Top veterinary issues to watch in 2012

As practices close out their books for 2011 and look to the coming new year, Trends Today is taking a look at the top veterinary issues in 2011 and predicting what topics will impact practices in 2012. From online pharmacies to preventive healthcare, practices will need to stay vigilant in the coming year.

Here are the top trends we’re predicting for 2012:

1. Expanding online pharmacies and big box retailers:

We’ve already seen how Internet pharmacies are offering pet owners low cost pet medications without having to go to the veterinarian. Now big box retailers are getting into it too, with Target selling veterinary products and Walmart offering generic human-labeled medications for pets.

H.R. 1406, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act, is a Walmart-backed bill that would require veterinarians to write prescriptions that pet owners can take elsewhere to fill. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has already spoken out against the bill, as have numerous other veterinarians who maintain that the proposed legislation is burdensome and unnecessary. The pending legislation has those in the industry wondering whether veterinary pharmacies may be going the way of prescription contacts and lenses.

2. Growth of social media and advertising:

More and more practices are jumping on the social media train and using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to promote their practices and drive business, according to Rhonda Sayle, practice consultant for the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).

"Practices are putting additional efforts into their websites and social networking. Facebook and Twitter are hot items for practices," Sayle said. "I am seeing, as well as recommending, videos for practice websites. Many practices are looking for an opportunity to attract new clients and boosting their website is one way. I have many veterinarians ask what everyone else is doing as far as these topics."

With ever-developing technology, veterinary practices can expect that they will need to increase their digital presence online in the coming year.

3. New revenue services:

Looking to expand their business and drive revenue, practices are looking to new services to boost their growth.

"New services for adding revenue continue to be of great interest among veterinarians," Sayle said. "Therapeutic lasers are a big area of interest – it seems the doctors either feel they are great or some are hanging back noting they feel there is not enough scientific evidence to prove to them the benefits of utilizing one in their practice (or justify the expense of purchasing one)."

4. Prevention, prevention, prevention:

Studies from Banfield and Bayer have revealed an increase in the number of preventable diseases and conditions, correlated with a decrease in veterinary visits. Dental disease, heartworm and diabetes are all on the rise, despite the relative ease of preventing these diseases. The key takeaway? Veterinarians need to emphasize the importance of preventive healthcare and get more animals in through their doors before it is too late.

To combat the growing problem, 19 veterinary associations and related industry partners formed the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare (PPPH) in July. In September, the group released canine and feline preventive healthcare guidelines in an effort to shift focus to wellness and preventive care.

5. Increase in pet ownership:

Americans are expected to own more pets in 2012, according to reports from IBISWorld and the American Pet Products Association (APPA). IBISWorld is predicting a 3 percent increase in the veterinary services market, while the APPA reveals that pet ownership may be at its highest level in nearly two decades with a 2.1 percent increase from 2009-2010.

The question is: Will higher numbers of pet ownership translate into more veterinary visits and increased demand for veterinary services in 2012?

6. Continuing drug shortages:

Just like the human industry, veterinary drugs are in short supply. Merial is importing only limited quantities of the heartworm treatment Immiticide, with little indication as to when the drug will appear back on the market in full.

Margo Karriker, clinical pharmacy specialist at the University of California Davis, told Trends Today that drug shortages may be the new reality for veterinarians.

"Every single day we’re seeing something that we use becoming unavailable," Karriker said. "A lot of it is around the fact that so many of the drugs we use are human-labeled drugs."

Karriker said veterinarians are experiencing the same drug shortages that human doctors are, and that a lot of the shortages are occurring because so many of the drugs veterinarians use are human-labeled drugs that are also in short supply. The trickle-down from the human-labeled products then affects veterinarians who use the same human-labeled drugs in animals. Either way, there is no immediate end in sight for either human or veterinary drug shortages.

7. Lower salaries, fewer job offers:

Veterinary graduates can expect to see lower salaries and limited job offers in the coming year.

According to an AVMA survey, first-year salaries decreased 3.5 percent between 2010 and 2011. The survey also reported that 74.3 percent of students had received at least one job offer or offer of advanced education in 2011, down from 78.9 percent in 2010 and 79.5 percent in 2009.

Student debt also increased 6.5 percent from 2010, rising to an average debt of $142,613 in 2011.

If the trend continues, veterinary students should brace themselves for tough-to-find job opportunities and high student debt.

8. Baby-boomer retirement and practice consolidation:

As baby boomers start to retire, they are considering the easiest and safest way to pass the reins of their practice. According to AAHA practice consultant Beritt Lynch, smaller corporations are starting to buy practices from baby boomer veterinarians.

"I am coming more frequently across veterinarians who are getting ready to retire and looking for an easy way out," Lynch said. "Most of them do not find a private buyer, as large companies like VCA only look at practices with $1 million gross and more. The trend seems to be that smaller corporations are interested in buying into businesses and the owner stays on as a veterinarian, but the corporation does all the financials and human resources."

Mergers and practice consolidation will likely carry the day in 2012 in the face of growing competition.

9. Focus on the feline:

Despite the fact that the number of owned cats far outstrips the number of owned canines in the United States, veterinarians still aren’t seeing cats as often as they should be. Owners cite anxiety over travel and stress at the veterinary office as key reasons for keeping their cats at home.

Organizations such as the PPPH, CATalyst Council, the Cat Health Network and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) are pushing to ensure that feline health is not forgotten by American pet owners. In 2012, CATalyst Council is expected to release the results of their Feline Friendly Practice Makeover, a program designed to increase the feline friendliness of veterinary practices.

10. Increased nutritional awareness: With more and more consumers looking at their pet’s food labels as well as their own, veterinarians can expect to hear more questions about what kind of food is best for a pet. With recent corn, byproduct and raw food diet battles, veterinarians will need to become nutritional experts and understand exactly what words like "organic", "holistic" and "natural" mean.  According to AAHA, 90 percent of pet owners say they want a nutritional recommendation, while only 15 percent of pet owners perceive being given one. What does this mean for veterinarians? It’s up to them to understand nutrition and to be able to effectively communicate its importance as a part of preventive healthcare.