AVMA Releases Latest Trends in U.S. Pet Ownership and Health Care

Pet Ownership

Story at-a-glance -

  • The AVMA recently released its U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook (2012). The data for the Sourcebook comes from a survey that is conducted every five years.
  • Some fun statistics from the survey include the top and bottom pet-owning states for 2011, as well as a current U.S. “headcount” of approximately 70 million pet dogs and 74 million cats.
  • Less encouraging statistics provided by the Sourcebook include a significant decrease in vet visits between 2006 and 2011. This trend doesn’t bode well for the health of U.S. pets, and the problem doesn’t seem to be rooted in the economy, since spending on other types of pet products is at an all-time high.
  • In Dr. Becker’s opinion, the focus of preventive health care for pets must shift away from repeated vaccinations and chemical pest preventives, toward keeping pets well through regular organ function monitoring, good nutrition, maintenance of the frame and body systems, and enhancing the health of the immune system.

By Dr. Becker

A few months ago, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released its U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook for 2012. The Sourcebook is a compilation of data gathered from a national survey of over 50,000 households conducted every five years.

The Sourcebook data is collected for use by the veterinary community, but it reveals trends I think many pet owners might find interesting.

The top 10 pet-owning states in 2011 were Vermont with a percentage of pet-owning households of 71 percent, followed by New Mexico with 68 percent, South Dakota with 65 percent, Oregon with 64 percent, Maine and Washington with 63 percent, and Arkansas, West Virginia, Idaho and Wyoming with 62 percent.

The states with the lowest number of pet-owning households were New Jersey, Utah and Nebraska with 51 percent.

Other Interesting Survey Results

  • There are approximately 70 million pet dogs in the U.S. and 74.1 million pet cats.
  • Arkansas is home to the most dog owners at 47.9 percent of households, and Illinois has the fewest at 32.4 percent.
  • Vermont is not only the top pet-owning state – it’s also the state with the most cat owners at 49.5 percent of households. California has fewer cat owners than any other state at 28.3 percent of households.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, the percentage of pet owners who didn’t visit a veterinarian at all rose 8 percent for those with dogs, and 24 percent for cat owners.
  • In 2006, 82.7 percent of dog owners saw a vet at least once during the year. In 2011, that number had declined to 81 percent. For cat owners, in 2006, 68.5 percent visited the vet at least once, but by 2011, that number had dropped to just 55 percent.
  • The average veterinary care expense per household for all pets was $375 in 2011.

What the Survey Reveals About Pet Care in the U.S.

According to Dr. Douglas Aspros, AVMA president:

“Unfortunately, the report reveals that fewer dogs and cats are seeing the veterinarian regularly, and that’s something that the AVMA and every companion animal veterinarian are concerned about. Pet owners across the country need to remember to bring their pets into the veterinarian – at least once a year – to maintain optimal health.”

The trend away from veterinary care – especially in light of increased spending overall on pets (U.S. Spending On Pets Reaches Record $53 Billion In 2012) – is disturbing. I think one reason is because the vast majority of traditional veterinarians practice reactive vs. proactive pet health care, and pet owners are beginning to resent this. In fact, many DVMs define preventive care as administering yearly vaccines and chemical pesticides.

As more and more pet owners learn the dangers of over-vaccinating and applying toxic pest preventives year-in and year-out, they see less reason for routine vet visits. But rarely or never visiting a vet so your pet can receive a physical exam and routine lab work isn’t being a proactive pet owner. I sometimes hear “I’m holistic, so I don’t see a veterinarian until I need to.” This is actually the definition of reactive care, and something I work hard to explain to owners.

I think if more veterinarians and pet owners focused on keeping animals well rather than treating illness, everyone would better see the value in regular veterinary wellness checkups.

Your pet doesn’t become ill overnight. Serious illness progresses in stages, and the goal should always be to identify and address the problem at the earliest possible stage. Long before your pet begins coughing from heart failure there will be subtle heart changes, like a soft heart murmur, that your vet can detect sometimes years before there’s an obvious symptom. Without consistent check ups, the progressive murmur would go undetected.

Why Regular Veterinary Checkups Are So Important

I recommend twice yearly wellness checkups for pets. Proactive DVMs like me are typically obsessive about clinical pathology – tracking blood work changes over time.

A thorough exam and lab tests (blood, urine, thyroid levels, perhaps feces, and tests for diseases or exposures that are common where you live) every six months is the best way to detect a developing health crisis. This is especially true if your pet is older, has a chronic condition, or if you live in an area where vector-borne illnesses like Lyme disease are prevalent.

As an example of how quickly a pet’s health can turn… a senior cat’s kidneys can appear perfectly normal in January test results, and quite abnormal when the same tests are run again in July. If no follow-up is done in July, by the time the pet owner realizes something is wrong, the kitty is often in full-blown renal failure.

A proactive vet and pet owner would be watching those kidney values closely, and at the first sign of an elevation in BUN and creatinine levels, the vet would recommend lifestyle changes to prevent the disease from progressing further, or at least slow its progression.

Most pet owners naturally expect the veterinarian to lead the way in keeping their dog or cat healthy. But depending on how well your vet’s practice philosophy meets your needs, you may have to educate yourself so you can make suggestions to your vet, perhaps recommend certain tests, and ask a lot of questions about results you don’t understand.

If your vet’s approach is to wait for illness to develop and then treat it, you may want to look around for a different practice or become more vocal in advocating for your furry family member.

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