the item off the list once it's been discussed. Also, make sure technicians have all the information they need to give good recommendations and thoroughly answer questions. If these discussions take place near related learning aids, even better. For example, the client will be impacted less strongly if she hears about dental disease in the reception area than in the exam room near your dental models and posters. Of course, you'll want to schedule your appointments with enough time for these discussions to take place. And don't forget that clients ask receptionists about medical matters as well, so make sure your front-desk team is prepared to provide good answers—and know when to bring in a doctor or technician for a broader explanation.

Brush up on communication skills and educational materials. Not everyone is born with good communication skills, but everyone can learn them with a little effort. So provide training for your team. And remember that people process information differently, so give clients materials in different formats: brochures, your website, social media outlets, newsletters, and posters.

Send reminders. You probably use reminders, but consider expanding your system to include more messages. Don't just send vaccine reminders—include annual exams in your messages. Send e-mails and text messages and make phone calls. Use language that conveys the benefits and value of complying with the reminder. Send newsletters and health alerts to give clients important information—e-mail is an especially effective and inexpensive way to do this. No e-mail list? Start one now. Every time a client comes in, have your receptionist confirm his or her e-mail address along with other contact information.

Tell clients why wellness care is so important. This step is just as important as making the recommendation. Talk about the benefits of wellness care—prevention of future problems, a longer life for the pet, a healthier pet now. And don't forget to discuss what you're doing while you're conducting an examination. Many pet owners don't realize you're not just petting the patient. Communicate what you do. For example, say, "I'm taking Fluffy's temperature now; it's normal," or "I'm looking at Fluffy's teeth—they have some plaque on them—let's set up an appointment to clean them next week so her breath will smell good and an infection in her mouth won't lead to other problems."


Anyone who's worked in a practice for long knows that clients inevitably turn to the Internet for information. Study results confirmed this fact—see above. But as you well know, not all information on the Internet is reliable, and clients often can't distinguish the good from the bad. So how can you direct clients to reliable sources? Here are some key tactics:

> Establish your own Internet presence via your website, Facebook, and other places where pet owners go.

> Provide interesting, updated content about the regular care pets need and common accidents and illnesses.

> Provide clients with a list of veterinary websites for high-quality information and link to these sites from your practice website.

Like most veterinary teams, you're likely doing some of these actions already. However, as the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study makes clear, there's an urgent need for the profession to do more when it comes to educating pet owners about the need for veterinary care.

Clients bring in their pets all day long, but some of them won't receive the care they need. Some of them are like Max, a dog with a ticking time bomb: untreated cancer or another debilitating disease. Are you doing what you can to recommend wellness visits, diagnostic exams, and follow-up care? Because it all starts, not with Max, but someone else: Max's owner.

Dr. Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, CVPM, is CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. John Volk is senior consultant at Brakke Consulting. Send questions and comments to

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