U.S. Pet Population Health in Decline; Reduction in Vet Visits Blamed

Life With Dogs is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.

(ARA) When Michele Sebesto, of Staten Island, N.Y., adopted JC 10 years ago, she said the chihuahua was an invaluable source of comfort.
As a New Yorker, she’d just gone through the 9/11 attacks, and the two developed a special bond. Unfortunately, JC had some minor but persistent health problems.

About twice a year, JC would get a urinary tract infection. During an annual preventive care appointment when JC was about 4, Sebesto’s veterinarian took an X-ray and made a startling discovery.

“When she showed me the X-ray, I couldn’t believe it. The kidney stone was the size of a grape, which is pretty big for a chihuahua,” Sebesto says. “My veterinarian did surgery to remove it, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fast JC bounced back.”

After the surgery, JC was put on a special diet, and the dog, now 10, sees the veterinarian for regular checkups and has been healthy and free of urinary tract infections since the surgery.

Unfortunately, Sebesto is part of a shrinking population in the United States. Recent studies show that while the number of pets in America is increasing, fewer pet owners are bringing their pets in for regular checkups, and this could be causing a rise in preventable diseases.

“Despite the ever-increasing emotional bond we have with our pets, research shows pets are getting less preventive health care,” says Dr. Rene A. Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “At the same time, illnesses that are totally preventable, such as dental infections, ear infections, diabetes, intestinal worms and heartworms, are increasing.”

Troubling trends
AVMA research shows that veterinary visits for cats and dogs have been on the decline for at least a decade. The average number of annual veterinary visits dropped between 2001 and 2006 from two visits a year for dogs to 1.5 and from one visit per year for cats to 0.7 visits, according to the AVMA’s 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that, while veterinary care appointments have been declining, incidents of pet diseases have increased. In particular, totally preventable diseases are on the increase. The Banfield Pet Hospital’s State of Pet Health 2011 Report found that since 2006 flea infestations were up in dogs by 16 percent and 12 percent in cats, diabetes increased 32 percent in dogs and 16 percent in cats, and hookworm infections in dogs were up 30 percent and 3.5 percent in cats.

An ounce of prevention
The vast majority of pet owners care deeply about their pet’s health, says Carlson. In fact 59 percent of dog owners and 53 percent of cat owners say they would, in fact, take their pets to the veterinarian more often if they thought it would help their pet live longer, according to the Veterinary Care Usage Study.

“This study shows us that pet owners really do care about their pet’s health and well-being, but they may not correlate the importance of regular checkups with maintaining health,” Carlson says. “Pet owners shouldn’t wait until a pet is sick to take it to the veterinarian, because pets, particularly cats, will often hide the symptoms of illness when they are sick. So your pet may be sick or in a great deal of pain and it would be very difficult for you to know.”

Pets – excluding tortoises and some exotic birds – have much shorter lifespans than humans, and, as a result, diseases can develop more quickly. An annual checkup for dogs and cats is like a person going to see their doctor once every seven years. What’s more, pets with existing health problems, like obesity, are at an even greater risk of developing a chronic condition.

“It is estimated that 40 percent of dogs and cats are obese. That’s 54 million dogs and cats. Obesity can result in life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis,” Dr. Carlson says. With so much information now available on the Internet, it is estimated that about 40 percent of pet owners turn to the Internet before their veterinarian for pet health care information. But are they getting the right information from credible sources?

“While some websites may provide valuable background information on diseases, many do not. And relying on what may be misinformation may delay the inevitable visit to the veterinarian. By the time the owner finally gives up on what might likely be incorrect information from an untrained source or advice from other pet owners in a chat room, the pet may be twice as sick or the cure may be many times more difficult or costly. Your pet’s veterinarian is the best source for advice on how you can keep your pets healthy, happy and with your family for a lifetime,” Carlson says.

Sebesto agrees.

“I think that when you own an animal, you have to make a commitment to provide them with veterinary care,” Sebesto says. “I take my dog into the veterinarian every year.”

For more information, visit www.avma.org/ounceofprevention.

