For those of you keeping score at home, cats are winning the standoff with veterinarians. Here's how to get cats out of combat mode and into your clinic.
Hissing. Wailing. Claws out. Hair on end—the cat's, and maybe the client's too. Chances are you're all too familiar with the feisty felines that let you know in no uncertain terms how much they loathe your clinic. Cats are waging an ongoing battle against veterinarians, and it's taking a toll. Cat owners are throwing in the towel, which means fewer cats than ever are visiting a veterinarian even once per year.
We began taking notice of this trend several years ago, when the AVMA's 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook reported a significant decline between 2001 and 2006 in the number of visits cats made to the veterinarian. Five years later, cats still aren't getting the care they need, according to the recently released Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. The good news is that insights from this study show us what we need to do to reverse this trend.
While a cat's raised hackles are stressful for clients, feline resistance isn't the only factor driving the decline in veterinary visits. The study—a research initiative conducted by Bayer Animal Health, the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI), and Brakke Consulting—identified five other key reasons that visits have been declining: sticker shock when it comes to the cost of veterinary care, the recession, the fragmentation of veterinary services, the Internet, and a lack of understanding about the need for care.
In the practices we've worked with, 30 percent to 40 percent of visits are feline-related. Yet cats outnumber dogs as owned pets. So your first step is to identify the felines you should be seeing.
On your new-client worksheet, instead of asking, "Do you have any other pets?" ask, "Do you have any cats?" and "When was the last time they visited a veterinarian?" Train your receptionists to follow up on these questions if they're left blank and to also ask these questions of current clients that come in so your records are up to date.
Then use that information. Set these pets up in your reminder system and flag them in the records. Doctors and other team members can talk to the client about needed care even if this isn't the pet they brought in. Everyone should ask about the status of every pet during every visit: "How is Sophie doing? We haven't seen her in over a year. Let's schedule an appointment."
And, of course, reach out to cat owners who don't visit your practice. Form alliances with cat clubs, boarding facilities, and animal welfare organizations to educate cat owners about the need for care. Use seminars, mailings, and first-time visit promotions with these groups.
According to the Bayer study, neither dog nor cat owners completely understand what care their pets need. (For details, head online to http://dvm360.com/skipthevet.) Cat owners, however, have much less of an understanding of the need for physical exams and other preventive care. About 40 percent of survey respondents said they would not take their cat to the veterinarian if their cat didn't need vaccinations. Compare that to just 24 percent of dog owners.
Many cat owners surveyed said they would take their cat to the veterinarian only if it was sick. They were comfortable with longer intervals between visits compared to dog owners, and they believed indoor cats and older cats didn't need as much care as outdoor or younger felines.
Yet when the survey asked cat owners what it would take for them to visit the veterinarian more often, the results were encouraging. Three of the top four items are easily addressed by better client education. Up to 56 percent of cat owners said they would take their cat to the veterinarian more frequently if:
> they knew they could prevent problems and more expensive treatment later on
> they were convinced visits would help their cat live longer
> they believed their cat needed exams more often.
To help cats get care, fill the gap between what clients do now and what they'd do if they understood the need. First, make sure you're up to date yourself on feline health needs. An excellent resource to get you started is the AAFP-AAHA Feline Life Stage Guidelines released in 2010. (You can find a link online at http://dvm360.com/felinelifestage). The publication outlines optimal care for cats in each of six life stages, from kitten to geriatric.
What cat owners want
Many cat owners in the Bayer study indicated they would appreciate an annual healthcare plan tailored to their cat. Here's what they wanted to know:
> what kind and how many veterinary exams their cats need during the year
> what kinds of procedures and diagnostics you recommend
> what they can do at home to keep their cat healthy
> what symptoms to watch for that might indicate their cat is ill.
Make answering these questions a priority each time Sophie and her owner visit. Don't just talk about what you recommend today but go through the care needed over the next six to 12 months as well. Send a personalized written annual plan home with the client.
Don't stop there. Without a strong sense of "why," clients won't remember the importance of your plan. So don't just say, "We recommend Sophie come back in six months." Instead say, "Before you leave, let's set up another appointment for Sophie in six months so we can make sure she's still in great shape. Cats are excellent at hiding illness, and if we detect disease early, we can provide better care, a better prognosis, and a reduction in the long-term cost of Sophie's care."
Every team member has a role in communicating with cat owners. During a typical visit, cats and their owners interact with technicians and receptionists as much as with doctors, so make sure your team is trained and comfortable with felines.
Turn hisses into purrs
In staff meetings, outline the topics team members need to cover in kitten visits, adult cat visits, and senior cat appointments. Decide which topics the doctors will cover and which topics the technicians will cover. Take advantage of checklists, posters, models, and handouts to illustrate the points that doctors and the team need to cover with clients.
And don't forget about receptionists. Have your front office team take the lead in scheduling follow-up visits during checkout. Plus, remember that clients regularly ask receptionists about medical matters. Give these team members the information they need to provide answers or decide when to call over a doctor or technician.
Your team members can also send clients home with handouts and recommendations for reading. A booklet titled "CATegorical Care: An Owner's Guide to America's #1 Companion" from the Catalyst Council is an excellent resource. (Find a link to it at http://dvm360.com/cataresources.) In addition to printed materials, offer your clients a list of websites (yours included) that contain high-quality feline health information. Medical information is important, but also point your clients to cat behavior, training, and general care information.
To be even more proactive, don't wait for cat owners to visit to educate them. Include critical cat information in your newsletter or direct mail and e-mail blasts as well as in your social media efforts. Expand your website to include a wide variety of interesting and important feline information. Include everything you talk to clients about on your website for easy reference.
Cat owners interviewed during the Bayer study were eloquent about the difficulties they encountered when they took their cats to the veterinarian. Cats hid when they saw the carrier, scratched and bit their owners, cried all the way to the clinic, and went ballistic when a big dog nosed up to the carrier in the reception area. Results of the survey reiterated the findings from one-on-one interviews with cat owners: 58 percent said their pet hated going to the veterinarian as opposed to 38 percent of dog owners. And 38 percent of cat owners said just thinking about taking their cat to the veterinarian was stressful. Check out the Catalyst Council's cat carrier video to teach cat owners what they can do at home to acclimate their kitty to a carrier and to car rides. (Find a link at http://dvm360.com/catresources.)
Make it clear to cat owners that you care about cats and understand their needs. Make sure that dog pictures don't outnumber cat pictures in your reception area. Post photos of clients' or staff members' cats, provide books and magazines about cats, offer a range of cat products, post displays of cat breeds, and hang a bulletin board that displays feline information.
You can also offer seminars or handouts on topics specific to cats such as life stage needs (from kittens to geriatric cats), dietary recommendations, tips on administering medications, and information about cat-friendly boarding facilities. Consider offering kitten kindergarten classes.
Cats and their owners may never love the trip to, during, and coming home from a veterinary visit. However, with a little effort, you can reduce the owner's and the cat's stress level and help everyone's hair stay flat. Once that happens, you can focus on giving cats the care they need and deserve.
Dr. Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, CVPM, is CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. John Volk is a senior consultant at Brakke Consulting. Send questions and comments to email@example.com.