New pet ownership data can help practices grow

2019-01-07
Matthew Salois, PhD

Mining the trends identified in the AVMAs new Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook.

Dogs are still the nation's most popular pets, numbering about 77 million and growing. (Halfpoint/stock.adobe.com)The AVMA's new Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, just released in November 2018, spotlights shifting patterns of pet ownership and points to unmet healthcare needs among America's pets. These present opportunities for veterinarians to improve patient care, attract new clients and even expand services.

Key findings

Here are some ownership trends that can guide your business strategy:

Pet ownership is on the rise. The average number of pets in pet-owning households has jumped from 1.5 to 2.2 since 2011. While this doesn't necessarily mean more veterinary visits, our study did find an increase in total veterinary expenditures. It might be worthwhile to take an inventory of your multipet clients. If the number is significant and includes pets you aren't seeing enough-or at all-think about ways to structure scheduling, create promotional incentives and deliver service offerings tailored to support clients with multiple pets.

Dogs are still the nation's most popular pets, numbering about 77 million and growing. Nationally, 38 percent of all households owned a dog at year-end 2016-the highest rate since we began tracking in 1982. If your business is seeing a healthy growth in canine patients, consider expanding your inventory of canine products or planning for a possible team expansion if demand continues to rise. If not, you might want to start asking all clients if they have other pets at home that haven't come in for checkups.

Pet poultry ownership is on the rise, up 23 percent in five years. Whether or not you currently offer avian services, the rise in popularity of backyard poultry could pose a growth opportunity for your practice.

Specialty and exotic pets are also more popular. Ownership of these animals has grown more than 25 percent, and more than 13 percent of U.S. households owned at least one at year-end 2016. Start asking your clients if they have fish, reptiles or pocket pets that you don't see, and talk to them about the special healthcare needs of these species. You can reach new clients with exotics by offering an educational seminar to pet-owner groups-and make sure your website and social media reflect these services.

About one in four pet owners don't go to a veterinarian for annual preventive care. The biggest reasons are inability to afford services and believing their pets have not been sick or injured. This suggests a couple of strategies to bring in more pets: communicating the value and benefits of preventive care, and experimenting with different business models-such as monthly payment plans-to capture owners who are having difficulty affording services.

More than one-third of cat owners see the veterinarian only when their cat is sick, compared to 12 percent of dog owners. But fewer cat-owning households cite money as a reason. Greater awareness of wellness care for cats is very much needed. Ask current clients if they have cats at home, and talk with them about preventive care if they do. Also use your social media feeds to talk about the importance of wellness care for cats.

DIY presents new opportunities

Another important trend identified in the new report is the popularity of “do-it-yourself” care by pet owners. Some of the most common pet ailments are handled by owners at home, without consulting a veterinarian. These include:

> Hairballs (treated at home by more than 70 percent of owners)

> Canine ear infections (one-fifth of owners)

> Canine heartworm prevention and treatment (nearly half of owners)

> Flea and tick prevention (67 percent of owners).

There's no simple solution to get all owners to consult you every time they notice a possible health problem. But the frequency of do-it-yourself treatment suggests an opportunity to proactively talk with clients about these conditions and urge them to contact you when they occur. If your hospital uses telemedicine, a virtual consult might offer a convenient way for existing clients to contact you before treating pets on their own. If not, check out the resources at avma.org/practicemanagement/telehealth.

Tackling obesity for patient well-being

Veterinarians know that many of America's pets are overweight or obese, and the new data confirms this. Asked to identify their pets' weight range based on images representing different body conditions, about 36 percent of cat owners and 34 percent of dog owners chose images that indicated their pets were either overweight or obese.

But very few owners are addressing these weight issues-only 5 percent of all dog-owning households and 6 percent of cat-owning households. Whether owners don't understand the importance of weight management or don't realize their pet's size and shape indicate a weight issue, there's plenty of opportunity for improvement. Proactively educate clients about weight risks, provide diet and exercise advice, and even offer formal weight loss programs with regular check-ins. Moving more clients to work with you on weight and nutrition can be good for both patients and your practice.

Tools to help you

AVMA members can download a free executive summary of the Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook at avma.org/PetDemo. Use it to better understand ownership patterns and think about ways to expand your business and improve patient care. Additional resources from the AVMA include the Telehealth Resource Center, the Obesity Toolkit, Backyard Poultry 101, the Partnership for Healthy Pets' forward booking tools and client brochures. Visit avma.org to find these and more.

Dr. Matthew Salois is chief economist and Veterinary Economics Division director at the AVMA. He has worked in private industry, government and academia. He earned his PhD in food and resource economics from the University of Florida.