I recently got some bad news. And I hate bad news — especially when I find out that the news is actually worse than I thought it was.

The bad news is that pet owners are taking their pets to the vet less often. According to two new reports, people are steering clear of veterinary offices in an attempt to save a few bucks.

What I wasn’t prepared for was this additional finding: Owners are dropping more cash than ever before on their pets.

Confused? So am I.

Pet Product Spending Skyrockets

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), owners spent a record $50.96 billion in 2011 on canines, felines and other furry and feathery friends. Of that, vets took in about $13.4 billion in total sales. That leaves nearly 75 percent spent elsewhere, adding up to some serious Benjamins blown on pet food, collars, grooming services and the like.

For the past few years, I’ve heard more than my fair share of complaints from pet owners about the rising cost of veterinary care. My practice philosophy has always been to make preventive care affordable. During this recession, I’ve done everything in my power to curtail costs and save clients money, including not raising prices on any medical services in 2008.

But now I’m beginning to feel jilted.

The APPA report found that non-veterinary pet services grew a staggering 7.9 percent from 2010 to 2011, compared with a 2.9 percent increase in spending on veterinary services. So what do those tens of billions spent everywhere but at the vet’s office do for pets? That’s a very good question.

A recent industry survey found a 28 percent drop in spending on feline heartworm preventive in 2010, which means that more cats are at risk for this fatal and untreatable disease.

Dentistry for cats was also down — by 23 percent — and flea and tick preventives fell 20 percent. Even worse, the survey found that dogs and cats visited the vet 20 percent less in 2011 than in 2007.

Buying expensive collars and crates will not prevent common diseases or help alleviate hidden pain. I’d prefer to see pet owners spend money where it matters most: diet and nutrition, veterinary visits and medical care, a winter sweater and maybe a tropical family vacation. (OK, maybe the tropics are a bit much to ask for.)

But pet owners aren’t completely to blame for the decline in vet visits and expenditures. Veterinarians also share some of the fault.

How Vets Can Turn Around the Trend

We can — and must — do better for our pet patients. Here are two things veterinarians can do, for starters.

1. Make vet visits worth it. By this, I mean giving clients and pets their money’s worth. Did your veterinarian perform a complete and thorough physical exam? Did they talk to you about diet, behavior and body condition? Were you able to ask questions — and have them answered?

Veterinarians (and physicians!) must evolve from simply diagnosing disease to preventing disease. That’s the real value of an exam on an otherwise healthy pet — teaching you to keep your pet healthy for years to come. If an annual or biannual exam is a hurried, distracted, meaningless experience, I can’t blame pet owners for tuning us out and spending their dough elsewhere.

My goal with every wellness visit is to “leave it better than I found it.” I always seek to offer some form of advice: a new diet, treat, supplement or behavioral technique. Call me an optimist, but I believe there’s always something a pet parent can do to improve quality of life and decrease the odds of a pet contracting an illness.

So if your next veterinary visit isn’t worth it, tell your vet, so that he can make changes to better serve you and your pet.  

2. Be more cat-friendly. With feline vet visits veering off the cliff, we have to ask ourselves why. If you own a cat, you already know why — it’s a pain in the you-know-what to take your kitty to the vet.

But why don’t cats like to go to the vet in the first place? For many, the truth is that they’re afraid, so vet offices must become more feline-friendly. My clinic began changing everything that we did concerning cat visits, including no (or minimal) wait times, exclusive cat rooms (complete with aerosolized, happy-inducing pheromones), minimal restraint techniques and a super-slowed-down approach to exams. Two years later, we’re seeing more cats.

My advice: Talk to your vet about how you’d like your cat to be handled. Don’t just sit on the sidelines — help make a change.

Not too long ago, I lost a feline patient to heartworm disease, which could have been prevented. The owner’s excuse: They were trying to save money. Saving a few bucks cost the cat's life. Maybe now you can better understand just how deeply I hate bad news.