SPECIAL REPORT PART 1: Putting out the pet food recall fires

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In the thick of media reports and hourly updates, we asked your colleagues how they were handling the pet food recall. Here are their tips from the trenches.

WHEN THE NEWS ABOUT THE PET FOOD RECALL BROKE, your phone started ringing off the hook—and didn't stop. Some of you got 65 to 75 calls a day from concerned clients wondering about the pet food recall. One indication of the reach of this issue: "Pet food recall" was the number one Google search term during the week of March 18. So what was the key to managing the situation? These doctors focused on getting their team on the same page and communicating the most up-to-date information they could to their clients.

Did you call your clients? If so, did you call all clients or just those you knew were affected by the recalls?

Cheryl Waterman: When we found out that a popular therapeutic diet had been recalled, we generated a list of clients who had purchased the food from us in the last three months and then we called all 93 of them. If they had any of it on hand, we asked them to bring it back to the clinic and we credited their account for it.

What other avenues did you use to educate your clients about the recall?

Waterman: We developed a list of every client who had visited the clinic for any reason in the last year and sent them a letter with information from AAHA attached. We told clients to call us first if they had any questions. We also posted information in the reception and treatment areas, and we talked to team members about what to say when clients called so everyone was on the same page. We discussed the need to encourage clients to bring their cats in for blood work and a physical exam and then took it from there depending on any clinical signs.

Dr. Dennis Cloud: We developed a script for team members to use when clients called. We also directed clients to the AVMA and Menu Foods Web site for updates. We updated our script with the latest information as it came out. And we told clients that if a pet had been exposed, they should bring it in for blood work and a urinalysis. We gave clients who brought in their exposed pets a handout about renal disease.

Dr. Dennis Cloud, a Veterinary Economics Editorial dvisory Board member and owner of Rock Road Animal Hospital in St. Louis, Mo.

The number of phone calls we received was unbelievable, and the experience was frustrating in the beginning. Veterinarians were the last to be informed about this problem. So we didn't have much to tell clients other than what was in the news.

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr.: Our team developed a handout listing all the recalled foods and then we highlighted any brands we had recommended or knew our clients were using. Then we contacted the local media and sent out press releases. We also contacted local animal rescue organizations and animal shelters and referred them to Web sites that offered complete information about the recall.

How did your team respond to clients who called in with concerns? What protocols did you follow?

Waterman: If clients had any concerns, we encouraged them to bring their cat in for blood work, and in some cases we'd do a urinalysis—depending on the signs and on how long the cat had eaten the recalled food. We did a lot of extra blood work but it was worth it. And it was great if we didn't find anything wrong. In many cases, we had baseline blood work to compare to—and a lot of patients showed some elevated values.

Cheryl Waterman, practice manager at the Cat Clinic of Johnson County in Lenexa, Kan.

Dr. Cloud: If any of our patients had been exposed, whether dogs or cats, we recommended an appointment for blood work and urinalysis. If the pet hadn't been exposed, I told the client not to panic. The trouble was that in the beginning, we had trouble getting the information we needed to educate our clients. Someone from our team was on VIN every couple of hours to check for updates. If a client wasn't sure the pet had been exposed, I had him or her come in anyway and we conducted blood work and a urinalysis.

Dr. Ward: We armed our clients with a lot of information and we were calm and methodical. I think that approach allayed their fears. Once we explained the clinical signs of any problem—and clients realized they weren't seeing those signs—they generally felt calmer. Of course, we did basic blood and urine tests if a client still had concerns about the pet's health. So far, we haven't seen a single pet that got sick from the food.

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr., a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member. Dr. Ward owns Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C.

How did you make sure that your team was disseminating the correct information to clients?

Waterman: We had a team meeting to discuss the situation. We talked about the importance of baseline blood work even for cats that were 2 or 3 years old because then we could place those values in their file.

Dr. Cloud: This situation caught us off guard, so that first day was hard, but by the second day we had a typed-up sheet of what team members should say to clients. When we could, we had the doctors talk to clients about the situation. But we got so many calls that it was hard to do.

A man with a plan

Dr. Ward: The evening I first heard about the recall I sent out a quick e-mail to the entire staff alerting them to the issue. That way, everyone arrived at the clinic the next morning prepared. We put a handout I created on the doors and checkout counters and in each room. We even had grocery stores calling us to ask what they should take off the shelves. We gave them whatever information we had.

What has been the most difficult aspect of managing the recall?

Waterman: It was hard to keep up with what was going on. That first day, we couldn't get through to any of the informational hotlines and some of the Web sites were down. We were at a loss in the beginning. And we wanted to be sure we were on top of things and giving our clients the right information—you don't want to put forth information that's not accurate.

Review your record-keeping tactics

Dr. Cloud: I think the hardest thing was that clients were disenchanted with the whole situation and didn't know where to go for information. Our job was to tell them to stay in touch with us. And it was hard—the information was changing so fast. If we had known about this right away we would've sent clients a letter, but even a letter wouldn't have done much good due to the constantly changing situation.

The legal lowdown

Dr. Ward: At my practice we've recommended diets that are now on the recall list, and that's where I'm having the hardest conversations with clients. Clients want to know why the premium food I recommended is on the list and yet there's a less expensive version out there that hasn't been recalled. I'm getting hard questions from clients and I have hard questions myself that have yet to be answered. I tell clients that we're still learning all the details of the situation. I want to make sure I'm fully informed about how these foods are manufactured, and I've been assured by our reps that they'll give us as much information as we need to feel comfortable with our recommendations in the future.

Reinforcing the benefits of in-house testing

Have clients brought up anything you didn't expect?

Dr. Cloud: We had a few clients, not many, who couldn't get an opportunity to holler and complain to the food companies, so they hollered at us. They were mad and couldn't get anybody on the phone. The only human they could reach was at our clinic. We told them not to shoot the messenger. And we reassured them that the veterinary profession is trying to stay on top of this.

The bottom line

Clients also asked about switching to homemade diets. We didn't discourage that, but we told them that it's hard to maintain a long-term homemade diet. We copied information from a nutrition book and handed that out to those clients considering a homemade diet.

For more recall recommendations,Click here.

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