Outlook 2012: Animal lovers drive growth in pet care professions

John Hornfeck would always greet his kids when he got home from his work at Sunnyside Veterinary Hos

John Hornfeck would always greet his kids when he got home from his work at Sunnyside Veterinary Hospital. To his disappointment, they didn’t always respond.

“But every day, my dog was always there greeting me at the door,” he said. “And if I didn’t say anything to the kids, they’d just sit there watching television. But my dog was always there.”

The 35-year Scotia veterinarian said it’s this bond between pet and owner that has contributed to the rise over the years in pet care vocations, including specialized daycare and boarding, pampered grooming and more wellness and preventive care.

It’s a trend doctors in the veterinary field have seen become more acceptable, and for good reason, they say. It also goes hand in hand with the expected growth in preventive care and specialized services the pet care industry may see in 2012.

Veterinary practices themselves won’t necessarily grow at the rate they used to prior to the recession, though, said Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital Practice Manager Dave Schaperjahn.

Priority on pets

“In the past, you might see 10 to 12 percent growth in a year, but now if you grow 1 to 3 percent that’s considered good,” he said. “The biggest change in the field in the last 25 years, though, is that people are willing to seek the best veterinary care that they can for their pets because they view them as a family member. They’re accustomed to getting top-quality care for themselves, and they expect that for their pets as well.”

The human-animal bond has always been there, said Schaperjahn. But for some reason, there was something wrong with acknowledging it in the past.

Dogs would be kept outside; cats would be used to catch mice. Some still are, he said, but it’s becoming more and more OK now to acknowledge the bond between owner and pet.

“So they’re willing to say to other people, ‘My pet is important to me, and I will do whatever I need to do to take care of it.’ ”

Americans spent approximately $47.7 billion on pet products and services in 2010, an increase of 4.8 percent from the previous year, according to the American Pet Product Association.

And since 1988, pet ownership has grown from 56 percent of households to 62 percent. On top of that, 46 percent of households own more than one pet.

The importance of the human-animal bond manifests itself in increasing attention paid to a pet’s overall health as well as care once considered minor like oral health. Schaperjahn said more owners are investing in dental care, taking care of gingivitis or even scheduling annual “wellness exams,” much like a person schedules an annual doctor checkup.

Some people even come in to Hornfeck’s practice and ask for grooming services like toenail clippings. He has to turn them away, though, since Sunnyside only offers hospital services.

“They always do that,” he laughs. “But the most recent thing we’re seeing are these different, local facilities offering daycare where you can just drop your dog or cat off and pick them up when you go home from work. Some places offer protective play sessions, where you can monitor your animal throughout the day over the Internet.”

rising costs

When it comes to everyday veterinary services, the field is seeing increasing costs in medicine, equipment and services, similar to the human medical field, said local veterinarians.

Hornfeck said the price of steroids has almost quadrupled over the past two or three years. And since the field is becoming more sophisticated, it’s also become more litigious, he said, causing vets to frequently recommend clients to specialty clinics if an operation or testing for a rare disorder is even the slightest bit questionable.

Although most animal medicine is just human medicine, Dr. Kim Chew of East Greenbush Animal Hospital said animal-specific medicine can be just as costly.

“Flea and tick products are crazy expensive,” said Chew, who said drug companies often tie their hands.

“[Pet care] is pretty cost-prohibitive. We certainly see people come in who are very, very low-income and very high-income. And it’s amazing to me that some of the low-income people are able to come up with the money to treat their pets.”

It’s amazing but also not that surprising, she said. People’s perceptions of their pets have changed so that they are now viewed as another member of the family.

Market Research Company WSL found that 81 percent of people surveyed this year said they spent the same amount or more on their pets despite the bleak economy.


And with that comes the kind of trends you would see in better-cared-for humans, said Schaperjahn. At his Burnt Hills practice, he has seen an increase in geriatric care, as people begin to recognize that elderly pets need different kinds of care. Consequently, pets are living longer.

“You’ll see more people accepting the idea that you know, maybe you don’t need to go to the vet every year for vaccinations but for a simple wellness checkup,” he said. “More interest is paid toward this kind of care because you’re able to find things earlier and can treat earlier. Your pet has a better and longer life.”

And humans just might, too. Numerous studies have found that the constant companionship that comes with a pet helps reduce stress and lower blood pressure for the owner.

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