Similar studies describing the prevalence of specific conditions encountered in general veterinary practice have been conducted and published internationally, particularly in the UK.8,9,10 Of these, the most comprehensive study of general veterinary practice reported otitis externa, periodontal disease, and anal sac impaction, as the most frequently cited disorders.8 In the US, the most extensive database describing common canine conditions is maintained by Banfield Pet Hospital, which publishes regular State of Pet Health reports, based on data gathered from its nearly 1000 veterinary hospitals across the US and Puerto Rico. Within the most recent Banfield State of Pet Health report, the top five most commonly diagnosed canine conditions are dental calculus, overweight, otitis externa, patellar luxation, and nuclear sclerosis.11
Additionally, pet insurance providers have also published canine claim information to identify top conditions for over the last the past fifteen years.8,9,10 In the most recent claims reported by the insurance provider Nationwide, the top ten conditions were (in order of frequency), skin allergies, ear infection, mass, skin infections, diarrhea, vomiting, arthritis, dental disease, bladder infections / urinary tract infections, and anal gland inflammation or infection.12,13
While the results of these various studies and databases do not differ dramatically from those of this study, there are some fundamental differences in the source material of these data sets, and the approach taken in this study, which are important to consider. Most notably, all of these studies and reports categorized conditions as they have been diagnosed by a veterinarian, whereas in this study the focus was on owner-initiated complaints of illness or injury. While the difference in this approach may not seem substantial, they do in fact reveal a number of noteworthy features that become critically important when determining how to best apply this information.
By comparing the results of this study to others that focus on veterinary diagnoses, the knowledge gap between the average pet owner and veterinarian is revealed. This explains the more generalized, owner-initiated “skin” condition described in this study’s data, compared to the “skin allergies,” and “skin infections” that were captured in the insurance data following a formal diagnosis from a veterinarian. For most cases of canine injury or illness, veterinarians generally rely on the owner to recognize that a condition has become problematic enough to warrant a veterinarian’s attention. Once the animal is brought to the clinic, the veterinarian will work with whatever information is provided by the owner in order to help determine the diagnosis. As supported by this study, often this information is limited to a generalized body part, behavior, or that the animal just doesn’t seem “right.” Working with this incomplete picture, there could be any number of potential causes to the reported problem, but it is the veterinarian’s job to determine the correct etiology and proceed with the appropriate treatment. It is within this gap in knowledge that the veterinary practitioner operates, utilizing their medical knowledge and experience to bridge the divide between complaint and a final diagnosis. The results of this study provide justification for veterinary curriculums to train students to recognize common clinical presentations as they are reported in practice, and to be adequately prepared to address the variety of distinct and overlapping etiologies that cause them.
Additionally, the results of this study reveal a discrepancy in how pet owners and veterinarians prioritize the reporting of specific conditions. It is worth noting that frequently occurring clinical signs in this study, such as not eating, lethargy, or coughing do not show up in the insurance data, or the diagnostic surveys compiled in the UK and Banfield.8,11 Conversely, conditions such as obesity and periodontal disease are commonly diagnosed by veterinarians, but according to the results of this study, are less likely reasons for a pet owner to seek veterinary care, with the owner-reported symptoms “Mouth” and “Overweight” making the list at spots 19 and 158 respectively. Both symptoms well under the top 50% of reasons an owner would take their canine to the vet and with no guarantee that an owner seeking help for a mouth problem in their canine would translate to periodontal disease. This difference again helps to illustrate the value of a veterinarian’s diagnostic eye to a pet’s overall health. While conditions such as obesity and dental disease may not be bringing many pets in the clinic’s doors, this study provides evidence of the need for further client education to recognize the importance of treating chronic conditions in their pets.
It should be stated further that data from insurance claims cannot accurately reflect the overall canine population, as it is biased by the presupposition of the pet’s insurance status. In the US, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHI) just over 1% of dog owners have pet insurance for their animals. While the pet health insurance industry is rapidly growing within the US, this number is hardly representative of the general population of dog owners.14 The data from this study, collected from independent general veterinary practices across several states, while not a representative sample, are a better representation of canine illness and injury presentations based on owner-reported complaints than has been previously available from other sources. The results presented are no longer the empirical representations based on years of experience, or the claims data from a small, insured population, but are data-driven and based on standardized collection of information from the general canine ownership population.
Evidence-based data, such as the list of common complaints derived in this research, is important in the future of veterinary medicine, as well as in the education of future veterinarians.1,2,3 Knowing the full spectrum of care diagnostic techniques and treatment modalities does not guarantee access, availability, or affordability. Confounding factors such as owner perceptions, attitudes, and the financial situation of the owner impact treatment outcomes and decisions which are made by the owner instead of the veterinarian. Continuing to provide information for owners, based on scientific investigation and research can support informed care decisions, increase shared decision making, increase owner compliance and satisfaction with suggested care modalities, and support access to care with a range of valid proven treatments. Education of future veterinarians is also positively impacted by information derived from critical, evidence-based research as a foundation for students’ critical thinking skills, communication training, and increased knowledge base.