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Innovations to watch in veterinary medicine

Wearable medical devices, biomarker and genetic testing, 3D printing and virtual care are among the advancements impacting the veterinary industry.

Innovations to watch in veterinary medicine
Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/Shutterstock.com

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet, according to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA, americanpetproducts.org). With the increasing number of pet owners, the demand for quality veterinary services is also experiencing strong growth. Keeping up to date on the latest trends, breakthrough innovations and extraordinary advances that are transforming veterinary medicine can help you not only provide the best care for your patients but can also improve your practice’s bottom line. Here are the trends to watch in 2021 and beyond.

The Impact of Big Data

Big data analytics are used to understand health risks and minimize the impact of adverse animal health issues.

“Artificial intelligence and other digital tools won’t replace a veterinarian,” says Aaron Massecar, assistant director of Colorado State University’s Translational Medicine Institute (tmi.colostate.edu), “but they will replace a practitioner who doesn’t use them.”

In “The Not-Too-Distant Future,” a June 2019 article published in Today’s Veterinary Business, Massecar noted, “We are awash in unstructured data. Everything from text, images, multimedia, and sensors and devices provide data in new, interesting ways, but the data has little structure. There is no meaning. These isolated moments pass through our virtual space, only to disappear into the digital ether.”

Today, information and data are being organized into actionable recommendations. In the clinic, for example, veterinarians can use electronic health record systems to monitor not only individual patients but also to uncover epidemiological trends within the data.

The Explosion of Wearable Medical Devices

The use of wearable medical devices — GPS trackers, radio-frequency identification sensors, motion sensors, accelerometer sensors, Bluetooth, cameras, antennas and transmitters — shows no sign of slowing down as both pet owners and veterinarians embrace the technology they offer. These devices are not new, but due to their role in gathering significant amounts of data, they are having a profound impact on veterinary medicine.

Initially, these devices were basic GPS or single-activity trackers. “If you look at some of the early companies on the market, they were trying to solve a really basic problem — lost dogs,” says Massecar.

But then these devices evolved to include activity tracking capabilities. Eventually, some companies began developing “smart” collars that incorporated sensors to continuously monitor dogs or cats for vital health and behavior attributes — body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, pH levels and activity levels.

“The activity trackers moved away from this really basic, not well-defined tool in terms of diagnostics into the big data area,” says Massecar. “And once it jumped into the big data area, they could run their analytics on it and look at thousands of users simultaneously.”

The Future of Biomarker Tools

Another area where big data is making its impact felt is in the development of predictive biomarker tools that make it possible for clinicians to intervene earlier to manage disease in dogs and cats.

These tools differ from diagnostic biomarkers, says Massecar. “[With diagnostic biomarkers], you can, at an earlier stage in the life cycle of the disease or pathology, identify things that are going to happen in the future and that’s the most important benefit,” says Massecar. “In six months, there’s going to be ‘x’ problem, and we have the biomarkers that have given us an indication of this, so let’s start doing something about it, let’s start treating it, let’s start engaging in preventive care so that the acute onset is not going to be as traumatic.”

Predictive biomarkers can be used to intervene even earlier because they show the probability of disease onset. One example was RenalTech (antechdiagnostics.com), developed by Waltham Petcare Science Institute, a Mars Petcare company located in the U.K. Researchers evaluated 20 years of data from 150,000 cats treated at Banfield Pet Hospital locations and looked at 35 possible parameters, such as age, sex, breed, signalment and various lab values. In the end, the researchers identified six laboratory parameters that appeared to be the most important for identifying cats at high risk of chronic kidney disease (CKD) development.

“Traditionally, the cat is diagnosed when the owner notices their cat isn’t doing well and takes it to the veterinarian,” says Kay O’Donnell, vice president of Waltham Petcare Science Institute (waltham.com). “By the time [CKD] has become noticeable, the cat is in trouble. Between 40% and 70% of kidney function can be lost. The advantage to RenalTech is that you can pick it up much earlier.

“We are on the edge of something quite remarkable that will increase the quality of life for the pets that we serve,” she says.

The key is having the data and being able to connect and integrate that data. “What can we understand about early disease identification? My prediction is that we will see more tools developed that will assess the risk of disease development,” says O’Donnell. “We will be able to intervene earlier and have the chance to change the outcome for our patients.”

Can DNA Tests Help Animals?

DNA tests are yet another game-changing category that has seen explosive growth recently. Along with revealing breed type, these tests reveal genetic predisposition to certain diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease, dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in cats.

“There is much more information available for clients to learn about their pet beyond just learning the breed makeup,” says Travis Arndt, director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America (amcma.org). “And though most early versions tested for one condition only, newer genetic tests allow for multiple genetic conditions to be tested at one time, with a single blood draw.”

