Veterinary Visits Declining as Pet Health Tanks

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Dog owners are taking their pets to the veterinarian for routine care 21 percent less often than in the past, and cat owners 30 percent less. And serious pet health problems are on the rise.

When people think about getting a pet, they usually focus on the cuddle factor, the idea that they’ll have a companion or protector, a fuzzy friend. Of course, most also recognize that pets require care and money, but it seems that a whole lot of us underestimate just how much care and expense pets actually require. Certainly statistics bear this out. Up to 20 percent of cats and dogs entering homes are given up for adoption within six months.1 “Pet Overpopulation.” American Humane Society. 5 February 2015. http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/adoption-pet-care/issues-information/pet-overpopulation.html And of those, about 2.7 million are euthanized each year. As for the pets that remain in homes, they often get much less care than they need, as shown by the fact that veterinary visits are on the decline and chronic disease among dogs and cats has sharply risen.

The reason for the decline in pet health can at least partially be accounted for by rising pet obesity. As we reported recently, pets are getting fatter alongside their owners, and as a consequence, cases of canine diabetes have risen by 32% since 2006.2 Dale, Steve. “Pet health crisis: Americans skimp on preventative care.” 11 January 2014. USA Today. 5 February 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/11/pets-health-crisis-veterinarians/4301469/ In fact, more than half of the pets in the U.S. are now overweight, with one in five clinically obese, creating ideal pre-conditions for diabetes. But it isn’t just canine diabetes that’s increased. Reports show a 38 percent rise in canine arthritis and a 67 percent rise in feline arthritis in the eight years since 2007. Also, both dogs and cats have been suffering more thyroid and kidney disease than before, and apparently, even have more flea problems.

In spite of the rise in such serious health problems, dog owners are taking their pets to the veterinarian for routine care 21 percent less often than in the past, and cat owners 30 percent less. Veterinarians insist that annual preventative appointments are essential for all pets, in order to spot problems early while they can still be addressed. And yet, a  2012 study found that spending on heartworm preventives by cat owners had dropped by 28 percent in the years between 2007 and 2011, while flea and tick control spending went down by 20 percent.3 “Pet owners shying away from veterinary care, according to two new reports.” 10 March 2012. Veterinary News. 16 February 2015. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/pet-owners-shying-away-veterinary-care-according-two-new-reports Only about half of domestic dogs get heartworm preventative at all. That fact doesn’t necessarily indicate that pet owners love their animals less (case in point: 42 percent of dogs sleep in bed with their owners), but rather, that increasing costs and increasing ignorance about what pets need have created a situation where animals that end up in the vet’s office typically are in severe crisis.4 Burns, Katie. “Vital Statistics.” 16 January 2013. JAVMA News. 6 February 2015. https://www.avma.org/news/javmanews/pages/130201a.aspx

Perhaps the fact that that emergency visits to vet offices in the US have increased even as regular visits have decreased has contributed to veterinary spending actually increasing.5 Scheidegger, Julie. “Visits may be down, but veterinary spending is going up.” 21 May 2014. DVM360 Magazine. 7 February 2015. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/visits-may-be-down-veterinary-spending-going In fact, in the one year from 2013 to 2014, US pet owners increased spending at vet’s offices from 14.37 billion to 15.25 billion. That represents an 11 percent increase since 2012. It certainly costs plenty to visit the veterinarian-more than it did a few years ago. There are numerous factors contributing to the high costs such as: increasing costs to rent office space, the increased cost of paying salaries and health care costs for employees, the high cost of buying sophisticated equipment which often costs just as much as human equipment, and the high cost of student loan payback. The average veterinarian graduates $151,000 in debt from student loans, only slightly less than graduating medical doctors owe.6 “Too Many Indebted Veterinary Graduates Chase Too Few Jobs.” 9 July 2013. Veterinary Practice News. 7 February 2015. http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/July-2013/Too-Many-Indebted-Veterinary-Grads-Chase-Too-Few-Jobs/ But while the average MD specializing in internal medicine starts earning $171,000 upon graduation, the average veterinarian earns only $66,000 or so. While medical doctors can pass off some of the cost of delivering care to insurance companies, pet health insurance still isn’t significant or omnipresent in the US, so the costs get passed on to pet owners. And given that a study just this week found that 64 percent of Americans name money worries as their greatest source of stress, taking care of Rover’s annual checkup might move down the list of priorities in tight cash times.7 Thompson, Dennis. “Money tops American’s list of stressors.” 4 February 2015. KLTV. 8 February 2015. http://www.kltv.com/story/28024883/money-tops-americans-list-of-stressors

