Golden years mean golden veterinary care


Whether you need to launch a new senior preventive care program or just give your existing one a boost, use these five steps to help veterinary patients age gracefully.

Age isn't a disease, but it is true that seniors are more likely to develop disease than juvenile or adult pets. General practices play an important role by providing preventive care designed for each life stage a pet experiences. Most pet parents realize that as their pets age, they're likely to develop more medical problems. But their responses to the aging process are sometimes frustrating. We cringe when an owner says, "Rover's getting older now, so what's the sense of doing anything at this point?" We can't stop the clock, but there is a reason the life spans of our canine and feline friends are increasing: better medical care that begins earlier in the pet's life.

Fortunately, most clients today are much more compliant with recommended care for their seniors than even five or 10 years ago. With that in mind, the success with providing senior care is really based on how seriously team members believe in and advocate for it. Emphasis on this care is both medically gratifying and financially rewarding. If your clinic hasn't made this a high priority, this is a great time to do so.

Ask yourself this: Does your clinic truly focus on senior pet care? Sure, most small animal clinics run age-appropriate diagnostics for sick pets. But do you encourage special testing and diagnostics for seniors that look and act healthy? We often talk about clients being compliant, but the first step is asking if your clinic is compliant with the standard protocols practiced at high-quality clinics.

The good news is that it's not too late to start. Or if you have a program, then this is a good opportunity to improve client compliance. As our practices see revenue from product sales and vaccine visits declining, it becomes much more important and gratifying to focus on medical care. To build a successful program, it's key to avoid cutting corners. Use these steps to get started.

STEP 1: Educate yourself

Before you launch—or revamp—your program, use your practice software to determine the percentage of senior pets you serve. Most of us have an aging pet population. Nearly 50 percent of my patients are 7 years or older. The second question is, does senior screening often lead to early disease detection? Consult your reference lab for current data—they have plenty of it. In general, we found that about 20 percent of seniors have at least one abnormality that's worth tracking. If you now believe it's worth having a senior program in place, move on to step 2.

STEP 2: State your goal

Why are you launching a senior wellness program? For example, the goal of our senior program is to educate clients about age-appropriate preventive care for their senior pets and the significance or diagnostic tests to identify disease early.

STEP 3: Educate the team

If you want to focus on senior care, the whole team must speak "senior." Remember you can only be a good patient advocate if you really understand what you're promoting and why. If you're a manager, it's a good idea to host several one-hour meetings to briefly educate your team on common senior diseases, such as renal failure, diabetes, Cushing's disease, and hyperthyroidism, to name a few, and elaborate on how catching these early can lead to effective treatments. Create reading assignments to enhance what you're teaching and test everyone on it. The whole team should know the basics of common diseases. This is the best way to make sure every employee is an effective advocate.

STEP 4: Educate the pet parent

Create marketing and educational materials to help promote senior wellness care. Here are some elements of a program that you should keep in mind.

  • "Senior at 7." Who are your seniors? Some programs start at 5 or 6 years of age, but we found 7 to be a good fit for us. From a marketing perspective, we've found some other buzzwords that seem to stick with clients. For example, the phrases "early detection" and "all the care for the year" have worked well for us in marketing our package of senior services.

  • Senior-specific report cards. This is more detailed then a general exam report card. It often emphasizes lab tests, eye pressure, blood pressure, and the arthritis exam, and it's generally more comprehensive than the adult or young pet report card.

  • Senior questionnaire. This is really helpful, because it offers the client the chance to tell us about the changes they've noticed in their aging pets. It also allows the pet owners to pinpoint their specific concerns, and in our practice it uncovers issues consistently and thoroughly.

  • Age chart. This tool adds perspective for pet parents, who may not equate the 10-year-old dog to a 70-year-old person. It's a great idea for clinics to show or give the human age equivalent at each pet visit.

  • Standards of care posters and handouts. These are your hospital's protocols and recommended care based on the pet's age. Written protocols and recommendations make sure the team is on the same page, and they're a great way to educate clients on your recommended care.

STEP 5: Create a program

Senior prevention programs can come in all shapes and sizes. For the simplest program, you may just promote a senior blood screen. I know a doctor who recently bought a practice that previously had no emphasis on senior care. He sent out a letter promoting a senior blood screen. The practice promoted a 20 percent savings, and it was a successful campaign.

My favorite approach is to offer a complete package for senior pets. It's an all-inclusive package that mimics our standard-of-care packages, promoting the message that it's all the care your pet needs for the year. You can market these as you want: Pay one price up front, or split it into semi-annual payments or even monthly payments. These work well if you educate the client properly and price the package right. I recommend a 20-percent discount.

While it's a popular program, it isn't for everyone. If a client refuses these services, we offer our senior heartworm health screen. We package a heartworm test and a senior blood screen with a thyroid test and a urinalysis. We discount this package 20 percent, because we get special pricing on this test from the lab—and most hospitals can. Just ask for a promotion. I've learned that most clients are aware of screening and are at least a little interested, and when the price is right they'll bite. It's good for the pet, because we have at minimum a baseline—good for the owner, because we can catch health issues early, and good for the clinic, because good medicine is good business. Just remember, if pets get sick in a month or three months, they'll need another test.

You or your managers may have been reluctant to launch—or revamp—a senior prevention program in the current economy. I believe it's a great time to offer packages and promotions. Clients still want good care for their pets, but they also want a discount or package that provides value. That's why it's important to find the right package and price point for your area.

If your clinic hasn't been putting its all into promoting senior care, there's no better time than now. You've got lots of seniors at your clinic, and this is about offering more high-quality medical care, which is the future of veterinary practice. Now's a perfect chance to improve client compliance, which can improves the health of your practice as well as the health of the pets you serve.

Dr. Jeff Rothstein, MBA, is president of Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals and Management Group in Michigan. Send questions or comments to

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