There’s more to the “pandemic puppy” narrative. Here’s what you need to know.
Stories of skyrocketing pet adoptions during COVID-19 have become a staple both in the news and on our social media feeds. Our practices, too, are busier than ever. For many of us, it certainly feels like we’re dealing with the puppy (and kitty) boom that we’ve been hearing about. But is this really the case?
When we look at transactional data from the primary source of pet adoptions, animal shelters, the pandemic adoption “boom” may not be as great as media coverage suggests. In fact, the total number of pets adopted from shelters in 2020 was the lowest number in 5 years, according to data from the nation’s 4000 plus shelters.
A glance at the data
According to shelter data from Best Friends Animal Society and 24PetWatch, approximately 20% fewer pets were adopted in 2020 than in 2019.1,2 (See table.)
The reason for this decrease is that a smaller pool of animals was available. Shelters saw 32% fewer dog intakes and 23% fewer cat intakes. Fewer people relinquished their pets, and animal control was less active in picking up strays. At the same time, successful spay/neuter programs helped keep populations down. Additionally, the share of shelter animals moved into foster care more than doubled—from 22% in April 2019 to more than 46% in April 2020.
It also took longer to adopt a pet during the pandemic. Shifting first to virtual adoption appointments and later to a limited schedule of physical visits meant shelters could handle fewer potential adopters. The result: Nearly 450,000 fewer animals were adopted in 2020 compared with 2019. The adoption rate—or percentage of available animals adopted—was up, but the actual number was down significantly.
Although shelters aren’t the only source of new pet adoptions, they’re the primary source.3 Data on pet acquisition from nonshelter sources are difficult to obtain and, in some cases, nonexistent. Still, the data that are available indicate there may not have been as dramatic a surge in pets adopted from shelters during the pandemic as some thought.
Getting the facts straight
When looking at reports explaining the pandemic surge in pet adoptions, the sources are mainly surveys and anecdotes—both of which rely on personal accounts. Transactional data hints at a different story. Although some shelters may have observed individual adoption numbers increase and veterinary practices did see an uptick in visits from new pet owners in 2020, on a national level, there doesn’t appear to have been a dramatic increase in pet adoptions.
An underlying issue is the different types of data available. Surveys—though an extremely useful tool to collect data and understand trends—aren’t exhaustive. They can be used as one puzzle piece when trying to understand the big picture of pet owners and our veterinary teams’ experiences. But taken alone, they rarely tell the whole story because they rely on individuals to answer without error or bias. Other informational sources—including hard data based on actual transactions—help provide a clearer and more complete picture.
Business versus busyness
Even though there may not have been a boom in pet adoptions, our teams are feeling overwhelmed and overworked. The truth is, veterinary practices are busier than ever. Nationally, the average number of appointments booked with veterinary practices increased 4.5% from 2019 to 2020, according to data from VetSuccess. Appointments increased 6.5% for the 6-month period from January to June 2021 versus the same period in 2020.3
These numbers demonstrate healthy and encouraging growth, but they aren’t the only reason for the feelings of busyness we’re experiencing. Although more business does create more busyness, other factors related to the pandemic and the economy appear to be contributing significantly to our current reality.
One major factor is decreased productivity. According to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association Census of Veterinarians and Veterinary Practice Owners, veterinarians saw fewer patients per hour in 2020 than in 2019 and average productivity declined by almost 25%.4
COVID-19 created myriad challenges for practices, and many clinics are still wrestling with the resulting changes. At the start of the pandemic, we saw a significant backlog in wellness visits because practices were prioritizing urgent cases. At the same time, clients were spending more time at home with their pets, allowing them to quickly spot potential health issues and ponder about veterinary care in general. Some clients also had more disposable income available for pet care—from stimulus payments and reduced spending in other areas.
Meanwhile, practices were implementing new safety protocols. These helped ensure the continued provision of quality patient care but also limited team efficiency and productivity.
When we look at this productivity decrease, along with the increase in appointments, we can better understand the source of our teams’ current busyness. Many practices are still playing catch up with patients who haven’t been seen in more than a year, and our teams still aren’t working at peak productivity because of the lingering effects of COVID-19. Increased workload and lower efficiency create backlogs and intensify the stress and busyness many are experiencing.
Growth in 2021: Temporary or permanent?
Although there have been more veterinary visits in the year 2021 to date versus last year, we don’t yet know if the increases are permanent. Temporary, cyclical economic factors may still be influencing demand. The backlog created by the pandemic, for example, will take time to work through.
Postpandemic economic recovery isn’t going to be a smooth process. Markets and consumer reactions are expected to remain volatile for at least the next several months. This means we can’t expect business conditions today to remain next year or even later this year.
Hiring more people might seem like a quick fix but doing so could be shortsighted. Because we don’t know if demand will remain at current levels, it makes sense to focus first on other solutions; improving team productivity, employee engagement, and employee retention are far more effective approaches.
Use the free Veterinary Industry Tracker (https://www.avma.org/IndustryTracker) to stay up-to-date on real market conditions. It aggregates revenue and activity data from thousands of veterinary practices daily.
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There’s a cautionary lesson here as we plan for the future and consider how to grow our businesses: Business strategy should be based on data, not stories alone. Whenever possible, leverage data from multiple sources that reflect what people actually do and what your practice is experiencing.
Reports of increased pet adoption numbers, coupled with the stress we might be feeling right now, could lead us to make reactive business decisions that aren’t in our best interest. We don’t yet know if there’s a long-term increase in veterinary demand. What we do know is that productivity has suffered during COVID-19. Let’s look for ways to enhance productivity and optimize the resources we have on hand.
Here’s an example: Before hiring new staff, let’s first make sure we’re using our existing team members, especially veterinary technicians, to full capacity. This means familiarizing ourselves with the duties veterinary technicians are legally allowed to perform in our state and identifying opportunities to use more of their skills. When we make full use of our technicians’ abilities, we free up veterinarians for more of the work that uses their advanced veterinary medical education—and the whole practice operates more efficiently.
Matthew Salois, PhD, is director of the AVMA Economics Division.
Gail Golab,DVM, PhD, MANZCVS, DACAW is the assistant director of communications for the AVMA.