A number of tests can be run by the lab, including full genetic attribute profiles that test for multiple medical conditions and traits and individual genetic tests for when there is a concern about a specific, single medical issue.

Armed with the knowledge that a dog or cat may be more likely to have certain conditions or diseases, the veterinarian can create a customized health plan. “Conditions such as lens luxation, degenerative myelopathy and metabolic diseases would benefit from early diagnosis and intervention,” says Arndt. “And people seem to be willing to pay for that.”

Is Virtual Care the Wave of the Future?

In the NAVC’s 2019 Voice of the Veterinary Community Survey, pet owners were asked: “If your veterinarian offered telemedicine, would that increase the number of visits to the vet?” Of the 501 pet owners who responded, just over half — 56% — said yes, but only 37% of the 608 veterinary professional respondents said telemedicine was something they’d offer.

Veterinarians may be missing an opportunity by not offering clients the convenience of telemedicine through digital applications.

“In 1900, if you asked people what they wanted for transportation, they would just say ‘a faster horse,’” says Massecar. “They had no idea that the automobile was right around the corner. And so people don’t necessarily see the capabilities before they start using [something like telemedicine]. What people are actually doing, by the thousands if not hundreds of thousands, are asking really basic questions — derm conditions, behavior, vomiting, urination. They might be able to go to petmd.com for those answers, but they’d much rather interact with a human.”

Telemedicine and telehealth tools can help alleviate some of these client issues, such as scheduling problems and pet anxiety.

“The two main barriers people have for accessing health care are cost and convenience,” says Massecar. “And anything that can help reduce those barriers is going to provide access for more animals.”

Massecar says offering telehealth tools impacts the clinic’s bottom line, too. “People are getting the answers to really basic questions, but when they do need to bring their pet to a veterinarian, they’re way more likely to go in because someone has just told them they need to come in,” he says. “And they spend about 25% more than the average client.”

3D Printing Shows Promise

Advances in three-dimensional (3D) printing to make orthotics and prosthetics aid in surgical reconstruction and create practice models offer exciting possibilities for the veterinary profession. It’s a time-consuming, meticulous process, but once a file is created, infinite copies can be printed.

“It is really incredible the different functions it can serve — everything from anatomic teaching, model and simulations and even clinical case preparation,” says Mike Karlin, DVM, MS, DACVS-Large Animal, DACVS-Small Animal, assistant professor and veterinary orthopedic surgeon, at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University (vet.tufts.edu).

The Future Looks Bright

Exciting advances and developments in veterinary medicine and animal health offer promising solutions that emphasize a customized, patient-centered approach — and opportunities for growth for practitioners.

The Value of Fear Free

You reap benefits when patients are treated with a little TLC

While the intangible benefits of a Fear Free veterinary practice (fearfreepets.com) are often inherently clear — calmer patients and less stressed-out team members — the rewards don’t stop there, say the proponents of this movement that has swept the profession in the last 10 years. Some of the advantages are more subtle.

For example, veterinary practices receive a 20% discount on their workers’ compensation insurance with one major provider if they have three or more certified individuals on staff, says Marty Becker, DVM, who founded the Fear Free movement and practices in northern Idaho. The reason? Fewer injuries happen in these clinics.

Also, pet owners are more likely to finish vaccination series, bring their pets in for progress exams, and bring their cats to the clinic for any type of care if a practice is Fear Free, according to a recent report titled “The Positive Impact of Fear Free Certification in Veterinary Practices.”

“Consider all the times a pet is brought to the vet and the pet freaks out so much that the client just wants to get out and go home,” says Louise Dunn, the report’s author and CEO of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting (snowgoosevet.com) in Pfafftown, North Carolina.

Now consider the calm pet and the calm client, Dunn continues. This client is able to focus on what is being said and engage in dialogue with the veterinary team. This client is more likely to approve recommendations — be it a toenail trim or lab work.

 A common objection Dr. Becker hears is that Fear Free takes too much time and costs too much money. He counters that, based on his organization’s research, it takes just 29 seconds longer to do an exam using Fear Free methodology. “Plus the exam time is better because there’s no rugby scrum, no rodeo, no judo throw,” he says. “And the cost is 50 cents to $1 per exam, based on the quality of treats you use.”

It all comes down to prioritizing an animal’s emotional well-being as highly as its physical health. “When you focus on emotional well-being by doing Fear Free, a lot of dogs end up dragging their owners into the hospital, and cats are at least neutral,” Dr. Becker says. “Can you imagine that pet parent when they talk about having to drag their dog out of the vet because it wanted to stay? You’re meeting their needs on an emotional level — on a deep soul level.”