VMX 2020—14 tips for a better feline veterinary appointment

2020-01-21

We veterinarians like to say, “Cats are not small dogs.” A similar credo differentiates the cat owner from the dog owner.

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The person who chooses to be ruled by a cat is generally also ruled by idiosyncrasies in how he or she processes information and communicates with others. At the 2020 Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX), held this week in Orlando, Fla., Eric Garcia, founder of Simply Done Tech Solutions and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Advisory Board member, outlined the characteristics that differentiate the cat owner from the dog owner and laid out a plan by which veterinary practices can play to these distinctions.

The cat (owner)… a unique creature

Most people who welcome cats into their homes tend to direct their energy inward, Garcia said. “Studies, time and time again, have shown that cat owners tend to be introverts.”

In other words, they are internal processors, or “thinkers.” But, he added, introverts can behave in an extroverted way as long as they have time to prepare for interpersonal encounters. As an offshoot of their core introversion, these individuals do not respond duly to pressure; instead they meet pressure with stubbornness.

“Being very demanding,” Garcia said, “is definitely failing to engage this type of owner.”

Studies also show that introverts function better, particularly in situations involving other people, when they have a plan. So too, cat owners have higher “neurotic” scores than do dog owners, tend to be creative in their thinking and lean toward creative professions, earn a little less money than dog owners, are more likely to divulge thoughts and feelings to their feline pets than dog owners are to confide in their dogs, and enjoy their cats’ company more than dog owners enjoy spending time with their dogs.

“The cat just appeared”

How owners provide for their whiskered friends is often influenced by how their cats entered their lives. According to the AAFP, more than two-thirds of cat owners obtained their cat for free, and half report that they did not seek to own their cat—rather, the cat “found” them.

“Most of them incidentally started feeding and caring for a (stray) cat, but didn’t have the knowledge to take care of that cat,” Garcia explained.

The new cat owner typically seeks such information online or from a friend who has cats, rather than from a veterinarian. One reason is cost, and another is perception, Garcia said. “We know that cat owners earn less and, according to the AAFP, the number of cats they own often exceeds what they can comfortably afford,” he said. Furthermore, half of cat owners view their pets as low-maintenance, 81% believe their cat is in good health and most do not know that cats hide signs of illness.

“We have this whole population of cat owners who believe that if their cat is sick, he will communicate it to them,” he continued.

Why the cat owner shuns the vet

For all of the above distinctions that set cat owners apart, the typical kitty parent eschews the veterinary encounter. According to AAFP research, 50% of cat owners find the veterinary visit to be stressful, versus 20% of dog owners.

For one thing, Garcia said, they are typically anxious on arrival because of the efforts they have made to cajole—or, perhaps, stuff—an often-reluctant cat into a carrier. They start the appointment feeling the need to rush so they can return the cat to the comforts of home.

But the rushing comes from both directions, according to a recent UK study: The average amount of time the veterinarian spends in the exam room is just short of 10 minutes. U.S. studies corroborate this brevity.

“People are not really absorbing the information in this short period of time,” Garcia explained.

Compounding the minimal contact time, the introverted owner is naturally more reluctant to engage in conversation, offer information and ask questions, particularly within the textbook vet appointment format, which is built on directives and admonitions.

Turning the cat owner into a regular client

OK, so we know that cat owners are a challenge because they generally stumbled upon their cat accidentally, believe cats don’t hide illness and tend to trust nonveterinarian sources most for feline information and advice.

But attitude contradicts need. A cat’s health status at any particular moment is a bit of a mystery for the average owner: “Education for this specific pet-owning demographic is a tad more important than for the dog owner,” Garcia said.

He recommended a few simple adaptations to improve the veterinary experience for cat owners:

  • Help the owner prepare for the cat’s appointment by sending out a digital questionnaire in advance (e.g., via JotForm or Google Forms). The owner, particularly if introverted, will probably convey the pet’s condition more openly in the quiet of their own home rather than amidst growling and chaos in the exam room. Studies show these questionnaires increase appointment efficiency, produce better client experiences and boost the average client transaction amount.
  • During the appointment, reinforce your position as the expert on feline health by citing research, case studies, cost-benefit analyses, and the like.
  • Educate cat owners about the importance of preventive health, particularly vaccines.
  • Use empathy statements during exams, such as “If I'm understanding you correctly…,” “I’ve experienced this with my own cat,” or “I would feel this way too in your situation.”
  • Don’t rush the appointment: Owners who feel hurried may avoid addressing certain topics that may be important.
  • Celebrate healthy cats: Congratulate owners for teaming up with you to keep their cats healthy.
  • Provide trending data for a patient’s diagnostics, like blood work. If the client sees steady changes over time in a value like creatinine, it justifies continued blood work.
  • Create a health report card for each visit: This enables the more bashful owner to access information about his or her cat without having to verbalize questions.
  • Offer additional payment options: The AAFP reports that 52% of cat owners desire this.
  • Offer a contract plan, wherein a flat annual fee buys exams and services; this ups both cost efficiency for the client and overall frequency of veterinary visits.
  • Send owners links to instructional videos for maintenance procedures they can do at home, such as cleaning their cat’s ears.
  • Link AVMA and veterinary school data/resources to your hospital’s website.
  • Engage cat owners through social media by sharing stories and photos of patients (with owner permission, of course).
  • And finally, stop neglecting cats: Most veterinary practices market to dog owners much more than cat owners; Garcia says respective marketing efforts should be 50-50.