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Ownership up, veterinary visits down


SCHAUMBURG, ILL. - Dog- and cat-owning households visited veterinarians less in 2006 than in 2001, while the number of U.S. households with pets grew to 68.7 million, a 12.4 percent increase.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — Dog- and cat-owning households visited veterinarians less in 2006 than in 2001, while the number of U.S. households with pets grew to 68.7 million, a 12.4 percent increase.

Figure 1

Canine ownership jumped 13.8 percent during that five-year span, yet dog-owning households visited the veterinarian, on average, 2.6 times a year in 2006, down 3.7 percent from 2001. Numbers of feline visits fared worse, falling 5.6 percent, despite 5.3 million more cat-owning households reported in the United States.

The numbers, considered alarming by some in the veterinary profession, come from the American Veterinary Medical Association's "U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook," released at press time. The 159-page report, issued every five years, is derived from a questionnaire mailed to 80,000 randomly selected U.S. households. Nearly 48,000 surveys were completed and tallied. The results prompted the American Association Feline Veterinarians (AAFP) to launch the CATalyst Summit, a meeting scheduled for early February to explore ways to reverse the downward trend.

Figure 2

Veterinarians are alarmed, AAFP member Dr. William Folger says. While the Houston-based feline specialist contends he isn't feeling the crunch, he doesn't dispute AVMA's statistics.

"This report has sent reverberations all throughout our profession," Folger says. "We have the figures; now we want to know what's behind them. It's possible that it's our three-year vaccine protocols. I'm not sure it's not a reflection the economy. We really don't know what's to blame."

Wider wallets

The smaller number of visits per household doesn't mean dog and cat owners are spending less, with the average veterinary expenditure per household totaling $366 in 2006. Total veterinary expenditures for all household pets reached an estimated $24.5 billion in 2006, up $5.5 billion since 2001 and $13.4 billion since 1996.

Roughly two-thirds of pet-owning households owned more than one animal in 2006, and nearly half considered their pets to be family members.

More pets translates to more visits overall, AVMA numbers show, although five of the top 10 pet-owning states (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) are in the Northwest, a region with fewer veterinarians.

Table 1


Still, dog and cat visits represent 61.9 percent and 32.8 percent of all veterinary visits, respectively. Exotics and specialty animals make up just 2.4 percent of all visits, horses come in at 2.2 percent and birds total 0.7 percent.

Considering the breakdown, it's no wonder the decline in dog and cat visits has resonated in a profession composed mostly of small-animal veterinarians.

Table 2

In 2006, 77.7 percent of pet-owning households made at least one trip to the DVM, with 27 percent making four or more visits. That leaves 22.3 percent of pets without veterinary care (see Figure 1, p. 10).

"That's a significant number," AVMA Marketing Director James Flanigan says.

It's an area of concern that needs more evaluation, adds Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA executive vice president.

"The purpose of this study was to find the trends, not in-depth analysis," he says. "These numbers have confirmed a lot of things we've assumed for a long time."

Human-animal bond matters

One such assumption is that an owner's attachment to his or her animal translates to a higher stop-level for care.

That's true, according to the report. In 2006, nearly half of all owners considered their pets to be family members, and 48.2 percent considered their pets to be pets or companions. Those who considered their animals to be family members outspent those who view their dogs and cats as pets or companions by 1.7 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. Those same respondents outspent owners who considered their dogs and cats to be property by 3.4 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

Owners who view their dogs as family members visited the veterinarian three times in 2006, compared to owners who consider their animals to be companions (2.2 visits) and those who label their animals as property (1.1 visits). It's a trend that's mirrored in the cat-owning demographic.

At the same time, a cross-reference of human-animal bond and household income shows owners who earn $20,000 a year or less and label their pets as family members spend more on veterinary care than owners earning $85,000 or more and consider their pets to be property (see Table 1, p. 11).

"That's telling," Flanigan says. "It indicates just how strong the human-animal bond is."

Race factors

That distinction holds true when owners are broken down by race, although black households report animal ownership far less than all other racial and ethnic sectors polled by AVMA.

AVMA numbers show just 26.6 percent of black households owned pets compared to 63.1 percent of white households, 57.5 percent of Spanish/Hispanic households and 4.9 percent of Asian households (see Table 2, p. 11).

It's the first time since AVMA began its demographic study in 1987 that the report has revealed race and ethnicity breakdowns. DeHaven chalks it up to "just another factor of ownership." And when it comes to the human-animal bond, the differences aren't significant, Flanigan says.

White owners viewed their pets as family members at a rate of 53.7 percent compared to 52.9 percent of Spanish/Hispanic owners, 44.8 percent of black owners and 57 percent of Asian owners. By contrast, no more than 1.6 percent of households in any race and ethnicity category considered their pet to be property, except respondents in black households, which came in at 3.8 percent.

"Yes, that number is two to three times larger in terms of percentage groups, but it's still a very small percentage," Flanigan says. "The reality is that a small population views their pets as property; it's more important to focus where people are bonded."

Relationships trump advertising

Considering the strength of that bond, it seems logical that relationships would be key to keeping clients, Flanigan says, and the demographic report's numbers prove it.

More than 80 percent of respondents in dog-owning households cited "regular veterinarian" when asked why they chose the practitioner seen at their most recent visit. By comparison, 77.3 percent of cat-owning households cited "regular veterinarian" in 2006.

Location for dog and cat owners came in second at 36.1 percent and 38.3 percent, respectively. Fees ranked 17.1 percent for dog owners followed by hours (15.4 percent) and recommendation (11.0 percent).

Advertising, it turns out, factors little, even among owners with no regular veterinarian. Yellow Pages listings and outdoor signs command roughly 1 percent. That number jumps to 3 percent among owners with no regular veterinarian, yet Web sites rank less than 1 percent in both categories for dog and cat subsets.

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