10 thoughts on “U.S. Pet Population Health in Decline; Reduction in Vet Visits Blamed”

  1. Oh Good GRIEF. Pet owner “may not correlate” checkups with maintaining pet health? For GAWD’s Sake. The 500 pound gorilla in the room is EXTORTIONATE VETERINARY CHARGES. It isn’t “failure” to understand the correlation between checkups and health maintenance. That goes for people and other household or companion farm animals (not food livestock but horses, potbellied pigs, pet rabbits, etc). but OF COURSE the self-serving AVMA who sponsored the study (American Veterinary Medical Association) would never ever in a blue moon admit to the fact that veterinary fees have outstripped even human medical fees on both a percentage and a dollar-for-dollar basis in the last decade. AND what have we had in the last decade??? We have had two relatively minor rececessions which of course aren’t “minor” if YOU are the one fighting to hang onto your poorly paid job, and one MAJOR recession which most people (those who aren’t in deliberate denial such as the broadcast media which keeps tryingto gloss it over or the guvmint which keeps messing with the true unemployment statistics) are rightfully calling the SECOND GREAT DEPRESSION.

    If you look at the overwhelming numbers of studies like this both in the equestrian world and in the household pet world what you will see are two things: One, that the vet profession still thinks we all of us have a LOT of money and we’re just sitting on it out of either ignorance (insulting) or spite (victim blaming), and two, therefore ONLY rich people should be allowed to have pets.

    Wake up people. LOOK and LISTEN to what is being manipulatively said out there in funded/published study land, LOOK AND LISTEN to what the mainstream media and the government would have you believe, LOOK AND LISTEN to this and compare it, thinking CRITICALLY, to your own experience, and before it is too late “stop drinking the Kool-Aid”!!!! When a vet refuses to vaccinate your dog without first demanding a “wellness check” costing $400+, when a vet refuses to treat your sick dog because you have not “established” a quarterly “wellness exam” at the sam cost, when greedy vets push over-vaccination or buying pet food that is demonstrated BAD for your animal because these things are virtual cash cows for your vet, when a vet confides in you that at the professional annual meetings MORE time is devoted to seminars in separating customers from their money than in delivering cutting-edge updates in pet health – PEOPLE!!! It is time to speak UP!!! While not every veterinarian is guilty of this a HUGE percentage of them are and when a lot of pet parents get the loud, clear message that MONEY is more important to most veterinarians than the welfare of the animal, well, veterinarians, YOU are going to be losing business.

    It’s not that people are too stupid or too cheap to get checkups for their animal or delay treatment.

    It is that there is NO MONEY to pay extortionate overcharging. READ MY LIPS. When there is NO MONEY there is NO MONEY.

    • Thank you, thank you Miss Jan for presenting the obvious!

      Nowhere in this article does the author mention that the cost of veterinary care may actually be one of the reasons preventing many people from taking their pets to the vet. The only mention of cost in the entire article is in relation to a scolding in which the author suggests that higher veterinary costs are the result when people delay taking their pets in for regular check ups. Hello?!? There are a lot of people out of work struggling to pay for daily necessities who dearly love their pets so I am quite sure that they would do anything they could for their animals if they had the funds to do it and the costs were more affordable.

      I know when I take my dogs in for annual check ups I rarely walk out without spending at least $500 (per dog), and that is for a healthy check up and not an emergency visit. When I have other things occur throughout the year, such as an ear infection or a severely broken toe nail etc, those visits are often in the same cost range. I love my dogs and I am committed to doing everything I possibly can to make sure that they get the care they need without letting cost dictate that care but, for some people that can be a very difficult thing to avoid when, for example, they are facing routine lab fees and dental cleanings that can easily exceed $1,000. Recently I took one of my boys to our regular vet because I was concerned he was having coordination problems when walking. On her advice we will be taking him to see a neurologist (specialist) who charges $230 just to walk in the door! That is an expense that doesn’t even begin to treat my dog’s problem! We’ll probably have x-rays and more blood work just to get to the diagnosis, all while my boy waits to get some help for his problem.

