There’s opportunity in cats.
Fewer than half of the cats owned in the United States visited a veterinarian in the last year, according to the most recent Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. And only 37 percent of owners take their cat in for routine wellness exams.
While these statistics are discouraging, the study also found that owners were interested in providing good healthcare for their cats. In many cases, they simply didn’t know what “good healthcare” was or there were other obstacles in the way. Addressing those issues provides a tremendous opportunity for practices to attract and bond with more feline owners.
Here are recommendations and ideas based on the study results to help get you started on improving the feline experience in your practice. Which ones are you doing? Which ones could you do? And why wouldn’t you?
1. Educate on cat carriers.
Educate on cat carriers. When cat owners call to schedule appointments, offer advice on getting the cat into the carrier. More than 70 percent of cat owners said their veterinary practice gave them no recommendations for transportation or acclimating their cat to the carrier. Yet the Bayer studies—conducted by Bayer Healthcare Animal Health with Brakke Consulting and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP)—have shown that cat resistance to carriers is one of the biggest obstacles to veterinary care.
“We need to orchestrate the process of moving a cat from living room to exam room. Moderate food before the visit so we can offer treats as rewards. Ask owners to give ‘chill pills’ to calm cats and their stomachs. Lend compression garments.” —Marty Becker, DVM
2. Train everyone on cats.
Every team member should practice effective cat handling and restraint methods. Demonstrating a high level of comfort when handling cats speaks volumes to clients. Plus, cats are often calmer when they don’t sense fear or nervousness in those handling them.
“All staff members are trained, but some are considered ‘cat whisperers.’ We call on them when cats or their owners seem nervous. Cat owners remember these staff members and request them, and we note that so when they call for an appointment, we can check that the staff member they prefer is on duty.” —Karl Salzsieder, DVM, JD
3. Decorate well.
Put up cat-oriented pictures and reading material in reception and exam rooms. Update your website images to give equal screen time to dogs and cats.
“We decorated our feline rooms with cat wallpaper and borders. It probably doesn’t do much for the cat, but owners like it.” —Philip VanVranken, DVM
4. Provide separate areas in reception for dogs and cats.
Cats often like to be elevated, so provide shelves or benches for cat carriers. Almost 60 percent of cat owners were not fully satisfied with their veterinarian’s reception area, according to the Bayer Feline Health Study.
“It used to be common to see dedicated cat and dog waiting spaces. Today, practices use alcoves so clients can separate when needed. Adding artwork and a feline product display next to an alcove can help clients choose the ‘cat place’ in reception.” —Heather Lewis, AIA
5. Plan ahead for cat visits.
Ensure that an exam room is available as soon as possible. Because cats sometimes need up to 20 minutes to acclimate to their surroundings, the best way to make them as comfortable as possible is to accommodate them immediately without having them spend a long time in reception.
6. Reserve a feline-only exam room.
Ideally, choose the one furthest from the hubbub of the hospital.
7. Block off appointment time for cats.
Offer specific days or times of day solely for cat appointments. Many owners find the decreased exposure to noise and dogs reduces stress, both for them and their cats.
8. Build a multi-level cat condo in an exam room.
Cats are comfortable when they can perch on elevated surfaces, and they’re still within easy reach when it’s time for the examination.
9. Use feline-friendly pheromones.
Place a towel sprayed with pheromones on the exam table. Plug in a pheromone dispenser in every exam room used for cats.
“Our air exchange is so high that we need plenty of dispensers to build up higher concentrations. We spray smocks and other uniforms before work and let them sit for 30 minutes, if possible, so alcohol dissipates.” —Marty Becker, DVM
10. Stop shaking or “pouring” cats out of carriers.
Neither the cats nor their owners like this practice, and owners get the impression you don’t like or aren’t comfortable around their felines. When possible, allow the cat to leave the carrier on its own and explore the exam room.
“Set the carrier on the floor facing the wall. Many cats are punished at home for jumping on the counter, so if you elevate them, they may think they’re in trouble.” —Marty Becker, DVM
11. Start cat visits with questions.
Use pre-examination questionnaires with behavioral and environmental assessments. This gives owners a chance to think about changes they’ve observed in their cat they may not have considered important or relevant.
12. Talk during feline exams.
Conduct physical exams in the room with the client, unless otherwise requested. Explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what you’re finding.
13. Separate hospitalized cats and dogs.
While this may be difficult depending on the layout of your practice, separation can greatly lower hospitalized cats’ stress and owners’ fears of leaving them alone at your clinic for treatment.
“We encourage this with all our hospital design clients. Ideally, the cat ward is sound-insulated to further reduce stress.” —Heather Lewis, AIA
14. Give cat report cards following every visit.
According to pet owners surveyed for the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, exam reports and care instructions are some of the most highly valued services.
“We give exam and dental report cards to all feline parents. We include a summary of the yearly cat care we recommend along with a checklist of recommended services. When we fill these out, we go over the findings with the owner.” —Jeff Rothstein, DVM, MBA
15. Ask about other pets at every visit.
Many owners routinely bring in their dogs, but not cats. Make sure to spend time to educate them on the importance of feline preventive care.
“We ask about other pets in the house at when clients book appointments, when clients and pets come in for exams and during checkout.” —Jeff Rothstein, DVM, MBA
16. Schedule the next exam before the cat leaves.
This increases the likelihood that the owner will bring the pet back when scheduled.
17. Put cats in your social media.
Create social media content specifically targeted towards the interests of cat owners. Check out dvm360.com/postnow for cat-friendly tweets and Facebook posts.
18. Send newsletters to cat
Cover feline behavior and health several times per year. Make it worth their while. For example, ask them to watch an educational video on the importance of blood tests for feline preventive care, and at the end of the video offer a specific reward code.
19. Offer incentives.
Cat owners surveyed for the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study said discounts and promotions would motivate them to bring their cat to the veterinarian more often.
20. Offer monthly-paid wellness plans.
Forty percent of cat owners in the Bayer study said that if their veterinarian offered monthly payment plans, they’d be more likely to bring in their cat. Consider making these plans available to cat owners.
“We’ve offered wellness plans for cats for years, but they’re less successful compared to dogs. We need to teach clients that cats need more than just minimal care. Cat owners—especially with indoor cats—don’t always see the need.” —Jeff Rothstein, DVM, MBA
21. Help clients reach your cat advocate.
Provide owners the work phone number and email address of a staff member they can contact with questions.
22. Teach classes for cat owners.
Hold educational seminars for cat owners on topics such as diabetes, urinary tract conditions and kidney disease.
23. Make housecalls for feline exams.
Many cat owners want to provide cats with preventive care, but due to the perceived difficulty, they opt not to bring them in unless they become ill (and since cats hide symptoms, it often means that a disease has already progressed past the initial stages).
“Our clients love home visits and are usually willing to pay extra to minimize stress on their cat.” —Karl Salzsieder, DVM, JD
24. Work with a feline rescue group.
Offer the organization discounted care. In return, new adopters receive information on your practice and a free exam within the first few days of ownership.
25. Become an AAFP-certified Cat Friendly Practice.
This program provides guidelines to insure your practice is a go-to destination for cat owners.
John Volk and Jessica Goodman Lee work with Brakke Consulting. Thanks to Drs. Marty Becker, Jeff Rothstein, Karl Salzsieder and Philip VanVranken as well as architect Heather Lewis for their advice in this article.