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:
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 care.
A client education handout on the signs of pain and illness can be downloaded at 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 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.
Have confident conversations about preventives
Dr. Julie Servaites, of Los Robles Animal Hospital in Tallahassee, Fla., says that determination, confidence and teamwork is what turned things around for cats in her practice. The hospital has seen a 40 percent jump in feline heartworm-flea preventive sales since they became more confident about recommending the protection. They have maintained the gain for five consecutive months.
Dr. Servaites says they thought they were doing a good job with cats at their hospital until an industry representative helped them conduct a compliance audit. The audit of patient records showed that they weren't doing quite the job they thought they were with cats. In fact, one of the worst areas was feline heartworm and parasite protection.
Initially, no one at the hospital felt there was much they could do to improve feline heartworm—they believed that clients would just say "no", as they had in the past. Around the same time, however, Dr. Servaites found herself breaking the news to two different cat clients that their sick kitties had tested positive for heartworm disease. Worse, she had to tell them that there is no curative treatment.
That's when everything clicked in place, and the entire hospital team mobilized to protect more cats. Everyone started looking for better ways to bring the feline heartworm preventive message home to cat clients.
Dr. Servaites discovered new ways to make her recommendations more clear and effective. For instance, instead of asking, "Would you like to put your cat on a heartworm preventive?" she started saying, "Your cat needs to be on a heartworm preventive."
Dr. Servaites would then explain that "Florida is practically the heartworm capitol" and that "feline heartworm disease is a serious disease, like cancer or liver disease, but it can be prevented." She was amazed how many clients said that they didn't know heartworms were a big problem or that there was a heartworm preventive for cats. And then they said yes to buying preventive.
Everyone at the practice is now having more confident conversations with clients on this important issue. When cat clients come in for their pets' food or other things, the receptionists check the pets' records to see if they need more heartworm preventive and suggest they refill their prescriptions if they are running low.
Dr. Servaites says that she has learned that we shouldn't doubt ourselves if we feel something is important. "It's amazing what we can do once we decide to try!"
Create cat-only spaces
Jen Riley, manager at Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Centreville, Va., says that a compliance audit helped them flag the decrease in cat wellness visits and motivated them to find ways to turn it around. The practice owner, Dr. Michelle Vitulli, encouraged Riley to do all she could to attract and keep more cat owners. Riley and some of the hospital doctors and other team members even attended an industry-sponsored program on cats to get ideas.
The clinic was already in the process of remodeling when, based on ideas inspired by the cat program they had attended, they decided to create a separate waiting area for cats. To make it even more inviting, they used a cat hormone diffuser to help cats feel calmer while they were waiting. They also put cat literature out and cat pictures up—even putting a cat silhouette on their door to welcome cat owners.
In addition to the cat waiting area, they decided to make one of their exam rooms a feline-exclusive room—no dogs allowed. The feline exam room is outfitted with cat step shelves on the walls, and they routinely spray the calming hormone product on the towels they put on the exam table. They also put catnip treats in the exam room for cats to take home after their visits. Riley says their cat clients have noticed all the changes and really seem to appreciate them. They are hoping that these clients will tell other cat owners about them.
Now that the remodeling is done, Riley says the next step is to have a cat-trained technician teach team members better ways to handle cats to help them feel more confident when working with them. For instance, the team will learn about burrito wrapping cats for exams rather than scruffing them, which cat clients perceive as rough handling. Finally, to get the word out about their cat-friendly practice, the hospital is planning to invite cat rescue groups to the hospital and will hold an open house to benefit the rescue groups.
Riley was surprised how easy it was to get the staff involved with the changes. The remodeling helped them feel good by providing dedicated feline spaces to make cats and their owners more comfortable. Most of the team members own cats and wanted to do what was best for them. The hospital built on this natural interest by encouraging team members to follow the same healthcare protocols for their own cats that they recommend to clients.
Having first-hand experience with the benefits of wellness gives team members more confidence when educating cat clients and helps them bond with these clients even more.
Riley says that making Caring Hands a more cat-welcoming place is a work in progress, and they are always looking for new ideas. They will be tracking the number of cat visits and reading new client survey comments to help them know how they are doing.
Show clients your feline love
Dr. Ilona Rodan, owner of the Cat Care Clinic in Madison, Wis., and frequent speaker on the topic of improving feline visits, says that she fell in love with cats when she was a senior in veterinary school at Washington State University. She has made cats the focus of her professional life and was one of the first veterinarians to become an ABVP specialist in feline practice in 1995.
Dr. Rodan co-chaired the American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Behavior Guidelines and their new Feline Handling Techniques Guidelines. She says that she's trying to share the joy of cats with other veterinarians. She feels certain that they would see more cats if they enjoyed them more and felt more confident handling them. "Cat owners want to see that you get cats and like working with them," she says.
She says that the No. 1 thing that team members need to know is that cats almost always act badly because of fear, stress or pain and not because they are bad cats. The fear, stress and pain need to be addressed before a successful cat exam is possible. Dr. Rodan says that this is the key to getting along with cats and making loyal fans of their owners.
Simple things that veterinarians can do to reduce cats' fears and stress include creating a separate seating section in the reception room for cats, getting cats out of the reception area and into a quiet exam room as quickly as possible and giving cats a chance to acclimate to the exam room before handling them. Never shake cats out of their carriers, Dr. Rodan says; that will only upset the cat and its owners.
Helpful, practical resources for practice teams that want to learn more about cat behavior and better ways to handle cats (and impress their owners) are available on many websites, including dvm360.com/feline.
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, is a veterinary business consultant and nationally known writer and speaker. She is a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager, an adjunct instructor for AAHA and a founding member of VetPartners (formerly known as the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors).