Eagle Post: Tom Donnelly reports from the US

In my last Eagle Post of August, I reported how veterinarians appear to have been run off their feet with increased demand for veterinary services during the pandemic. American corporate earnings updates support this trend. VetSuccess, a Toronto, Canada based veterinary metrics company, uses their Veterinary Industry Tracker to show daily revenue and invoices, plus how each day compares to the same day last year on a regional basis. With data from over 2,800 practices, the company estimates average revenue during August 2020 was up around 19 per cent compared with August 2019.

A recent National Endowment for Financial Education survey showed that 79 per cent of Americans are “extremely/very concerned” about their financial situation at the moment.  While concern about money remains high during this health crisis, 74 per cent of Americans say they have tried to adjust their finances due to the COVID-19 outbreak. So, a big question is why business is picking up solidly for many practices when so many families are under financial stress and apparently less able to afford veterinary care.  One explanation is that practices are clearing the backlog of work now that lockdowns have eased in various states, and restrictions are reversed on elective surgeries. There have also been many reports that adoptions of dogs and cats increased during the lockdown. However, Pets at Home, one of the world’s biggest publicly traded veterinary companies, with 450 practices in the United Kingdom, explains the upbeat trend as a “structural change” in work and leisure activities due to the pandemic.

Pets at Home’s head of media and corporate affairs, Gillian Hammond claims the COVID-19 lockdown has underscored pets’ position at the center of the family or as much-loved companions. The adoption of work-at-home practices and changes in leisure activities as lockdown-restrictions are relaxed, have allowed more owners to recognise their pets as a source of comfort and, for some, as their only source of companionship. Hammond said that internal research within the company suggests that nearly nine out of ten UK pet owners would reduce other family expenditures before lowering their pet spending.

Employment statistics support the idea that owners forced to stay home are giving their pets more attention during the pandemic. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in August, 24.3 per cent of employed Americans teleworked because of the coronavirus; in July, the figure was 26.4 per cent. Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found that 42 per cent of the US labor force worked full-time from home in May.  Before the pandemic struck, only 7 per cent of workers in private-industry had entree to flexible-workplace benefits. The BLS 2019 National Compensation Survey found flexible-workplace benefits were even lower at 4 per cent for state and local government employees.

In discussions with colleagues, it seems that people working from home have more time to visit a veterinarian. They consider that clients who isolated in the early days of the pandemic and postponed elective surgeries and wellness exams are now arranging for these procedures. In addition, as more people are working from home, they notice things about their pets they may not have before. One colleague gave an example of a woman who brought her cat in because it was drinking large amounts of water. The cat had chronic renal insufficiency. The client admitted that with two other cats and a dog, she would have never noticed the polydipsia if she was not at home because she only relied on how often she refilled the water bowl. As she was at home, she spotted this cat would drink much more than the others.

While business is thriving, the pandemic has shrunk the number of patients veterinarians can see in one day because of the time-consuming cleaning and social distancing protocols. Furthermore,  veterinary practices have been short-staffed due to recent layoffs, employees burning out and quitting, or colleagues were contracting the disease. Veterinarians are now discovering new ways of doing business. On the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), several veterinarians posted on a dedicated COVID-19 message board that they have charged some clients the consultation fee before their appointments.

In Pennsylvania, one veterinarian reported asking new clients to pay $50 upfront for booking an appointment. Some clients hesitated at the idea and refused, but the gap they left was filled quickly by others glad to pay while making an appointment. Another hospital in California was booked months in advance and started to limit new clients to one per day, and began charging a $100 deposit on elective surgeries. The fees are refundable if clients cancel at least 48 hours before their appointment. New clients who choose not to pre-pay may arrive without an appointment and hope a slot emerges.

Other ways of controlling no-shows include estimating how often they occur and double-booking. However, some practitioners say they do not want the risk of being overextended when a good client shows up on time.

The end of the pandemic will not necessarily end the trend of more frequent veterinary visits. Businesses are recognising that remote work has long-term benefits, such as saving on rental and office expenses. In May, the results of a survey led by the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, Stanford University and the University of Chicago found the expected share of working days at home is ready to increase after the pandemic — growing from 5.5 per cent to 16.6 per cent of all working days. Businesses also anticipated that 10 per cent of their full-time workforce would be working from home five days a week.

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