Senior pet care

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senior pet care

Senior pet care plans could provide the competitive edge you’re looking for. But to work, they must be relevant, meaningful and make financial sense for your clients and your practice. By Shane Conroy

Here’s a stat that might surprise you: Australian pet owners are spending around $1 billion more on keeping our pets happy and healthy than we were just three years ago. That’s according to the Animal Medicines Australia 2019 Pets in Australia survey. 

The survey also reveals that more than 60 per cent of dog and cat owners refer to their pet as a member of the family, and 37 per cent refer to themselves as their pet’s ‘parent’. 

That bond is one reason why pet owners are willing to spend more on keeping their pets healthy. In 2019, Australians spent $2.6 billion on veterinary services, $1.4 billion on pet healthcare products and $300 million on alternative healthcare treatments. 

Attitudes are also changing when it comes to how pet owners view their vet. More than half see their vet as a source of preventative advice. This has largely driven the trend to subscription-based wellness plans—and the emergence of specialised senior pet care plans.

Embrace proactive care 

Veterinary surgeon Dr Braden Collins has seen a similar shift in attitudes at his Bunbury and Eaton Vet Clinics in Western Australia. He’s been practising for around 20 years and has noticed stronger bonds developing between pet owners and their pets. 

“There is a much greater willingness to ensure their pets are as healthy as possible—and that certainly extends to a greater demand for senior pet care,” he says. This is evident in the success Dr Collins has achieved with his clinics’ subscription-based Healthy Pets Club wellness plans. The response has been so strong that Dr Collins is currently developing a specialised wellness plan for senior pets. 

“As treatment options improve, we can certainly be more proactive in managing the health of senior pets, and a wellness plan helps to formalise that preventative approach,” he says.

Dr Greg Gilbert is seeing a similar shift in pet owner attitudes at his Braidwood Veterinary Surgery. He’s been practising in country NSW for more than three decades, and believes there is also a growing demand for senior pet care in rural areas. 

“When I started practising, pets in the country were largely viewed as tools of the trade,” he says. “That’s not to say country people don’t love and care about their pets, but I think there’s a greater appreciation for natural lifecycles and less emphasis on preventive care. However, that’s slowly shifted over the years, and many of my clients now share similar views about preventative senior pet care as you’d find among city pet owners.”  

Build better relationships

For Dr Collins, wellness plans are proving to be an effective way to retain clients and compete with corporate-owned clinics. 

There is a much greater willingness to ensure their pets are as healthy as possible—and that certainly extends to a greater demand for senior pet care.

Dr Braden Collins, Bunbury and Eaton Vet Clinics

“It’s a natural fit for our Healthy Pet Club members to transition to a senior pet care plan as their pets age,” he says. “Wellness plans also help us compete with corporate-owned practices that are operating on extended opening hours. While some of my clients might visit the corporate-owned practice for emergency after-hours care, they’ll be likely to come back to us for ongoing wellness and preventative care.” 

It’s essentially a way to move away from a transactional model while formalising the relationship building that is at the heart of all successful practices. And while Dr Gilbert believes that subscription-based senior pet care plans are not as relevant in rural areas where his clients face financial pressures such as prolonged drought, he agrees that relationship building is essential for effective senior pet care.

“You need to have developed a relationship with the client and their pet over time,” he says. “Pet owners all have different expectations as their pets age, and you need to understand that to come up with a treatment plan that’s going to deliver the best outcome for each patient. For some people, senior pet care is not as much about extending life as it is about ensuring quality of life.” 

Keep it simple—and meaningful

Dr Collins agrees that senior pet care plans are not necessarily right for every practice.

“You need to look at how adding a senior pet care plan will affect your cost structure,” he says. “For example, if you’re running a practice that’s already covering its fixed costs, then whatever you add on top of that doesn’t need as high a profit margin to be profitable.”

Dr Collins also warns against taking a cookie-cutter approach. 

“You need to consider what you’re going to include in the plan in terms of routine healthcare. For example, are you going to include an annual heart worm injection for a senior pet that may have a chronic condition and may only be around for another six months? You also need to be clear about at what point a certain animal qualifies for a senior pet care plan—a Jack Russell and a Great Dane age quite differently, for example.

“To be successful, I think a senior pet care plan has to be meaningful and make a lot of financial sense for both the client and the practice. My advice is to start off with a general wellness plan that is fairly basic and easy to implement, and then build a senior pet care plan from there.”

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