VMX for Pets: Veterinary conference and expo showcases latest in healthcare for animals

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The North American Veterinary Community’s massive Veterinary Medical Expo lived up to its "show of shows" theme during the January event at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

The conference included an appearance by Terri Irwin and son Robert Irwin of "Crocodile Hunter," a packed concert by Tyler Hubbard of the multi-platinum Florida Georgia Line duo and a precision drone show that lit up the convention center with images of various species of critters.

But VMX also quickly got down to the business of setting direction for the $104 billion animal health care industry. Across the five-day conference, veterinary professionals learned about the newest technologies benefiting their chosen field.

“VMX is where the global veterinary industry gathers each year to learn the latest in veterinary medicine and where life-saving new products are introduced,” said Dr. Dana Varble, NAVC’s chief veterinary officer.

“For more than 40 years, we’ve witnessed remarkable advancements within the veterinary profession, which are helping animals live longer, better lives.”

The event drew more than 27,000 people from 82 countries and is the world’s largest veterinary conference.

The Puppy Playground provided relaxation among serious sessions on veterinary innovations.
The Puppy Playground provided relaxation among serious sessions on veterinary innovations.

Veterinary AI to the rescue

The acronym of the day was, not unexpectedly, AI, as a broad range of artificial intelligence technologies were presented.

“At VMX 2024, we saw things that once sounded like fantasy now become a reality,” said Varble.

“We’ve been talking about AI for about five years, but this year, we’re really seeing the evolution of this technology from something very theoretical to something undeniable.”

Newly launched AI-powered veterinary technology is expected to transform the industry by expediting diagnosis, providing tests that are more comprehensive and freeing vets to spend more time with patients.

The use of AI in radiology will deliver rapid, more accurate assessments of X-rays, while AI can help better assess animal pain, resulting in more effective care. Using AI, vet practices can also generate medical records and results within minutes.

“Veterinarians that use AI will replace veterinarians that don’t use AI in the years to come,” said Dr. Richard Goldstein, vice president and chief medical officer of global diagnostics at animal healthcare company Zoetis, which introduced Vetscan Imagyst,  the first AI-powered technology to provide specialist-level veterinary diagnostic results within minutes for fecal, urine sediment, dermatology and blood smear testing.

North American Veterinary Community’s Veterinary Medical Expo(VMX) drew 27,000 veterinary professionals to the Orange County Convention Center.
North American Veterinary Community’s Veterinary Medical Expo(VMX) drew 27,000 veterinary professionals to the Orange County Convention Center.

According to NAVC numbers, 35 percent of veterinarians have already integrated AI into their practices to help them find that most precious of commodities: time.

“The biggest problem in veterinary medicine today is that vets do not have enough time and enough staff, which can cause a compromise of care,” Goldstein said.

As an example, Vetscan Imagyst arms local veterinary practices with remote 24/7 support from a global network of clinical pathologists and parasitologists to validate AI results, all in less time than it takes the pet owner to go get a cup of coffee. Goldstein adds that the compact analyzer has already become such a part of some practices that vets and their staff have lovingly named them.

“It’s a tremendously valuable tool that both vets and pet owners love,” he said.

Help for diabetic kitties

Cats, like their people, are now increasingly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, because cats, like their people, are leading more sedentary lifestyles and not eating what they should.

“Cats are obligate carnivores who need very little carbs,” said Dr. Audrey Cook, professor of small animal internal medicine at Texas A&M University and a recognized specialist in feline medicine through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.

“Some commercial cat food is like leaving a teen with a box of donuts for dinner.”

Diabetes can significantly shorten a cat’s lifespan. Studies suggest that less than two-thirds of cats diagnosed with this condition are still alive after three months, and one in 10 are euthanized at the time of diagnosis, even though, from the veterinarian’s perspective, it is a very treatable disease.

“Insulin injections can be very daunting to pet owners, because we’re talking about tiny amounts of insulin and we have to have the dose totally right and you have to be diligent with the timing,” Cook said.

“Even the best of owners would sometimes say it’s more than they’re able to do.”

That is about to change, as two newly FDA-approved drugs offer the opportunity to replace insulin injections with a simple liquid or pill. Senvelgo and Bexacat should make life easier for the humans and longer and better for the cats. According to Cook, 80 percent of diabetic cats are good candidates for these two medications.

“It’s a game changer,” she said.

