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Get cats out of the shadows


Data show that feline health is experiencing an alarming downward spiral. Here are a few practical ways any team member can illuminate these dark days for cats.

Cat owners just don't care about their pets' health. At least that's the gloomy picture recent data paints. Even though more cats than dogs live with American families, most veterinary patients are dogs. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of pet cats and dogs increased, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. During that time, the number of visits dogs made to the veterinarian decreased 4 percent but the number of times cats saw the doctor decreased 6 percent. Each dog saw the doctor an average of 1.5 times per year, but each cat went just 0.7 times—less than once a year.

Add all these numbers together and you get a medical equation that equals better health for dogs than cats. This has the veterinary industry as a whole worried—and a little flummoxed. To help look for a solution, groups championing the feline cause have sprung up. To name one, the nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) launched the Happy Healthy Cat Campaign to encourage feline-health research. Currently, MAF receives 30 percent less in financial support for feline-health research than for canine research, and the foundation is able to fund only one–third the number of studies for cats versus dogs.

Then there's the CATalyst Council, a multipartner, multisponsor nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the perception of cats as aloof and elevating their status to pets that deserve medical care. This group held a national summit in February 2008. One of the outcomes was a partnership between the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the American Animal Health Association to create feline life-stage guidelines, which are due to be released by year's end.

The decline in feline health concerns individual practitioners, too. "Cats have long been relegated to second-class status," says Dr. Gary Norsworthy, DABVP (feline), owner of Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio. "Even though they've overtaken dogs as America's favorite pet, they remain shorted on health care."

Solving the mystery

The essential question: Why? Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, says one of the main reasons is that cats are misunderstood. "Many people hold the misconception that cats can take care of themselves," Dr. Brunt says. "In fact, cats rely on us for many things, including food, water, shelter, and freedom from illness, pain, and distress."

Another challenge is how cat owners view their pets, says Dr. Roberta Lillich, president of the AAFP. "Some people see cats as family members. When these people receive reminders that their cats need an annual wellness screening, they come in immediately," says Dr. Lillich, an owner of Abilene Animal Hospital, a mixed animal practice in Abilene, Kan. "Then there are others who bring their cats in only for a rabies vaccination because the cat is intended to live in a barn."

Research seems to support Dr. Lillich's theory. Owners in households with at least one dog and one cat were more attached to their dogs than their cats by a 3-to-1 margin (57 percent to 19 percent, respectively), according to a special report in the Feb. 15, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAVMA). This could account for the statistic included in the JAVMA report that 33 percent of these pet owners believe it's more important to take a dog versus a cat to the doctor for a wellness exam.

Working in a rural town of about 3,500, Dr. Lillich sees a lot of barn cats that don't receive much wellness care. But she talks to their owners the same as her other feline clients. "I try to open the lines of communication with everybody," she says.

And so should you. As veterinary team members, you're in the rubber-meets-the road position for helping cats. You talk to pet owners for longer periods of times and in a more candid manner than do the doctors in your practice. Veterinarians absolutely play a role in bringing feline health out of the shadows, but you can do a whole lot on your own to ensure cats get the care they so desperately need. Here are a few ways to get started.

Begin by teaching clients

By educating cat owners, you strengthen their bonds with their pets and your practice. When clients see the importance you place on their cats, they'll come to view them more like family. And when they understand that cat health isn't just dog health with fewer requirements, they'll become loyal visitors to your clinic. Tutor cat owners on following four lessons, and you'll be well on your way to fostering better feline relations.

1. Teach that preventive medicine matters. All cats—indoor and outdoor—need to see the veterinarian at least once a year for wellness visits. They need their rabies vaccinations, but they also may need additional vaccines based on their lifestyles. For example, explain that any cat that encounters other cats is at risk for contracting certain infectious diseases.

But wellness visits aren't only about shots. Most importantly, healthy pet checks provide you the chance to discuss other topics. For example, you can explain that a one-or two-pound increase in a cat's weight can be dangerous. You can discuss that living-room cats are at risk for diseases associated with fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes because these creepy crawlies get inside all the time. And you can explain that 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by 3 years of age. When disease sets in, cats are in for lots of pain and, potentially, related sickness including heart and kidney problems.

