During the American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, in July, several sessions and press conferences focused on one significant issue: an overall 17% decrease in veterinary visits for US pets over the past two years. This sobering figure comes from the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, a collaboration among Bayer Healthcare, Brakke Consulting and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. It was conducted in two phases.
Surveying 2,000 US dog and cat owners, the first phase identified six root causes for the decline in vet visits, including the economic impact of the recession (no surprise there), plus cost of veterinary care, fragmentation of veterinary services, a perception that regular veterinary checkups are unnecessary and cats’ resistance to being caged, transported and handled.
A final cause should sound familiar to many petfood manufacturers: use of the Internet vs. office visits—39% of respondents said they look online if their pet gets sick or injured, before consulting a veterinarian. For our industry, it would be use of the Internet vs. reliable, science-based sources of information on petfood and pet nutrition.
In the second phase, 401 US veterinarians were surveyed, showing a gap between pet owners and veterinarians in terms of providing long-term health care for pets. The study did develop some recommendations for veterinarians to combat the downward trends and negative owner perceptions (see www.bayer-ah.com/news.cfm). But nowhere was there a discussion of nutrition or petfood.
This is no surprise: There seems to be a huge disconnect between veterinary care and nutrition. Most US veterinarians would admit their formal education on companion animal nutrition consisted of one basic course that, in some cases, had to be taught by a professor from another program because no veterinary faculty had the knowledge or expertise to teach it.
Any information on nutrition received after veterinary school usually comes via a handful of petfood manufacturers that sell through the veterinary channel. Of course, their products and information are all fine, but let’s face it: That information is by its very nature prone to be limited and biased.
Among the dozens and dozens of continuing education sessions offered at this year’s AVMA conference, I could count the number of nutrition-related sessions on one hand. Among the 25-30 veterinary groups and associations meeting as part of the conference or contributing to the educational program, two devoted specifically to nutrition—the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition and the American College of Veterinary Nutrition—were noticeably absent. (It was encouraging to see a new group, the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians, as part of the program.)
Yet a recent study by researchers looking into the petfood buying preferences of owners of overweight dogs showed that over 83% of owners, no matter what their dogs’ weight, consider their veterinarians the most important source of information on dog nutrition (see www.petfoodindustry.com/7709.html). Talk about a disconnect!
You have to wonder: If vets had more solid knowledge and expertise about nutrition and petfoods to share, would that inspire owners to bring in their pets more often? Would a call or visit to the veterinary clinic be their first course of action rather than turning immediately to the Internet?
More importantly for our industry, imagine how much your companies and brands would benefit from better informed and educated vets and a much stronger connection between them and you.