Changing customer attitudes and preventative veterinary medicine
“Pets are truly part of our family,” said Kathy Turner, Corporate Vice-President and General Manager for Idexx Laboratories, describing how attitudes to pet ownership have changed in recent decades. While the data she cited to support her presentation originated in the USA, she explained that similar trends are being seen elsewhere in the western world.
The benefits of pets to mental health and physical wellbeing have been reported by multiple studies and surveys, but she showed some self-reported data indicating that younger generations were placing increasing emphasis on the importance of their pets to their mental wellbeing. For instance, 76 percent of “generation X” individuals questioned thought their pet had a positive impact on their mental health; this rose to 83 percent of “millennials” and 86 percent of “generation Z” individuals.
“This is really important, because millennials and gen Z are going to be nearly 60 percent of all pet owners by 2025,” she said. “If we think about how we have to look at businesses and veterinary practices in just the next five or six years, that’s a really important clientele that we have to make sure we can address, and address properly, and think about how they want to be treated as consumers.”
This younger generation, more than any other, believe that their pets have “special health needs” she added. “Forty-two percent of those surveyed say ‘my pet’s different, my pet’s special, and she or he has very special needs’.” But, encouragingly, 75 percent of the respondents rely on their veterinarian for advice. “This is the digital, social media generation that goes to Dr Google but they still want to hear from a real live veterinarian about what’s best for their pet.”
The younger generation is also willing to spend more money on their pets and is willing to make more financial trade offs to afford pet products and services. Contrary to popular belief, data suggest that pet owners are willing to pay for things that they see value in; for example, pet owners in Europe spend five times more on pet food than owners in the USA. “That’s because across Europe pet food tends to be more organic – people go for more organic and natural ingredients,” she said.
Underlying owners’ willingness to spend money is a desire to understand the health and welfare of their pets. However, while the younger generation still looks to veterinarians for advice, there is emerging evidence that they are seeking out alternatives to traditional practices for more routine or preventative care. This has a great deal to do with convenience – they still want to talk to a vet, but they want to do so on their own terms. She suggested that traditional veterinary practices and facilities need to address this to attract this growing clientele: “Even just opening hours and the way we communicate with the pet owner is a way to bring them in and keep them loyal to the clinic.”
She then described how Idexx is innovating around diagnostics with the aim of making it easier for vets and owners to provide the best care to animals. Idexx believes strongly in investing in innovation research and development, she said, and in 2019, its investment will be close to US $150 million. She described two ways in which this investment is used to bring value to the veterinary clinic.
The first is the development of in-clinic diagnostic products. She mentioned a urine sediment analyser, which uses artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to analyse urine. “What’s fascinating about that and the way we’ve used artificial intelligence is that instrument gets smarter and smarter every time urine is run in it. So the more patients it sees, the smarter it gets,” she said.
She also described how Idexx uses innovation to expand the utility of in-clinic instruments and of Idexx’s reference laboratory. The in-clinic instruments and reference laboratory use proprietary software, which allows data collected from various sources to be integrated. This helps vets provide owners with a wide variety of information. There is evidence to show that clinics that adopt the integrated technology grow faster than those that do not and, in fact, clinics that are not integrated are showing evidence of decline year-on-year.
In the UK, there has been extraordinary growth in innovative specialist chemistry and these new tools help vets provide better care.
The final area she discussed was preventative care or wellness testing. Idexx has collated data from multiple countries to develop a preventative healthcare protocol that includes blood tests – evidence indicates that adding blood tests to a routine wellness visit helps find potential health problems earlier in a pet’s life. Running the protocol on more than 30,000 apparently healthy dogs revealed that one in four senior and adult dogs had three or more clinically significant findings.
This shows the value of running the protocol on healthy pets, and also provides the sort of information owners are seeking. “Pet owners want to understand the health status of their pets,” she said, pointing out that only veterinarians are allowed to take blood samples from pets, and wellness visits are ideal opportunities to do this. However, even in the USA, where there is more diagnostic testing, only 17 percent of clinical visits include blood work. Internationally, the figure is 4 to 8 percent.
“Consumers are putting [smart] collars on their dogs, trying to understand their health status, yet that’s actually more expensive than coming to you and getting a holistic visit. It’s important that we think about that, and think about how we can use blood work and diagnostics and the innovation and technology that’s available to address the changing needs and the rapidly evolving needs of the millennial pet owners,” she said.
Concluding, she commented: “We have a 25-year generational macro trend ahead of us that we can do a lot collectively to address by working together to provide and use the technology that’s available and that’s coming down the road to really take care of our pets and our pet owners.”