Raising healthy bearded dragons

Bill Wilkinson, son of exotic animal expert Dr. Stacey Wilkinson, show how tame bearded dragons are.
Bill Wilkinson, son of exotic animal expert Dr. Stacey Wilkinson, show how tame bearded dragons are.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times for bearded dragons, current rock stars of reptiles, particularly among the GenZers and Generation Alphas.

“Beardies stay small, are calm and docile,” said Dr. Stacey Wilkinson, diplomate with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and owner of the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital of Georgia.

Wilkinson was a VMX to debunk common myths about these convivial (for a reptile) critters that will happily (for a reptile) sit on your shoulder while you binge on Marvel movies.

Irresponsible breeding fueled by the beardies’ skyrocketing popularity has led to significant health issues such as significantly higher incidence of cancer and kidney problems. Owners also need to be dedicated with the precise combination of temperature, light and diet beardies crave.

“Over-feeding of beardies is rampant,” Wilkinson said. “People see beardies on the internet and think theirs is too thin and overfeed it. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to tell when a beardie is sick until it’s really, really sick, which makes it more difficult to treat successfully.”

She suggests prospective beardie parents should research the reptiles’ needs before bringing the new pet home.

“Find a responsible private breeder who is not breeding certain color morphs that are prone to problems,” she said.

Moose’s March against cancer

Nonprofits such as Moose’s March were present to encourage early detection of cancer, leading cause of death in dogs older than 2. Through donors and sponsors, the organization provides funding for pre-cancer screening to animal shelters and vet clinics in communities with fewer resources.

“We support directly those who can least afford care,” said founder Tricia Montgomery, who named the group after Moose, a beloved pittie and cancer victim.

Clean teeth for canines

Before the launch of Orastripdx, periodontal disease in dogs, although highly prevalent, could only be accurately diagnosed through anesthetized oral examination with periodontal probing and dental radiography. With Orastripdx, vets can perform a 10-second test during wellness exams for early detection of active periodontal disease.

Diverse veterinarians of tomorrow

From left, Dr. Genine Ervin-Smith, Dana Rodriguez and Dr. Niccole Bruno at VMX's "Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine" program for middle school students at VMX.
From left, Dr. Genine Ervin-Smith, Dana Rodriguez and Dr. Niccole Bruno at VMX's "Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine" program for middle school students at VMX.

A boom in pet adoptions originally fueled by the pandemic has led to a scarcity of veterinarians. According to Mars Veterinary Health, 41,000 more veterinarians will be required to meet demand, yet despite a continuing pipeline from vet schools, the graduates won’t be enough and a shortage of 15,000 vets is expected by 2030. Vet nurses and techs will also be harder to find.

An issue facing the profession could prove the solution. Veterinary medicine is one of the least diverse fields in the country, with 93.3 percent white practitioners, 5.6 percent Asians, 4.7 percent Latinx and 1.2 percent Black. Dr. Niccole Bruno, CEO and founder of blendVET, a veterinary hospital certification program, believes a solution to the shortage is getting more children interested in the profession, especially children of color.

To encourage this sector of the student population to consider veterinary medicine as a career option, NAVC and blendVET invited 80 Central Florida middle school students from underrepresented communities to suit up just like real-life vets and spend a day shadowing veterinary experts in “Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine” immersive interactive workshops. The day included suturing and bandaging, checking samples under a microscope, performing animal CPR, physical exams, using X-days for diagnostics and more.

“A lot of children aren’t even exposed to veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Genine Ervin-Smith, COO with blendVET.

She remembers the pivotal moment for her was coming home from school at 12 to learn the family dog had died from pyometra, a life-threatening infection of the uterus that is easily preventable by spaying.

For Dana Rodriguez, VMX’s “Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine” offered an opportunity to check out a career she had long been considering.

“Since I was little, I have always wanted to be a vet,” said the Orlando 12-year-old.

As the kids worked, Bruno discussed options for financing vet school with their parents, noting that beyond scholarships, military service can also provide the pathway to a degree in vet school.

The research, products and initiatives unveiled each year at VMX will undoubtedly make life better for pets and their people.

“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is provide the best care for pets around the world,” said NAVC CEO Gene O’Neill.

Maria Sonnenberg is a Brevard-based freelance lifestyles and travel writer.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Orlando veterinary conferences showcases latest in pet healthcare