Aging is not a disease.
This notion seemed to echo through the halls of the 40th annual Veterinary Meeting Expo (VMX), hosted in Orlando, Fla., from Jan. 14 to 18. Indeed, from jam-packed sessions, exploring topics such as compassionate animal handling, non-invasive techniques for early cancer detection, and strategies for how to identify pain in patients, to new products on the exhibition floor, offering solutions for combating dental disease, monitoring diabetes in real time, and compounding medications for comorbidities, one thing was clear: humans want pets to live longer, happier, healthier lives.
“The bond between humans and animals has grown tremendously over the past 40 years,” says Gene O’Neill, CEO of VMX organizer, the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC). “Animals are not just pets; they are family members.”
“Animals are not only living longer, but they are living better lives,” adds NAVC chief veterinary officer, Dana Varble, DVM, CAE. “A longer lifespan comes with diseases like cancer, arthritis, and diabetes, [but] there are incredible breakthroughs taking place today with new medications designed specifically for cats, dogs, horses, and other species, as well as new medical devices to improve their healthspan and increase lifespan.”
Innovative solutions are certainly abundant, VMX demonstrated. What’s more, they are stemming from countless avenues, from tech-driven diagnostics and monitoring to seemingly simple answers to long-standing problems. In the latter category, among the newly debuted products at this year’s show was the veterinarian-designed Calm & Cozy Cat Wrap, which aims to get more feline patients through the door by swaddling them, making the examination process safer for the veterinarian and significantly less stressful for the pet and owner.
“When an owner and cat have a good experience, they gain trust in me,” the company’s CEO, Surell Levine, VMD, tells Veterinary Practice News Canada. “I know I can promise better healthcare for the animal, and I know the owner isn’t worried their cat is terrified. In turn, these owners return for preventative care and act more quickly when their cat is sick, knowing the visit won’t be traumatizing.”
The desire to identify quick and painless methods which can help with the early detection of health issues is shared by Jenna Dockweiler, DVM, DACT, a veterinary geneticist with Embark Veterinary. The canine genetic screening biotechnology company specializes in “prognostic” testing by way of a simple cheek swab.
“The [inherent issues] we’re most interested in identifying before a dog has a problem are the ones that are preventable,” Dr. Dockweiler explains. “We can test for three different types of bladder stones and, if we know about those risks before the dog develops those stones, we can potentially change their diet or add medications to prevent the disease from occurring entirely.”
Employing methodical, scientific strategies associated with evidence-based medicine is also key for preventative care—particularly when it comes to aging pets.
“Aging is what I call a modifiable risk factor,” says Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc., VMD, cVMA, director of veterinary medicine for biotechnology company, Loyal. “[In humans], we know smoking, drinking, and obesity are all things that aren’t necessarily diseases, but they lead to health problems later on. Aging is the same thing: It’s a recognizable set of things that happen in [the] body that, eventually, lead to the diseases we see in older pets. We can do something about these things, and that’s really the key.”
“We don’t need to call [aging] a ‘disease’—there are some downsides to that,” he adds. “We definitely want to see it as treatable with preventatives.”
Owners on board
Beyond the plethora of veterinary tools available, strategies for how to talk to clients about preventative care measures—particularly as they relate to chronic conditions, such as osteoarthritis (OA) and diabetes—also appeared to be top-of-mind for this year’s VMX attendees and exhibitors.
“We recently completed a study, and its findings suggest many veterinarians are not proactively educating their clients about osteoarthritis and the risks involved with this disease,” says Marjorie Lathrop, marketing director for American Regent Animal Health.
Duncan Lascelles, BSc., BVSc., PhD, expressed a similar sentiment when speaking at the Zoetis-sponsored panel discussion, “The Science Behind OA Pain,” explaining the impact of unaddressed pain can have a negative impact on the human-animal bond.
