What does the post-pandemic increase in pet ownership really mean for veterinary practices?
We seem to be in the middle of a pet population explosion. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, pet ownership rates have reached record highs. At the same time, a shortage of vets and nurses has hit practices hard, and there's a finite pool of professionals to manage a rapidly growing demand. At the end of the day, this increase in rates of pet ownership is going to have serious implications for the veterinary sector – and it hasn’t really hit us yet.
If you’re struggling now, what’s it going to look like when those pets get a bit older and start developing significant comorbidities?
How fast is pet ownership growing?
In the UK, more than three million households have welcomed a new pet into their family since the start of the pandemic, which means there are now 17 million homes across the country with at least one pet.
Data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shows that almost one in every five households in the United States welcomed a new dog or cat since the pandemic started in 2020. That’s some 23 million American households which have acquired a four-legged friend between March 2020 and May 2021.
The impact of the pandemic on veterinary practices
Veterinary practices up and down the country, and in fact all around the world, have felt the strain, with many seeing consistently high levels of demand that have kept teams busy throughout the pandemic and beyond. There were several factors that compounded the impact of this additional demand, including the need to conduct appointments outside the building to comply with strict social distancing measures. As this represented such a dramatic departure from the way practices typically operated, it took a toll on how efficiently services were delivered to clients.
The veterinary sector was already experiencing a shortage of qualified professionals when the pandemic struck, and this skills gap was amplified as vets, vet nurses, and reception teams were forced to take time off work to care for family members, were furloughed, had to self-isolate or needed to recover from illness themselves. These situations meant that the average number of clients per vet increased yet again to levels that were extremely difficult to keep up with.
The accelerating workforce crisis
There have been concerns about the numbers of vets for some time, but since Covid, we’re facing 3 million extra animals with 25% fewer staff. This wasn’t entirely due to the pandemic, as an epidemic of veterinary burnout has been building for a long time. But it’s now reached crisis levels.
What are the implications for veterinary practices moving forwards?
Shortly after life began to retain a level of normality, there were concerns as to whether such an increase in pet ownership would result in an increased number of pet surrenders to rescue centres and shelters.
In the UK, more than a third of new pet owners described welcoming a new pet as being like having a newborn baby which may explain why 11% of families versus 5% of couples/single pet owners have chosen to surrender their pet. However, as these percentages are very low, it can be said that the vast majority of new pet owners are eager to continue experiencing the wealth of benefits a pet can bring to our everyday lives. This, of course, means that veterinary practices are going to continue to be busier than they were pre-pandemic as both emergency cases and routine appointments have increased.
The lower end of the average lifespan for both dogs and cats is 10 years, so veterinary resources are likely to be stretched for some time to come. Research published by the BVA has found that pets adopted after the pandemic started are more likely to display behavioural issues as everyday life returns to normal, which means that veterinary professionals will continue to play a key role in using evidence-based information and advice to effectively help owners to maintain the health and wellbeing of their pet.
But the shortage of staff isn’t going away: the average practice is “down” 1-2 vets and nurses on what they really need. This means more stress on staff, which means more burnout, and so the cycle continues.
So, what's the answer?
There isn’t a quick fix. We’d love to have one – but unfortunately, this looks like the “new normal”. However, there are things we can do to “work smart, not hard”, to reduce pressure on staff, minimise stress, and still get through that backlog of appointments.
Most veterinary practices will benefit from adopting technological solutions, such as digital patient whiteboards to replace the traditional veterinary treatment sheet or whiteboard; and integrated workflow management tools to optimise both administrative and clinical processes. This will free up valuable time and ensure that pets continue to receive the first-class care they deserve; while making sure that staff aren’t constantly overloaded. Technological solutions can also streamline routine tasks like drug dosages, fluid drip rates and CRI treatment by ensuring all members of staff have easy access to important patient information and the required calculators their preferred device.
Your practice could well benefit from technology-based solutions, so why not find out how Plexi can help by contacting our friendly team to arrange a demo?