There’s also the fact that humans often don’t know when their pets require medical attention. As we reported in the blog cited above, up to 70% of pet owners with overweight or obese dogs or cats didn’t realize that their pet’s weight wasn’t ideal until the vet said so. Ignorance about pet health is even more prevalent among cat owners, as they take their felines to the vet only half as often as dog owners do, and not because they’re healthier. For one thing, many owners fear the scratching and biting that will ensue if they try to pack up Garfield for a veterinary visit, so it just doesn’t happen. In fact, 40 percent of cat owners say the very thought of taking their feline to the vet makes them anxious.

Also, cat owners tend to underestimate their pet’s need for medical attention. Studies show that 80 percent of cat owners think their pet is so self-sufficient that it doesn’t need to get checkups. This is even truer of those owners who keep their cats indoors, because they assume that indoor cats don’t get exposed to disease. Also, a surprisingly large percentage of cats walked unbidden into the lives of the people who eventually took them in. These owners don’t necessarily feel as much responsibility to monitor the health of their acquired pets as do owners who deliberately chose adoption.

The reality is that in terms of cost and time required, taking on care of a pet isn’t that different from deciding to have a child. This is even truer if you want to give the pet what it requires to thrive, rather than simply maintaining it. Some veterinarians say that pets really should get human-grade food instead of pet food (avoiding, of course, the human foods that are toxic to pets), and there’s plenty of evidence to support that contention. These experts say that pets require home-cooked meals just as we do, and if you take it to the next level, that means meals composed of organic, high-quality ingredients. The average family eying puppies in the mall isn’t thinking in such terms.

Pets also need exercise and frequent play sessions, they need to be bathed and cleaned up after, and, like children, they need regular medical checkups. As described above, the cost of doing it right can be daunting, as many owners discover, to their shock, when the pet takes ill and acquires $5000 in veterinary bills in one episode. It’s important to educate pet owners about such realities at the outset, so that pets get not only the cuddles they adore, but also, the nourishment they need on all levels.

References   [ + ]

1. “Pet Overpopulation.” American Humane Society. 5 February 2015. http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/adoption-pet-care/issues-information/pet-overpopulation.html
2. Dale, Steve. “Pet health crisis: Americans skimp on preventative care.” 11 January 2014. USA Today. 5 February 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/11/pets-health-crisis-veterinarians/4301469/
3. “Pet owners shying away from veterinary care, according to two new reports.” 10 March 2012. Veterinary News. 16 February 2015. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/pet-owners-shying-away-veterinary-care-according-two-new-reports
4. Burns, Katie. “Vital Statistics.” 16 January 2013. JAVMA News. 6 February 2015. https://www.avma.org/news/javmanews/pages/130201a.aspx
5. Scheidegger, Julie. “Visits may be down, but veterinary spending is going up.” 21 May 2014. DVM360 Magazine. 7 February 2015. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/visits-may-be-down-veterinary-spending-going
6. “Too Many Indebted Veterinary Graduates Chase Too Few Jobs.” 9 July 2013. Veterinary Practice News. 7 February 2015. http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/July-2013/Too-Many-Indebted-Veterinary-Grads-Chase-Too-Few-Jobs/
7. Thompson, Dennis. “Money tops American’s list of stressors.” 4 February 2015. KLTV. 8 February 2015. http://www.kltv.com/story/28024883/money-tops-americans-list-of-stressors

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