LEXINGTON, Ky. – Statistics show that even amid a pandemic, people have continued paying for pet care and ramped up their efforts because of adoptions, observation, and the time of year. As a result, veterinarians are busier than ever, and new techniques have been implemented to accommodate the demand.
What You Need To Know
People more likely to visit vet than family doctor
Revenue for July up 18 percent from 2019
Adoptions and observation key factors for increase
Telemedicine being used more than ever
Veterinary care in the United States is a $19 billion industry annually. Even while Americans are less likely to see their doctor or dentist during the COVID pandemic, pets are getting checkups more often, and non-traditional methods are being used to do so. A story in The New York Times reported while people continue being reluctant to return to the human health system because of lost coverage, or have less income and are worried about paying veterinarian bills, the same is not true for pets.
While visits to the veterinarian tend to be on a specific schedule for pet owners – such as quarterly or even yearly depending on the level of required care – veterinarians have typically experienced an increase when the economy is strong and people have more disposable income. This economic downturn from COVID-19 has proven different, with volume and revenue up at animal hospitals and primary care offices. VetSuccess, which tracks financial data from 2,800 clinics, estimates revenue this past July was up 18 percent from 2019.
Dr. Jennifer Quammen is a small animal private practitioner based in Walton, Ky., and is the immediate past president of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association (KVMA). She said the increase is the result of a “perfect storm” of factors, one of which is people being asked to stay home has created more pet owners through adoptions.
“In general, yes, there’s an uptick and how many requests there are from clients to bring pets in to have their needs seen,” she said. “There’s also a huge push because so many people have adopted dogs, and got new puppies and kittens during COVID as well, so that adds to it.”
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) reports the increase in traffic is not just at general practitioners’ offices. Emergency vet offices also report getting overflow from general practice clinics that are booked for weeks and are dealing with pets’ medical problems that are not necessarily emergencies such as hot spots and other skin issues, flea infestations, and general dentistry.
Another factor for the increase is the pandemic began and continues through what Quammen said is most veterinarians’ busiest time of the year.
“In small-animal medicine, we generally see a higher demand for services between April and September anyway. It just tends to be the higher period where we see business demands,” she said. “So, it sort of all overlapped at either the perfect time or the worst time depending on how you think about that.”
The Times’ story quotes pet insurance provider Trupanion as saying “second-quarter revenue was up 28 percent over last year. It has 14 percent more cat and dog members than it did at the start of the year.”
The story also says Trupanion noticed some trends in the names people are giving their new pets, including Corona, Rona, and Covid.
Also contributing to the increase could be the significant increase in parvo cases among dogs during the pandemic. There is no connection between a new outbreak of the canine parvovirus and COVID-19 except that they are unfolding at the same time, according to the article. The AAHA website reports BluePearl, which operates 90 specialty and emergency pet hospitals in 21 states, recently announced an “alarming” 70-percent increase in the number of canine parvovirus cases presenting in their emergency rooms during the pandemic compared to the same periods in the past five years.
Increased exposure to the outdoors during stay-at-home orders and altered business hours, disrupting the timing of scheduled vaccines for newly adopted puppies and dogs, have likely also contributed to the increase in parvo cases.
With pet care already a need, pet owners being home and observing their pets more is another factor.
“I think people are definitely observing their pets more,” she said. “They’re noticing their arthritic dog or cat can’t get on the couch anymore. Maybe they notice their cat is skinnier than it used to be or their puppy is chewing on things, and they want to learn how to manage that behavior. All those things are in addition to all the regular reasons we typically see animals.”
Just as pet owners have, veterinarians have had to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions. Routine surgeries such as spays and neuters were put on hold early in the pandemic and have only recently been allowed to resume.
“For a time, we were only allowed to do emergency surgeries, so there’s a backlog of those we had to catch up with. My surgery schedule is booked. I’m usually booked two or three weeks out, I’m booked until October for surgery right now,” Quammen said. “When things come up – an injured patient or whatever we have to work in – we either have to shift things around or bump something, which most pet owners are very, very accommodating of. But it creates a little chaos for us and inside our teams as well. Initially, we were all working in pods, with one doctor and two or three technicians in the hospital at the same time as other people. We reduced hours and changed hours, and all those things were happening all at one time.”
Quammen said COVID-19 restrictions have transformed what was once an underutilized form of pet care into the norm: Telemedicine.
“There’s way more telemedicine being used now than there ever used to be,” she said. “Some of that is from necessity – I’ve been using telemedicine with patients for three or four years. Telemedicine went from being an option to the only option. It was all I could do. I think the clients really like it. It’s convenient for you, great for the pet, and I can often assess better because when pets come to the hospital, they’re often a little bit stressed and there’s superficial adrenaline overriding some of the things you probably see at home. Telemedicine is not perfect – I can’t listen to their heart and I can’t feel their belly – but I can train the observers, and I can see a lot.”
Quammen said she anticipates a significant move to virtual care and telemedicine in the veterinary industry as a result of COVID-19.
“You’ll still have to come into the hospital for spays and things. You can’t do surgery virtually,” she said. “But there are so many things I can address, all the behavioral things along with those quality-of-life discussions when somebody’s pet has a terminal disease. We can video chat once a week, or you can talk to one of my nurses. It doesn’t have to be me, and we can make that assessment of when it’s time to make those difficult decisions and talk about how we approach that when it comes.”