Firstly, let us be frank – this topic is not news to any of you reading this article. Vets see pet owners make poor decisions every day, and perhaps this has been true since veterinary medicine was first practiced back in 3000 BC. Fast forward to 2020, this issue continues to cost the profession. In the words of a UK vet:
There are several reasons why this fight has been a tough one. Pet owners are taking the wellbeing and health of their pets into their own hands. But it is not that pet owners have ill intentions. With the basic human necessity to nurture, pets not only give their owners purpose but are treated like family members. In fact, research has shown that over half of pet owners are willing to make cutbacks on themselves to take better care of their pets. Yet, it is clear that veterinarians and pet owners do not always see eye to eye.
The appeal of popular opinion is a tough one to fight, and the constant expansion of the digital world is a culprit. Social media, popular culture and online communities play a role in widening the knowledge gap and spreading fake news. Actually, one study showed that whilst 4 in 10 pet owners believe grain free diets are healthy for their pets, only 1 in 10 veterinarians felt so.
The continued rise in natural, organic and raw pet food also shows us that trends in the human world have transcended into the pet world. Again, the humanisation of pet care is not a new concept, yet its impact on the animal health industry is now stronger than ever. In fact, the same study showed that whilst 1 in 3 pet owners think that raw pet food is healthier than more traditional dry food, only 3% of veterinarians believed so. More shockingly is that a third of pet owners would consider a vegan diet for their pets. Increasingly, pet food choices are influenced by the very same messages that influence the diet pet owner consumes – this poses a huge challenge for veterinarians.
But this struggle is not all down to pet owners. Veterinarians play a significant role in educating owners from the start of their parenthood. Could it be a symptom from the curse of knowledge? Veterinarians study years to qualify as key decision makers, whilst there is no test that qualifies you to be a pet owner. Key to initiating effective conversations on nutrition is relatability. Knowing that they may not see eye to eye poses a real challenge, whilst fear of judgement can make it difficult for pet owners to ask questions that they are embarrassed to admit they do not know the answer of.
Another factor at play is how much veterinarians feel their advice is valued. Last year, a survey by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons showed that veterinarians feel less valued by their clients than they have for some time. And this is an issue from the start – only 7% of pet owners seek advice from their veterinarian before they get a pet. The feeling that advice is not sought after, may be forgotten, or perceived not to be worth the cost must be difficult to swallow. Veterinarians at times experience more stress that other professions, thus what might appear to be insignificant barriers can be intensified in such an environment.
The disparity in agreement between veterinarians and pet owners is clearly a significant factor at play. Whilst there are many, two stand out more than others. Firstly, pet owners see their pets in a unique light. The 2018 PAW Report found that whilst 81% of pet owners thought their pet was at an ideal weight, 46% of the animals veterinarians see on a weekly basis were overweight. And, with three-quarters of pet owners underestimating the cost of owning a pet, expectations on costs are also a central issue.
The solution to this growing problem must navigate one complexity – all pet owners are not equal. The engagement spectrum is wide. Some want to know all the evidence to back a recommendation, whilst others are happy to follow their own approach. Engagement also depends on the pet’s condition. We find that conversations on nutrition nearly always feature in consultations if the pet has an underlying health condition. In a 10-minute consultation, the real challenge is for veterinarians to adapt to individual needs in a very short space of time.
This is a significant problem now, but what about the future? Under 30s are waiting longer to get married and have children than previous generations before them – and pets are filling this void. In fact, a recent survey found that Gen Z’s (aged 16-24) priorities lie in their passion for their pets more than in sex. Millennials have also taken recent events as an opportunity to get a life companion. A recent survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association confirmed the dramatic increase in pet ownership among 24-35s. The survey found that over 1 in 3 Millennials have bought a pet or are in the process of getting one. With an already small proportion of new owners seeking the advice from a veterinary professional, this new trend is likely to widen the gap even further. It’s also not all about cats and dogs – with house prices sky rocketing, young pet owners are now opting for smaller companions to match their small homes.
The solution will not be simple. Veterinarians and manufacturers need to work together to educate pet owners on the potential risks of not seeking or following veterinary advice on nutrition.
Here is our advice on how manufacturers and service providers can do their bit to help overcome owner reluctance to take on nutritional advice.
1. GUIDE OWNERS WITH WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK
Manufacturers and service providers could go further by bypassing veterinarians and going directly to pet owners. Do not only focus your pet owner educational resources on simple tools and materials they can read, but also direct advice towards simple questions they could ask their veterinarian. You can help ignite the confidence needed to seek advice.
2. DELIVER CPD/TRAINING IN A FEW KEY AREAS
Our most recent Covid-19 tracking wave showed us the areas that veterinarians have accessed CPD on, those they found useful and those they want to access more in the future. What the data showed was clear – veterinarians want better training on pet/food nutrition, consultation skills and client management skills.
Manufacturers and service providers can help support these conversations by advising veterinarians on how to handle these conversations, with the constraints of time and limits of occasions to speak directly with pet owners.
3. TAKE THE CONVERSATION POST-CONSULTATION
Earlier this year we asked UK veterinarians how manufacturers could support them better. What we heard back was not surprising, more CPD, lunch and learns, better financial benefits and promotions were at the top of their list. Yet, we found that manufacturers could also be providing better in-practice materials. Promotional materials such as handout or leaflets for pet owners to take away are useful in extending the conversation past the consultation.
Yet, during a global pandemic online educational resources are key. Resources are widely available, but which should pet owners really be listening to? Fake news and invalid evidence on nutrition is widespread. Pet owners need an easy way to navigate the cluttered media world, and you can be their aid.
Remember, the resources available are vast. It is crucial that what you provide not only communicates key information and advice but is also able to stand out. It is a usual case of quality vs quantity.
The conclusion: Make yourself part of the conversation.
Nutrition is a sensitive topic to approach, and it is difficult to understand this complex climate when you are not in the room. Your focus should be to become part of the nutrition conversation by getting closer to the challenges faced by veterinarians and providing indirect support. Veterinarians are more time poor than ever. Your efforts must ensure pet owners can go directly to you for the best clinical nutritional evidence and advice.