“When left untreated, OA pain, over time, has widespread, cumulative, deleterious effects throughout the body,” he says. “It causes physical discomfort. It impairs the ability of pets to perform the activities of daily living. It decreases mobility. It interferes with sleep. It impairs cognitive function and interferes with social relationships. By extension, it has a negative emotional impact—put all of this together, and it is clear untreated osteoarthritis pain decreases quality of life.”
Matthew McGlasson, DVM, CVPM, agrees, adding that owner observations are integral to identifying pain in pets and allowing for veterinary intervention.
“A lot of the signs we associate with OA pain in pets are referred to as ‘silent signals,’” he explains. “Owners have to be really aware of what to look for, especially in the home setting where pets are more comfortable and more at ease. It’s easier to pick up on the subtle changes in behaviour at home versus in the veterinary setting.”
While educating owners on early intervention of disease is paramount, so, too, is clinical empathy. Notably, says Emily Tincher, DVM, Nationwide’s senior director of veterinary relations, veterinarians may benefit from practicing spectrum of care.
“Market research shows the gold-standard of care, which we, as veterinarians, learn in vet school, clashes with pet parent expectations of care,” Dr. Tincher explains.
“A spectrum of care approach combines evidence-based medicine with pet family emotional, physical, and financial resources, then communicates a range of options to pet families without judgment,” she adds.
In addition to discussions of preventative medicine, spectrum of care, and caring for aging pets, there was another aspect of this year’s VMX which was impossible to ignore.
“The huge number of attendees at the show was evident and everyone was talking about it,” says Samantha Uresti, events manager at AmeriVet Veterinary Partners.
Ensuring the crowd was robust, happy, and enthusiastic was not without effort on the part of NAVC, O’Neill tells Veterinary Practice News Canada.
“We knew we had to do something different this year,” he says. “For one, it was our 40th anniversary. Second, we had been at a plateau for a while with our attendees and participation numbers. We wanted to take that next step.”
O’Neill shares that VMX attendance hovered around 17,000 for the better part of a decade. Keen to reach 20,000, NAVC opted to drop registration to $125—the same price attendees paid for the premiere event in 1983. In addition to the 1980s-inspired reduced fee, NAVC embraced a complete theme of the decade, incorporating a roller rink, an arcade, celebrity impersonators, and a vintage DeLorean to the show floor.
With all the buzz and the reduced fee, registrations for the 2023 show surpassed 28,000, including 9,500 first-time attendees—a milestone NAVC didn’t expect.
“We prepared for it, but it was nice to be surprised this way,” O’Neill says. “The excitement and the participation are really blowing everybody away.”
As far as entertainment goes, Footloose star Kevin Bacon helped open the show with a motivational speech. Also in attendance was Cole Hauser of Yellowstone for a Q&A session, along with country music group Lady A for an exclusive concert.
“We focused on a lot of fun stuff,” O’Neill says. “People in this industry work hard—conferences used to be heavily focused only on sessions, continuing education (CE), getting lunch, and going home. Now, though, while they’re here, we’re trying to make it a little more comfortable. As people learn, they can also enjoy themselves.”
With a successful show wrapped, NAVC is setting its sights on expanding. Specifically, the organizer has launched a new initiative to bring smaller “pop-up” educational opportunities to communities across the United States.
“These events are not like VMX,” O’Neill explains. “They’ll be shorter in length—a day or a day-and-a-half—as well as shorter in format. They could take the form of multiple speakers with one track, or they could be roundtables of hands-on discussion groups. They’ll cover things that are trendy or hot topics of the day, team building, and team management.”
As far as what to expect from future VMX shows, O’Neill says one thing is for certain: The virtual component is here to stay.
“There are a lot of choices people have to make when they come here,” he explains. “Sometimes there are competing sessions. With the virtual option, there’s an opportunity to watch it some time in the future. There are a lot of things here on the virtual side, even globally.”
“I’m glad the virtual piece is there because it lets us reach those who, otherwise, may not get CE—either at all or not as frequently as they would like,” O’Neill adds. “Virtual will always be there, but live events are going anywhere either. One enhances the other.”
Next year, VMX takes place Jan. 13 to 17.