In my November 2010 column, I talked about breed-specific wellness plans as an example of a new, better and different healthcare
service to offer for dogs. This month, I want to focus on cat opportunities and share a few ideas from practices that have
improved their cat care and now welcome more feline clients.
Both dog and cat visits have been declining since 2001. During this same period, however, veterinarians have started doing
more for the patients that they were seeing, such as offering lifestyle vaccines, wellness lab panels and disease detection
tests. They also found room to comfortably raise their fees. Until recently, that was enough to keep practices growing. Practitioners
barely noticed the gradual loss in patient volume because their increasing average transaction charges masked the decline.
Now, in the current economic climate, price-sensitive clients are declining and postponing routine wellness care and resisting
fee increases. The lower number of patients has caught everyone's attention.
Looking deeper into the trend data shows that the deepest drop in patient care was in cat visits. That is especially worrisome
because at the same time cat visits were going down, cat adoptions were going up. According to the American Pet Products Association
2009-2010 report on pets, today there are 16 million more cats in homes than there are dogs. Clearly, cats represent a huge,
underserved veterinary population group and a huge marketing opportunity for veterinarians.
Getting cats back in the clinic
The CATalyst Council has identified four primary reasons why cat owners do not seek veterinary care:
- They don't know what veterinary care their cats need.
- They believe cats are self-sufficient and don't need veterinary care.
- Their veterinarians did not recommend it.
- They don't understand the benefit or reason for the recommendation.
Clearly, veterinarians have not adequately educated cat clients about the benefit of wellness visits.
Although many cat owners stay away from veterinarians when their cats are well, most will bring them in if they think they
are sick or hurting. Unfortunately, owners don't always know when their cats aren't well. Their untrained eyes usually do
not recognize the signs of pain and illness. If, for instance, their kitty vomits frequently, owners assume it is probably
hairballs. If their kitty hides and is less interested in interacting, well, cats are aloof, right?
To make matters worse, cats are genetically programmed to try to hide their conditions from their owners. As a consequence,
it is usually the sickest cats—cats that can no longer hide their conditions from their owners—that are the most likely to
end up in the clinic. By then, it may be too late, and even if you can help them, the cats have suffered unnecessarily. The
solution is to educate cat owners about the subtle signs that indicate their cats are not feeling well. That would get more
sick cats in sooner, and once they are there, practice teams would have the opportunity to educate owners about other necessary
A client education handout on the signs of pain and illness can be downloaded at
http://CATalystCouncil.org/. The guide is titled "CATegorical Care: A Cat Owner's Guide to America's #1 Companion," and the list of 10 common signs of
illness in cats. Similar handouts, and an image quiz on identifying pain in cats, are also available at
http://dvm360.com/. Use these resources to educate staff members and to hand out to clients to increase everyone's confidence in recognizing
the signs of pain and illness in cats.
There are other things that hospitals can do to attract cat owners and keep them coming. Here are a few stories from clinics
that have already put these ideas into practice.