Make the first veterinary visit count for cats
Here's how your team can help lock in a lifetime of care for cats.
Although most cats don't go to the veterinarian regularly, 83 percent visit the veterinarian during the first year of ownership, according to the recent Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings. Clearly if you're committed to a renewed focus on feline healthcare, that first year of ownership, whether the cat is a kitten or adult, presents the most significant window of opportunity to build a client bond and establish the importance of ongoing preventive care. It's up to you to make that first visit an informative, instructive and satisfying experience.
What can a practice do to make that first visit really count? First consider the image your practice presents to cat owners. This includes your facility, promotional materials and even the attitudes of your team members. On the next pages, you'll find solutions for every member of the veterinary team to contribute to successful cat visits.
On the phone
When an owner speaks with a client service representative to schedule her cat's first visit, is she wowed by the individualized attention you offer? Train your client service representative to tell new cat owning callers that your practice takes extra special care of cats. For example, clients representatives can spend time learning the age of the cat, whether this is the first cat the caller has owned and whether the owners have any concerns about their cat's health or the first visit to the veterinarian.
Based on the owner's responses, prepare a variety of "go to" materials to mail, email or link to via the practice website. This is also the perfect time to determine a new client's preferred mode of communication, get all of her current contact information and enter the information into the practice management software.
A first-time cat owner may not know that a visit to the veterinarian potentially could be very stressful. In the Bayer Study, 58 percent of cat owners state that their cat hates going to the veterinarian, making it the No. 1 obstacle to regular veterinary visits. The client service representative can improve the success of that first visit by offering to provide new owners with specific materials to assist them in acclimating their cat to the carrier and the car. A practice can either create its own materials or refer owners to the videos created by the American Association of Feline Practitioners or the CATalyst Council available at dvm360.com/carriervideos.
Let all feline owners know your practice's philosophy is that a successful, stress-free trip to the veterinarian both begins and ends at home. And your practice is committed to helping them with every step in the process.
In the waiting area
If your facility doesn't lend itself to cat and dog waiting rooms, physically separate the space with a room divider. Shelves or benches let cat owners raise carriers off the floor.
Remember, cats are much more comfortable on elevated surfaces. Feline-friendly artwork and reading materials are also a nice touch to make clients feel at home.
In the exam room
Before you bring the client and patient into the exam room, prepare the room. Plug in a pheromone dispenser and place a towel sprayed with pheromones on the table. Leave the pheromone spray on the counter so you can spray some on yourself in front of the client, explaining what it is and further demonstrating that you are committed to making the visit as stress-free as possible. If you have the space, it can help to reserve one exam room for cats only.
Once the client is in the exam room, you can show how much you enjoy cats with affection for the cat, by sharing personal anecdotes and by demonstrating excellent feline handling skills. New owners will be relieved when they see you've been trained to remove cats from their carriers gently, rather than pulling or upending the carrier to dump the cat on the table. When feasible, let the cat exit from the carrier on her own and explore the exam room. Just make sure there are no open cabinets where the cat can hide and be difficult to reach.
Next, collect a brief history and ask the client to complete a feline health questionnaire targeted to the age of the cat. These can include basic questions such as the amount and brand of food fed, whether the cat is on heartworm preventive and more in-depth behavioral and environmental questions. Questionnaires help the client think about topics they might not have thought to mention so the veterinarian can personalize the appointment and educate owners.
Present every new cat owner with a customized three-ring healthcare notebook or folder that is branded to your practice. This can include an initial section on your practice's philosophy on the importance of feline preventive care and a sample lifetime health plan. A binder can also include a section for educational material specifically targeted to the cat's age and breed and health issues, and then a section for them to add exam reports, discharge instructions, invoices and so on. The binder becomes a valuable resource for the owners that they can review and bring to every appointment.
During the exam
Always complete exams with the owner present unless they request otherwise. Conduct a thorough head-to-tail examination, explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it and what you observe. This includes the owners and provides an opportunity for them to ask questions. Perhaps the cat has an ear infection. Rather than just telling the owner this, let the client look in the otoscope and see for herself. If the cat's weight is a concern, place their hands on the cat so they feel what you feel. Engage them in every way possible so that they're invested.
While pet owners should receive a personalized printed exam report at the end of every visit, the first visit is also your chance to set future care expectations if you present and review a handout on your practice's feline lifetime care recommendations. According to the Bayer Study, most cat owners don't know cats are adept at hiding signs of illness and injury. And 53 percent of respondents did not think that their cat had ever been sick or injured. Emphasize how routine preventive care exams address potential health issues before they're too advanced and more expensive to treat.
At the end of the first visit schedule the next visit, even if it's six months to a year away. Let clients know you will contact them via their preferred method two weeks before the scheduled exam in case they need to reschedule. To encourage them to keep the appointment, you may also offer a small incentive, such as 10 percent off the exam fee. This rewards behavior that you want to turn into a habit. Lastly, make sure that a team member follows up with a phone call the day after the cat's first visit to check on them and see if the owner has questions or concerns.
Send new clients a thanks and welcome card. And send established clients a congrats on your new pet card to acknowledge their trust in your practice.
Whether a cat is adopted as a kitten or an adult, that first visit may be your chance to set the stage for a lifetime of care. Personalized attention offers rewards for the pet and your practice. An added benefit: Providing a wow experience turns cat owners into fans who will go out of their way to refer others to your practice. So go ahead. Make that first visit count!
John Volk and Jessica Goodman Lee, CVPM, work with Brakke Consulting.