      I know and understand that both human and dog health care costs are climbing. I also know that vets have expensive equipment to pay for just like human doctors. But to suggest that the increase in canine illness is directly related to owners who are apparently too dimwitted to know that preventative care can help defray the costs by detecting early signs of disease and not including any mention of the cost of veterinary care is simply irresponsible and insulting!

  2. I’ve worked for vets for the past 4 years and have of course known vets for much longer with my own pets and while I’m sure there are some out there who demonstrate the greed that they are accused of, I’ve never met one. The fact is, they spent lots of time (and money) on school and deserve to be paid for their expertise. AND prices of drugs, vaccines, etc continue to rise, therefore veterinary costs rise. The horse vet I worked for hadn’t changed his vaccine prices in 2 years, although his cost had gone up. He owned his practice and was the only vet and was scraping by in order to help his clients, many of whom still wouldn’t perform proper preventative care and would argue about prices when he had to treat their sick horse. Now, MOST of his clients were understanding and cooperative, but there were a few like the person who wrote the previous comment and seemed to think that the vets were just rolling in dough. I’ve also worked in small animal practices where the vets are expecting to perform free services on pets belonging to people who I can only describe as “entitled”. And frankly, when the vet is driving a 10 yr old car, and having peanut butter sandwiches everyday for lunch while her demanding clients are pulling up in mercedes and their uproots are being carried in coach carriers, I find it difficult to side with people who complain about a vet bill for an illness that could’ve been prevented. I know most people are not in this situation and cant afford expensive vet visits, but frankly, it’s true, if you can’t afford to feed, vaccinate and spay/neuter your pet, that puppy probably shouldn’t go home with you. There are plenty of animals available for adoption who have already been vetted with grant money, donations, etc. And still, flea/tick, heartworm prevention, and “yearly” vaccines are all part of pet ownership. If you aren’t ready for a kid, use birth control. If you’re not ready for a vet bill, don’t get an animal, it’s called being responsible.

    • Thank you. Very eloquently put. Owning a pet is a privilege. And if you can’t afford to take care of it, like you would your own child (to a certain extent), then do NOT care for a pet.

  3. Fifty years ago I bet most dogs only went to the vet once in their lifetime, if that and got fed table scrapes and most lived to a ripe old age problem free. Then we were told by vets – feed tin food or dry processed food – it,s better for your dog and while your here picking up the food , get them vaccinated and come back every year and give us your money. If we feed our animals and ourselves a more healthy diet that is suited to the species and excercised more we shouldn,t need vets and doctors. except for desexing and other invasive proceedures.

    • I am amazed at all the callous, yet predictable condescending remarks posted here of “if you can’t afford to get regular vet care for your pet you shouldn’t have one.”

      Just something to think about…. in the 1970s American shelters euthanized between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs every year at a time when there were 67 million pets in U.S. homes. Yet, through the caring commitment of organizations such as The No Kill Nation and rescue groups those numbers are now down to 3 – 4 million animals, while there are more than 135 million cats and dogs in American homes. Although I don’t have the exact data, I would be willing to bet that of those 135 million pet owners most are probably not the wealthy upper middleclass who have an unlimited budget for veterinary care yet they love and care for their pets in the same way. To suggest that all those people march right down to their nearest shelter and relinquish their pet just because they may not have the required funds set aside for veterinary care that you suggest, is coldhearted. It would also prevent further adoptions taking place in the current effort to bring that 3 – 4 million down to zero. That attitude would essentially reverse all the amazing progress that the No Kill Nation has achieved and take us back to the days of 12 – 20 million animals euthanized annually and just because they don’t have some elusive budget for veterinary care? C’mon…..

      Why not think in a more progressive way and instead suggest that more veterinary clinics work jointly with their local labs to find ways to reduce the cost wellness plans and donate free or reduced services like health check ups and routine blood work one day a month or maybe twice a year to low income clients. I would much rather see those pets stay in their current homes where they are loved rather than add to the homeless pet population. How about donating some service to help keep those pets in their local communities healthy rather than increasing shelter pets being euthanized.

    • Sorry, “Great comment! and so true!” was meant for Anonymous and his/her post on the health of pets fifty years ago…..I agree.


Leave a Comment