The animal health industry is dynamic, constantly shifting due to both internal and external forces. But with all of the headlines, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees and understand what will stick.
Chris Kelly and David Thill, publisher and editor, respectively, of the veterinary industry newsletter The Fountain Report, picked the most notable news and trends from the past year and offer their analysis on how these developments will impact veterinary professionals.
Pet owners continue to spend more on their pets, even under pressure from inflation.
The animal health industry remains healthy and growing,1 driven by the human-animal bond. The COVID-19 pandemic did nothing to slow down the growth. Rather, it increased it as fewer people surrendered their adopted pets. This strengthening of the human-animal bond, coupled with the increasing lifespan of pets, made for a very positive year in 2021. Most pharmaceutical manufacturers had record growth, driven by the U.S. market’s increasing focus on pets, with higher pet owner compliance on both parasiticide and chronic medication recommendations from their veterinarians.
Veterinary practices also had positive numbers,2 as people working from home saw behaviors in their pets they didn’t fully understand, leading to an increase in visits. And even as inflation kicked in during the second half of the year in a more visible manner, that didn’t slow down the growth. Pet owners, especially the largest pet-owning demographic of millennials and members of Generation Z, continued to put their pets first. They spent more to make sure their pets had the medical care they needed, and they bought premium and natural food and snacks,3 mimicking the choices they make for themselves. Given growth and opportunities to operate more efficiently, the industry continues to be a favorite of the investment community.
Schools are planning to open new veterinary colleges, but the industry still faces a major projected shortfall of veterinary professionals in the coming decade.
Driven by increasing demand from pet owners during the pandemic, veterinary practices have been struggling to keep up, and there is clearly a shortage of companion animal veterinarians across the United States. An estimated 2,000 veterinarians retire every year, while we add approximately 2,600 veterinarians who recently graduated and enter the workforce, for a net gain of 600 annually. That in itself is not enough to meet current demand, and the situation is even more urgent as some veterinarians struggling to find a proper work-life balance amid rising demand for their services are simply leaving the profession. The good news is that new veterinary schools are opening4 and established schools are adding spots,5 although we will still fall well short of the predicted demand for veterinary care over the next few years and beyond.6
Amid high demand for pet care and ongoing labor shortages, the industry is looking for new solutions to ease the pressure on veterinary teams.
The pandemic exposed several weaknesses in veterinary practices, even amid the heroic efforts of many individuals across the profession. Staffing issues remained front and center, with many practice employees dealing with children unable to attend school or immunocompromised relatives at home, meaning every day could be a challenge just to get out the door. On top of this, many practices continued curbside care, which presented its own challenges.
One of the answers to these challenges is to operate more efficiently. Many practice owners are beginning to expand the roles of their employees, with veterinary nurses/technicians well-positioned to handle more of the basic clinical care, enabling veterinarians to see more patients. There are ongoing discussions of new educational opportunities for veterinary nurses/technicians,7 as well as the possibility of adding new positions, similar to physician assistants in human medical care. Given the dynamics, many expect the use of telemedicine to increase (though there remain legal issues that need to be dealt with on that end), a greater role for paraprofessionals in the practice and better deployment of technology.
Corporate consolidators and private equity firms continue to grab an even bigger chunk of the industry.
Consolidation is the story that doesn’t go away. The industry has seen massive consolidation among manufacturers and distributors over the past 20 years, and every time we think it can’t go any further, it does. Similar dynamics are at play with veterinary practices. Demographic changes and economic challenges are making practice ownership less desirable,8 leaving current practice owners, who have traditionally sold their practices to their associates, with fewer options.
The good news is that the multiples paid for a well-run practice are at all-time highs, in some cases 20 times the practice’s EBITDA. Investors believe veterinary practices are a great opportunity, with demand for their services growing and the ability to operate the back office more efficiently. Today 25% of all companion animal practices are corporately owned,9 and they represent about half the volume of client visits. Expect more consolidation ahead, with leading retailers and e-commerce players in the mix as well. There are also many entrepreneurial veterinarians who want to run their own business, so the demise of the independent practice is greatly exaggerated.
- American Pet Products Association. National pet industry exceeds $123 billion in sales and sets new benchmark. Published April 19, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2022. americanpetproducts.org/press_releasedetail.asp?id=1254
- Larkin M. Clinics see annual growth in revenue, visits. JAVMA News. Published May 26, 2021. Accessed June 15, 2022. avma.org/javma-news/2021-06-15/clinics-see-annual-growth-revenue-visits
- Reus A. Focus on health, wellness influencing pet food spending. Petfood Industry. Published May 3, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2022. petfoodindustry.com/articles/11257-focus-on-health-wellness-influencing-pet-food-spending
- Burns PK. Rowan University to open N.J.’s first veterinary school. WHYY. Published December 29, 2021. Accessed June 15, 2022. whyy.org/articles/rowan-university-to-open-n-j-s-first-veterinary-school
- Short D. Provincial funding expected to double number of graduates from U of C veterinary program. Calgary Herald. Published May 10, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2022. calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/provincial-funding-expected-to-double-number-of-graduates-from-u-of-c-veterinary-program
- Mars Veterinary Health. Tackling the veterinary professional shortage. Published March 2022. Accessed June 15, 2022. marsveterinary.com/tackling-the-veterinary-professional-shortage
- Cushing M. Midlevel masters. Today’s Veterinary Business. Published April 1, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2022. todaysveterinarybusiness.com/midlevel-masters
- Burns K. Census of veterinarians finds trends with shortages, practice ownership. JAVMA News. Published June 26, 2019. Accessed June 15, 2022. avma.org/javma-news/2019-07-15/census-veterinarians-finds-trends-shortages-practice-ownership
- Kelly R. Pandemic hastens ongoing trend in veterinary consolidation. VIN News. Published December 30, 2021. Accessed June 15, 2022. news.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=210&Id=10652228