My Pet World: Veterinarians review the state of their industry

DENVER — The Conference of the American Animal Hospital Assn., held March 15 to 18, was attended by more than 1,200 veterinary professionals.

AAHA Executive Director Dr. Michael Cavanaugh kicked off the event with the State of the Industry 2011 review. While Cavanaugh's message wasn't all sunshine and lollipops, he was noticeably more optimistic than last year.

For example, visits to the veterinarian ended their long drought. For the first time in years, dog visits to a vet office increased (just under 2% compared to 2010), while cat visits went up a whisker.

"We're nowhere near where pets should be to get the preventive care they need," Cavanaugh said. "Still, this is a sign we may finally be turning a trend around."

Several talks at the conference focused on the overall decline in veterinary visits, which predates the floundering economy. As a result, many preventable conditions and illnesses are on the rise, affecting quality of life and perhaps the life span of pets.

Cavanaugh and Dr. Ron DeHaven, executive vice president and chief executive of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. (AVMA), shared the stage to speak about the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare, a combined effort of organized veterinary medicine, industry and nonprofits to better understand why pets aren't being taken to veterinarians as they should be, and to do something about it.

It turns out that veterinarians and technicians are not always delivering the messages they think they are to pet owners. The reverse is also true: Clients' perceptions of what they've been told by veterinary staff aren't always in sync with what veterinarians think they've conveyed. To help solve the problems, the Partnership has created a survey for veterinary offices to give to staff and pet owners.

As an example of the communication gap, veterinary professionals often believe they're discussing heartworm disease with pet owners — yet most dog owners (64%) leave the veterinary clinic without heartworm medication. Dr. Mark Russak, newly elected AAHA president, called this number a "tragedy."

Cavanaugh added, "If I were king for the day, every dog and cat would have protection. In dogs, heartworm is easy to protect, and not easy to treat. In cats, there is no treatment. Year-round protection should be the standard of care."

To that end, Merial (pet pharmaceutical company) — which offers several products, including Heartgard Plus, to prevent heartworm disease — has initiated a campaign called 12-12-12. The goal is to increase the number of dogs on heartworm medication by 12 percent for all 12 months of 2012.

AAHA stands behind the campaign, and former AAHA President Dr. Michael Paul was among those speaking at a press conference.

"I think with public awareness of how important this is for our pets we can achieve the goal of less heartworm disease," he said.

At another press conference, representatives of the Pet Food Alliance answered questions relating to the fifth anniversary of the most widespread pet food recall ever.

"It was devastating," recalled Dr. Kate Knutson, of the Pet Nutrition Alliance.

An immediate goal of the Alliance is to encourage veterinarians to talk about diet with clients, even at routine exams, and to set guidelines. Dr. Greg Takashima spoke about his representing the U.S. on the WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Assn.) Nutritional Assessment Guidelines Task Force.

Knutson noted that a longer term goal of the Alliance is the help consumers understand more about the mysteries of pet food (what labels mean, contents, etc.).

For the first time, the opening remarks at the meeting, as well as several scientific sessions, were streamed in real time on the Internet. The hope is to stream more sessions next year, and for the first time a conference of pet bloggers, called Blog Paws, will be integrated into the meeting.

AAHA accredited practices stand for the excellent in veterinary medicine. The best of the best are the AAHA award winners.

The Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Center, Richmond, Va., was named 2011 AAHA Referral Practice of the Year.

AAHA Accredited 2011 Practice of the Year top honors went to the Wellington Veterinary Clinic, Wellington, CO, followed by Swedesboro Animal Hospital, Woolwich Township, N.J., and then Cat's Corner Veterinary Hospital, Southbury, Conn.

STEVE DALE welcomes questions/comments from readers. Send email to

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