The obstacles to regular veterinary care are often the same for the scruffy barn cat as the pampered high-rise feline. The solution may be to use different tactics to get culturally different cat owners to comply.
Steph Burk, DVM, has a long history with most of her clients. Owner of Western Hills Veterinary Clinic, she was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, and returned to her hometown to practice veterinary medicine after graduating from Ohio State University in 1988.
Dr. Steph Burk
Her community is mostly rural and low-income—the Section Eight housing capital of the county, she says. "I know what they're up against with their finances," Burk says. Within a five-mile radius of Middletown, the median household income is less than $50,000. Burk says not a day goes by when she's not talking to someone about how to manage payment or provide the best treatment they can within their means. "Nevertheless, people try to help their pets," she says.
In a former steel town where the largest employers are now big-box stores like Walmart, Sears and Target, Burk has realized that to get more pet owners through the door, she has to play the big-box game. "If you offer something at even a little bit of savings, even if it's not a lot, people really pick up on that," she says. The reality is that people see value in discounts, coupons, "BOGO" (buy one, get one) deals and loyalty rewards.
So this year Burk has done two things she never thought she'd do in her practice: offer a low-cost vaccine clinic and conduct a tomcat neuter day. She says both endeavors provide a needed community service but also (and more importantly for her business) they get more pets—specifically cats—through her door.
The majority of Dr. Steph Burkâs feline patients are found pets and, given the rural area she serves, they are often outdoor cats as well. Serving a low-income area, Burk says cost is often a barrier, so she now offers low-cost tomcat neuter days and vaccine clinics to get clients who would otherwise never cross the threshold of her door into the clinic. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN WARD)
Burk holds the vaccine clinic once a month and is already seeing it generate new clients. There is no exam and therefore no exam fee, just the cost of the vaccine. Right now she says the clinic is drawing about 80 percent dogs, but she hopes it will catch on with more cat owners as well.
"There's still this misconception that cats don't need regular care, but people do feel they have to get around to getting a cat neutered," she says. Hence her decision to offer a tomcat neuter day.
Dr. Daphne Thompson is an associate with the Cat Hospital of Chicago, a gold-standard Cat Friendly Practice, as designated by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CAT HOSPITAL OF CHICAGO)
As with the vaccine clinic, Burk knew she would be providing a needed community service—at the very least, the neuter day might put an end to the seemingly endless litters of black-and-white kittens being dumped in the area. "Somebody's tomcat was having a field day out there," she jokes. But it was also a deliberate move to get cats she knew were not getting regular—or any care—into the exam room.
Her first tomcat neuter day was March 8 and involved 25 cats. In an area where low-cost spay and neuter services are commonplace at neighboring veterinary clinics, she charged clients just $30. "Needless to say, I don't make a lot of money off that," Burk says.
Lloyd is kept relaxed in a low-light, quiet room with a plush blanket in his carrier while receiving electroacupuncture at the Cat Hospital of Chicago. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAT HOSPITAL OF CHICAGO)
And she's the first one to say the neuter day isn't about bells and whistles. "Some extras were available, such as vaccines, and quite a few people took advantage of that," she says. Burk also secured a supply of free flea control products from manufacturers and offered them as part of the service. She required cash or credit up front—no checks and no IOUs. "I wasn't stuck with any cats left behind," she says.
Though neutering 25 cats in a day was no small feat for the sole practitioner and her team, Burk says it was a success. She took advantage of the opportunity to begin new relationships—to let people know they had a place where they could get help when they needed it. "The good PR from that is worth the deficiency in charges," she says. "We're hopeful that at least the ones that opted for vaccinations we'll get back for boosters."
Kenny, known as a normally "opinionated" patient, according to Dr. Daphne Thompson, prefers to stay in his carrier for exams.
What she really enjoyed was the opportunity to educate. Burk has a degree in anthropology and she loves to use it, especially when talking about cats. "Cats are the wildest of our domestic pets," she tells clients. "It is their instinct to hide illness until they absolutely can't." Burk says she's had cat owners bring in their pet at death's door, guilt-ridden that they didn't realize it needed care.
"Hopefully getting them through the doors—seeing the posters on the walls, having conversations with the staff—they'll learn that cats really do need more attention than most of them are getting," Burk says.
Food distraction is often used successfully at the Cat Hospital of Chicago to complete nail trimmings, as shown here, without stressing out cat or client.
And while she admits the neuter day isn't the state-of-the-art medicine prized by today's veterinary profession, she has to be practical. "I think that the real world is a little different—you need to handle all these issues with common sense and flexibility and what works in your community," Burk says. "Common sense and compassion are really, really important."
She says she does her best to provide the best care possible within her clients' means. "This is the real world, not academia," she says. "It's not the big city."
Daphne Thompson, DVM, an associate at the Cat Hospital of Chicago, is in the big city—but she says she faces many of the same obstacles to feline care that practitioners do at a small-town canine-feline practice. "We're urban, but people just don't want to take their pets out of the house," she says. "They don't perceive that cats need regular care."
The Cat Hospital of Chicago works to meet those challenges by devoting itself to cats. It is a gold-standard Cat Friendly Practice, as designated by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (see catvets.com). The hospital touts calming feline pheromones in exam rooms, exams performed wherever a cat is comfortable, individualized attention, top-notch accommodations including heated cage floors, continual monitoring for hospitalized patients and—to play to the crowd—no barking dogs.
Where Burk offers value in low-cost services to get her cat clients through the door, Thompson's Chicago hospital offers a special level of attention—a devotion to easing the anxiety of cats and clients—to raise perceived value. "Since most veterinarians are dog people, if you bring that level of care and information sharing, it will resonate," Thompson says.
However, she agrees with Burk that making the most of that often small window of opportunity with clients is essential. "It all boils down to education and using as many resources as possible," Thompson says. The Cat Hospital of Chicago uses its website, its facility, social media and a prerecorded loop for on-hold callers to deliver its message of cat care.
Burk, for her part, employs both old-world and new-world tactics. She writes a regular column in the small local newspaper but also takes to social media to reach pet owners. "Everybody I see has a cell phone and does Facebook," she says. It's factoids that society seems to want—"particles instead of articles," she says.
Both doctors agree that it may be a simple fact about the risk of rabies or how a cat conceals pain that compels a cat owner to make an appointment. "You can always reach out and they may be open to what you have to say—you can change what they think about medical care or quality-of-life issues," Thompson says.
Part of the challenge is that many cat owners don't realize that an optimum level of feline veterinary care exists, Thompson says. "I can open their eyes to see value in it," she says. "For a lot of people, it's a question of what they perceive as valuable."
Once a client is in the exam room, Thompson says the best thing she can do is effectively communicate her recommendations for treatment, but it always comes down to what the owner chooses. "Part of the population you draw will be informed and educated, but there will always be some that just aren't interested," she says. For example, Thompson says clients used to barn cats find the concept of indoor pampered felines ridiculous.
Burk—whose patients are mostly strays, found kittens and, often, outdoor cats—has learned to walk a fine line when it comes to the cultural, emotional and financial barriers to compliance. "You can't stuff it down peoples' throats, but you can leave the door open," she says.
Despite the challenges, Thompson is encouraged by the progress she sees in cat care. "Thirty or 40 years ago, how many cats had regular care?" she asks. "A spay or neuter—maybe a couple of boosters? It wasn't a concept that existed that long ago."
Both practitioners are encouraged that what they're doing is leading to more and better care. Thompson says as other clinics adopt cat-friendly values they'll realize it too. "I think as word gets out, you'll start seeing the cats come," she says.