From the VetPartners Mid-Year Meeting: 5 Facts Veterinary Professionals Should Know About COVID-19’s Impact on Pet Care

illustration of pet, pet owner, and veterinarian
Sep 22, 2021 at 4:22 pm

August 25 to 27, VetPartners was delighted to host the first in-person Mid-Year Meeting since COVID-19 struck the world. Congregating in Kansas City, 65 of the industry’s movers and shakers banded together to network and learn. A highlight of the meeting was a presentation by Kerry O’Hara, PhD, president of APG | O’Hara Research and Analytics. 

Sponsored by the United Veterinary Services Association (UVSA), the research included surveys of pet owners and veterinarians to learn the impact COVID-19 has had on the animal health industry, and how it will affect pet care through shifting pet owner behaviors and expectations. 

Of the 2,000 participants in the UVSA survey, 39% of the pet owners were 26 to 40 years old, and 34% were 41 to 55 years old. They were predominately white (87%), full-time employees (66%), who were married (71%). Pet ownership was distributed equally among the genders, with women eking out a leading ownership percentage of 51% to 49%. Pet ownership was tied between dog-only households and those with dogs and cats (41%), with the majority of the dog-only households (33%) consisting of a single dog.

O’Hara explored the following areas:

  • Pet owner attitude and behavior shifts caused by COVID-19 safety protocols, and an understanding of how the animal health industry will pivot post-COVID
  • Pet owners’ relationships with veterinarians, the veterinarian response, and what the relationship will look like post-COVID
  • Reasons behind behavior and attitude shifts toward veterinarians
  • How millennials are evolving the animal health industry
  • COVID’s impact on pet owner behavior and future expectations

Here is a condensed version of the presentation, with five facts every veterinary professional needs to know about how COVID-19 will change the future of pet care.

#1: COVID has strengthened the human-animal bond

Since the pandemic struck, 55% of pet owners claim the bond with their pets has grown. Boomers claim to have the strongest bond (83%), while millennials have seen the greatest increase (61%). The human-animal bond increase was significantly higher during COVID for those who worked from home, with 61% of survey participants agreeing that their relationship with their pet improved while working from home during the pandemic.

Overall, 77% of pet owners claim to have a strong bond with their pets. On average, those who have a strong bond with their pets take them to the veterinarian twice as often as those with a weaker bond. Since COVID, the frequency of veterinary visits among owners with a strong bond has remained much more stable than those with a weaker bond.

woman with dog outside

#2: COVID has shifted in-home behaviors and pet services

As the human-animal bond has strengthened, so has the level of play and interaction, but walks and park outings have decreased because of safety concerns and restrictions. The main reason for increased play and activity has been because of the increase in free time (46%), and people plan on continuing this trend post-COVID.

In addition to increased activity, at-home grooming and the purchase of grooming products has increased during the pandemic. However, this has led to a decrease in pet services, caused largely by safety concerns and business restrictions. Post-COVID, pet owners hope to continue performing their own pet hygiene care at home, meaning a potential long-term decrease in pet care services. More pet owners will continue to bathe and groom their pet at home, and perform dental care tasks, rather than leaving those duties to the professionals.

#3: COVID strained the bond between veterinarians and pet owners

Pet owners became stressed from struggling through daily life in the midst of a pandemic, along with decreased income and available resources and services. Veterinarians became overworked and grappled with new curbside workflows, and this lack of face-to-face communication only served to further the divide between pet owner and veterinary professional.

Safety concerns and service restrictions have led to a decrease in routine visits, especially as pet owners began performing more pet care tasks at home. However, those owners who are still visiting their veterinarian are using more services than before.

Fortunately, the trust pet owners place in veterinarians remains high, and people are willing to pay for expert advice and care. Just over half of all pet owners claim they would pay anything for their pet’s health and find pet health care expenses manageable. And, just over half of pet owners claim that they are willing to pay more for expert veterinary advice.

However, while trust for veterinarians has increased during COVID, there has been a shift in attitude toward veterinary care. Pet owners want to be more self-reliant, checking what services are necessary, and critically looking at prices.

In general, millennials are more demanding of convenience, cost savings, and efficiency in service delivery than other generations. Pet owners want:

  • The convenience of online ordering and home delivery of prescriptions and specialty food
  • The time efficiency and flexible scheduling of curbside drop-offs
  • The cost and time savings of telemedicine that can provide over-the-phone reassurance over in-person care
  • The improved health for pets garnered by regular, proactive exams completed through wellness programs

In the face of epic change, veterinarians still look to their core strengths—surgical services, staffing, and diagnostics—to serve patients and owners.  

#4: The attitudes and behaviors of millennials need to be understood

Overall, millennials do more with their pets than any other generation. They play, walk, socialize, groom, and purchase more supplies for their pets. They are also more likely to use ancillary services, such as pet sitters, boarding, daycare, and obedience training, more often. However, their overall rate of veterinary visits is down, with most of their veterinary care focused on illness and acute care needs.

Millennials are the largest pet-owning generation, so veterinarians need to understand their desires and preferences. To cater to this generation, veterinarians and their teams must provide digital services, such as telemedicine, teletriage, online appointment scheduling, and app-powered prescription refill and vaccination history requests. Millennials use digital services more than any other generation, a trend that has increased since COVID, and they view telephone consultations and online bookings as more important than curbside services.

#5: Many “pandemic pets” are in danger of being relinquished

During the pandemic, 38% of pet owners purchased or adopted a new pet to help keep them active and stave off loneliness. Many people welcomed their first pet home during the pandemic, the majority of which were high-earning, male millennials living in urban areas.

These first-time pet owners are particularly concerned about separation anxiety developing in their new pets post-COVID, yet they will likely refuse to seek support. Additionally, 8% of first-time pet owners are seriously considering relinquishing their pet after the pandemic, with another 19% somewhat considering relinquishment.

As the veterinary industry tries to find its way forward in the wake of the pandemic, veterinarians and their teams must adapt to what pet owners have become accustomed to during COVID, rather than falling back into old protocols. COVID changed how pet owners view their furry companions, and how they want to administer and receive care for their pets. By staying at the forefront of these far-reaching, COVID-induced implications, veterinary practices can ensure they remain valuable to all client generations, and provide care in a manner that meshes with client needs.

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