We are fortunate to live in a society that celebrates the poise, beauty and quirky personality of cats; with more than 93.6 million owned in the United States, cats outrank dogs as the most widely owned pet by more than 17 percent.1
The big question, then, is why, with an increasing population, do cats represent an ever-shrinking portion of most general practices’ active patients? Why does the average feline examination generate $203 in comparison to $225 for the average canine examination?2
It’s as if cats are looked upon as second-class citizens when it comes to veterinary care. The oft-cited reason is their independent and stoic nature, as well as their tendency to mask pain and illness.
But this explanation fails to get to the root of the problem—the failure of our industry to educate cat owners on the importance of wellness care. The unfortunate result for a large number of practices is that vaccines, rather than wellness and preventive care, have become the initiator for a feline veterinary visit.
There have been attempts to overcome this lack of knowledge and client education. For example, the American Association of Feline Practitioners has been offering feline standards of care since 1998, from senior care to pain management and everything in between.
In 2010, greatly concerned by statistics showing cats being underserved by veterinarians, the AAFP, in conjunction with the American Animal Hospital Association, published “Feline Life Stage Guidelines,” providing recommendations for optimal care throughout a cat’s lifetime.
For whatever reason, these efforts received minimal attention at the clinic level, and many practices have watched their active feline patients dwindle. Clinics have suffered economically as a result, but it is cats that have suffered the greatest consequences.
But major change is in the air.
Since early this year, several studies have been released, including the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study and Banfield’s State of the Industry Report, which have greatly increased awareness of the sad state of feline veterinary care. Data from the Bayer study determined the following to be true:
- A decreasing feline patient base is one of the six greatest factors affecting an overall decline in veterinary visits
- “Friending” cats provides the greatest opportunity for growth in small-animal practices on several fronts:
- Education and increased visits from current feline patients
- Discovering the “missing” cats owned by clients who bring other pets to the practice
- Building a reputation as a cat-friendly practice to attract new cat-owning clients
- Cat owners are willing to provide better care for their pets, but they currently are not aware of the value:
- 56 percent said they would bring their cats to the veterinarian more often if they knew it could prevent costly treatment later
- 53 percent said they would bring their cats to the veterinarian more often if they knew it would help their cat live longer
- 49 percent said they would bring their cats to the veterinarian more often if they really believed that he/she needed more frequent exams.
Becoming More Cat Friendly
So where should a practice wanting to grow its feline business begin? If the goal is to develop a partnership with cat owners that paves the way for a lifelong health-care plan, the most logical and effectual place to start is with an educational training program for all team members.
The program should include written protocols for everything from vaccines to diabetes management and should highlight the unique differences between feline and canine diagnoses, treatment and medications.
Cat owners have specific concerns, and the responses team members provide should be scripted and rehearsed as part of any training program.
A crucial component of any feline-focused initiative is extensive training on proper restraint and handling. Cats are often viewed as one-person pets and tend to be less trusting of physical contact with humans they don’t know. One of the greatest training hurdles is eliminating the nervousness, and fear, that many staff and even doctors display when handling cats.
If cat owners do not currently perceive value in examinations, demonstrating the ability to handle cats goes a long way to gaining their trust and loyalty.
In many practices the tendency to take a cat to the “back” to perform services, rather than doing them in the exam room with the owner present, is often seen as a solution for poor handling/restraint skills. Yet removing cats from the exam room, as well as from their owners, does absolutely nothing to build a trusting veterinary-client relationship; there is no way for owners to know whether their pets were handled with care or received the full examination for which they are paying.
Getting Cats Out of Their Comfort Zone
Beyond the lack of cat owners’ perception of value, the greatest barrier to feline visits is one of pure logistics—most cats simply don’t enjoy being outside their comfort zone.
According to the Bayer study, 58.2 percent of owners stated that their cats hate going to the veterinarian, and 37.6 percent said that just thinking about taking their cats to the veterinarian is stressful. Interestingly, the process of taking a cat to the veterinarian was found to be “where the opportunity for dissatisfaction is initiated” as well as “the area where suggested improvements were most common.”
So how do we go about removing this barrier and improving the veterinary experience for cats and their owners? Here are a few strategies:
- When calling to confirm appointments, have receptionists ask cat owners if they are concerned with getting their cats into the carrier and transporting it to the clinic; if so, offer them scripted advice and email them specific material to assist with the process (can include a video).
- If the practice is large enough, reserve one or two exam rooms for feline patients and keep a pheromone diffuser plugged in at all times; ideally these rooms would be farthest away from the louder areas of the hospital.
- If you don’t have designated cat rooms, make sure to note on the chart which room you’ve been using, as this will help keep things as familiar as possible.
- Get cats out of the lobby and into an exam room as soon as possible, especially if there is a lot of commotion.
- Offer to bring the carrier (with the cat) into and out of the practice for the client—carriers can be very unwieldy and difficult for clients to carry, especially if they are elderly. Invite them to call or text you when they are in the parking lot and then send someone out to help.
- Reserve specific times of day, or certain days, as “cat only” to reduce the potential for commotion and noise—in truth, this can be a great tool for reducing owners’ anxiety as much as the cats’.
- Ask owners to complete a behavior questionnaire for each cat; this not only helps the examination go more smoothly, but provides the opportunity to offer tailored preparation recommendations for future visits.
- Let cats out of their carriers once in the exam room and let them roam around. Keep the carrier door open even if they choose not to come out on their own. Consider removing the carrier from the room until it is time to leave so that they cannot hide.
- Suggest that owners bring their cats for “meet and greet” visits to the practice before their scheduled appointments—the goal is to acclimate a cat to the carrier and car, as well as to the smells and noises of the practice. Bring them into an exam room, let the cat out of the carrier to roam the room freely, and have team members spend time holding and petting the cat.
While working to achieve a reputation as a practice with a strong affinity for felines takes time and effort, doing so brings significant rewards, both for practices and the feline pet population.
As a starting point, veterinary teams must commit themselves to a renewed understanding and respect for the unique challenges and attributes that both cats and their owners bring to the table. As the great French veterinarian Fernand Mery once said, “With the qualities of cleanliness, affection, patience, dignity and courage that cats have, how many of us, I ask you, would be capable of becoming cats?”
Online Training Resources
The following are a few of the excellent websites available that contain training and educational material for veterinarians, team members and pet owners:
American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) www.catvets.com
* 12 guidelines that represent standards of excellence in feline care, the most recent of which is titled “Cat Friendly Handling.”
* Educational information for cat owners.
* CE material and opportunities; both DVM and technician memberships available.
* Membership includes being listed in the Find a Feline Practitioner directory
* A website dedicated to improving the health and welfare of cats through education.
* Offers an informational video with tips on acclimating cats to the carrier and preparing for their veterinary visits.
* Free newsletter subscription.