Cats are the veterinarian’s future
2/ Cats and veterinary practices: current situation
Let us imagine you are visiting a colleague’s veterinary practice abroad, and she explains her business situation, which is making her confused and frustrated: “Cats are becoming very popular and widespread as companion animals in this country. Official statistics talk about a 60/40 ratio between the number of dogs and cats living in households. Pet food manufacturers declare that 32% of their sales in value are derived from cat products. However, when I look at my patient files and at the economic statistics provided by my software, I realise that my feline patients generate less than 15% of the revenue of my clinic… am I doing something wrong?”
A) A Special case study: Spain
In fact, the figures used in the previous example correspond almost exactly with the situation observed in the Spanish market. Figure 9 summarises some key ratios.
This strong data suggests that cats and veterinarians do not seem to be well acquainted: for whatever reason, a significant percentage of cats do not visit the vets on a regular basis.
However, let us analyse the behaviour of those cat owners who do visit the veterinarian:
• Are there any relevant behavioural differences between those of dog owners?
• Do they visit the practice more or less often? Do they spend less or more? As a result of the above, do we see them as better or worse clients, from a financial perspective?
A quantitative research project conducted by VMS (Veterinary Management Studies) in 329 Spanish veterinary practices, analysing the transactions of canine and feline clients that took place between July 2010 and June 2011 may shed some light on this matter. Some methodological considerations to keep in mind when interpreting the results of this research:
• In order to better analyse the differences between cat and dog owners, the analysis only took into account the transactions of “solely dog owners” and “solely cat owners” (meaning that the information from clients owning both dogs and cats was not included).
• So-called “Product transactions” are 100% based on the purchase of products and mostly influenced by the support staff.
• So-called “Service transactions” are mostly based on clinical services but may include a small percentage (5-10%) of prescription drugs. These transactions are mostly mediated by a veterinarian.
• Economic figures include VAT (currently 8% for veterinary services in Spain) (Figure 10).
According to this data, on average, feline clients spend slightly less in the veterinary practice than their canine counterparts; this difference is due to a 10% lower expenditure on clinical services (€139 per year for feline clients versus €154 per year for canine patients).
A more detailed look at the number and nature of transactions for both species, reveals that the lower expenditure on veterinary services observed in cats is due to a lower number of transactions (fewer consultations). Feline clients generate almost one clinical transaction less per year (2.9 for cats vs. 3.7 for dogs) (Figure 11).However, when we look at the average value of these transactions, we see that on balance feline clients spend more per transaction in each category (Figure 12). In summary:
• A significant percentage of Spanish cat owners do not visit a veterinary practice regularly. This percentage is significantly higher than for dog owners. This results in a low representation of feline patients in the client base of most Spanish veterinary practices.
• Cat owners who visit the veterinarian spend approximately the same on their pets as dog owners. However, their consumption behaviour is different: fewer transactions of higher economic value.
B) Comparison with the US situation
Even in the US, where cats are the most popular pets (according to AVMA statistics, in 2007 there were 82 million cats and 72 million dogs), cats and veterinarians are not fully acquainted. According to the ‘AAHA 2010 state of the industry review’, cats were clearly underrepresented both in the patient count and in the revenue obtained by veterinary clinics in the country (Figure 13).
C) Reasons behind the figures
After a thorough review of all relevant data about cats and their difficult relationship with veterinarians, we now need to address the key issue:
Why do cats visit the veterinarian less often than dogs? Most likely, there is no one simple, generalised answer to this question. Some factors may be related to the owners: their attitudes and beliefs about the need for veterinary care; their previous experiences when visiting the veterinarian… while other factors may be more related to the veterinarian.
1) Common misconceptions amongst cat owners concerning veterinary care
There is a widespread belief that cats need less veterinary attention than dogs. The perception of cats as more independent pets, the fact that many of them live indoors most of the time, the lack of regular vaccination… all of these reinforce the misconception that cats do not need to visit the veterinarian as often as dogs. Moreover, it is often more difficult to detect the early signs of disease in cats than in dogs and as a result cats are taken to the vet later. According to Banfield’s “State of Pet Health” report (2011), close to 70% of juvenile (0-1 year old) dogs were healthy when examined at their practices, while this was the case in only 57% of the kittens.
2) Previous negative experiences when visiting the veterinarian
In a typical scenario of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since cats do not go to the veterinarian very often, and as they represent a smaller percentage of business, veterinarians do not put a lot of effort into making their clinics cat-friendly. This often results in an unpleasant experience for both the cat and its owner, and they tend to go less and less frequently. In fairness, these bad experiences are not always the fault of the veterinarian, since they start before the cat actually arrives in the clinic, when travelling in the car or on public transport. However, from the cat owner’s perspective, regardless of who is to blame for the problem, the conclusion is clear: visiting the veterinarian is not good news. Figure 14 clearly illustrates the problem.
3) Lack of interest on the veterinarian’s side
Historically, for many small animal veterinarians cats are an unwelcome challenge. They are special, different, demanding patients. They require a different approach: different handling, adapted premises or equipment, specific technical knowledge, etc. They also require more patience and more time.
As long as cats represent the smaller proportion of the overall patient base, they are not perceived as a real priority. However, the worldwide trend clearly shows a sharp increase in the proportion of cats within the general pet population and, eventually, within the patient base of veterinary clinics. This is why many vet clinics have already adapted their premises, staff, and protocols to suit the ever-increasing cat population. Nevertheless, much still needs to be done in this respect and in most small animal practices, cat owners do not receive the level of service they would like.
Clearly, in most countries worldwide, it is an obvious priority to design and implement an action plan to improve the level of service offered to cat owners.