Usually resilient veterinarians hit by recession too

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Although the usually resilient veterinary industry has felt the latest slowdown, there was some improvement in February and early March figures were positive, according to Tom McFerson of Gatto McFerson, an accounting agency that tracks 150 veterinarian practices in California.

In December and March, small animal practices in Northern California saw revenues drop more than 5 percent, when adjusted for price increases. By February, however, that number improved. Revenues dropped less than a half percent from the prior year when adjusted for price increases.

Jason Miller, a veterinarian and owner of Soquel Creek Animal Hospital, says the economy has affected business but clientele is slowly building since he bought the facility two years ago. Soquel Creek has taken over the nonprofit work that Adobe Animal Hospital, which closed in February, was doing for Project Purr. He provides discounted services as well to the Santa Cruz SPCA and law enforcement dogs. The hospital offers extended payment plans for those severely affected by the economy and promotional discounts such as $25 exams.

“Some people open the conversation with, I either lost my job’ or I don’t have work right now,'” Miller said. “Clients say, I want to do everything I can for Fluffy but I just lost my job.’ It’s tough for us to make drastic discounts and such extended payment plans but at least the animal is getting the quality care it needs and deserves.'”

Specialty and emergency practices in California were harder hit, reporting a more than 8 percent adjusted decrease in December revenues from the prior year. They too saw improved revenues by February, however, according to Gatto McFerson.

“People are bringing their pets in and still care about the health and welfare of their family member but they are not able to do everything for them,” said Mark Nunez, a Van Nuys veterinarian and president of the California Veterinarian Medical Association. “There may be a knee surgery, a ligament that needs to be repaired, or cataract surgery and sometimes that has to be put off.”

The Internet has usurped sales for private pharmacies and specialty products, Nunez said, noting that animal hospitals have been watching the trend for a long time as clients shop for better prices online or at wholesale stores like Costco for shampoos flea products, foods and prescription medications.

“That’s really exploding right now,” he said.

The economic impact on veterinarians has varied a lot depending on geography and other factors, according to Karen Felsted, a Dallas-based veterinarian, accountant and chief executive officer of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. California, she says, has been hit particularly hard.

“On average, whereas veterinarians have been used to seeing their revenue and practice grow each year, it’s been essentially flat since the recession hit,” Felsted said. “The only silver lining to the recession for us is that veterinarians are paying more attention to the business aspects of their practices. They’re working on being more productive and efficient. We should have been doing it all along.”

The Internet has been a boon for Santa Cruz Westside Animal Hospital which has seen strong referrals from online sources. Client numbers are actually up 16 percent from last year and, last year, the Westside practice, which includes owner Dave Shuman and two other veterinarians, had 14 percent growth. Business grew 9.8 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year, Shuman said. He credits a well-trained staff, high quality of care and Internet marketing that includes customer reviews, and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and a company website.

“Two years ago it went from the Yellow Pages primarily to Internet referrals,” he said. “It’s the quality of care. Internet advertising stems from quality of care.”

Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (HERE)


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