2. Fight for felines as a team. The veterinarian will cover most wellness topics during the exam. But Laura Dietrich, practice manager for Alamo Feline Health Center, emphasizes that it's up to every team member to reinforce the message. "So much of a client's experience comes from interactions with staff members," she says. "At times, clients give staff members more credibility than the veterinarian. They ask questions like, 'Do I really need to do what the vet said?'"

It's your job to make sure clients hear "yes." Technicians and veterinary assistants, while you're taking patient histories, explain why you're asking questions about weight and lifestyle. Receptionists, as clients are checking out, encourage them to comply with the doctor's recommendations for using flea and tick preventives or a certain food, for example.

Every team member also needs to communicate that wellness checks aren't always associated with wellness, says Stephanie Heymann, a technician at Alamo Feline Health Center. "Some clients may think it's a waste of money to bring their cat in when it's perfectly healthy," Heymann says. "But I can't tell you how many times a so-called healthy cat came in for his or her checkup and a mass was found." She suggests encouraging wellness exams by telling clients something like this: "I think one of the worst things that could happen is losing your pets to something that could've been treated early or even prevented."

3. Bring attention to the subtle signs of illness. Cats are masters of disguise when they're sick. To the untrained eye, many ill cats might look like the picture of health. Help clients learn the clues that indicate their cats aren't feeling up to snuff, including changes in food and water consumption, grooming habits, and the sound and frequency of meows.

4. Decrease veterinary-visit stress. "We've all seen clients who carry the cat without a box or restraint mechanism," Dr. Lillich says. "This makes me really nervous because there's huge potential for people and the cat to get hurt." But the thought of all the clawing and scratching that goes along with forcing a tom or tabby into a carrier is enough to stop clients dead in their tracks—and keep them away from your practice.

So what do you do when clients say their cats are carrier-haters? Teach them how to foster a cat-crate love affair. The simplest solution is putting the carrier someplace where the pet can easily go in and out of it. This allows the cat to become familiar with the crate and leave behind its own scent. Better yet, tell owners to occasionally sneak treats into the crate. When the cat enters, it will find an enticing surprise and come to associate the carrier with a positive experience.

Finish by focusing on yourself

Cat owners aren't the only ones with lessons to learn. These tips will help make your ways be more winning with cats.

1. Develop the right cattitude. Many team members love dogs and tolerate cats, Dr. Norsworthy says. "If staff members don't like cats, they'll communicate that disdain to cat owners," he says, "and the owners will react accordingly."

It's really the owners you need to worry about. Clients change veterinary clinics because the doctors and team members didn't treat their cats the way they expected. If you're not a cat lover, work to like cats and adore their owners. Dr. Brunt suggests you practice by role playing with team members posing as cat owners. Speak softly to these clients, make positive comments rather than pointing out how scared or angry their cats are, and address the cats by name.

2. Separate the species. Different dog and cat entrances and waiting areas are ideal, but this isn't feasible for many clinics. When you can't add a door or wall, try designating a certain side or area of the waiting room just for cats.

Also, get cats into the exam room as soon as possible, Dr. Lillich says. "Cats need to get comfortable. Give them the opportunity to calm down without the distractions of dogs and people coming in," she says. "Aggression in cats is most often a sign of fear and stress so anything you do to minimize those factors will help." She also says if your practice uses computerized records, you can do everything in the exam room that you could at the reception desk, including going through the medical record, addressing the client's concerns, and getting the cat's history.

3. Ask dog owners whether they have cats. This is one of the most simple and effective ways to increase cat visits. According to the AVMA Sourcebook, 41 percent of dog-owning households also own cats. But cats in these multipet homes were seen significantly less than their canine counterparts: 33 percent of these cats didn't visit the veterinarian compared with just 13 percent of dogs who stayed away from the clinic, according to the Feb. 15, 2008, JAVMA report.

So when canine clients visit your practice, pose this straightforward question: Do you have any other pets, such as cats, at home? Also put the question to dog owners who call to schedule appointments. If and when they say yes, educate them about all the reasons why their cats also need to visit the clinic.

Regardless of whether you're a dog or cat person, it's your duty to offer all pets the best care. Luckily, you have help. The veterinary industry and individual doctors and team members are working to learn the truth about how to treat cats—and their owners. By adopting the solutions as they're found, feline health will emerge from the darkness.

Please send your questions and comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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