Several months ago, Veterinary Economics' sister magazine for team members, Firstline, published a cover story about the feline healthcare crisis. To kick off the issue, Editor Kerry Hillard Johnson wrote her
Front Desk column about her experience taking her favorite feline, Pippa, to the veterinarian.
The column, "Don't like my cat? Fake it," pulled no punches. Hillard Johnson explained that taking Pippa to the doctor was
torture both for her and the cat. And team members' barbed comments about Pippa's bad attitude made her feel even more frustrated,
guilty, and embarrassed than she was to begin with.
She knows that Pippa is a fractious handful. But she, like many cat owners, feels that veterinary teams perceive her pet as
mean and nasty when she knows that Pippa's simply out of her mind with terror. "All I'm looking for—all any cat owner is looking
for—is a veterinarian and team who [will] show our pets a little love—even if you have to fake it," she wrote.
Well. Firstline readers were not happy. (Click here to read the column. To read the responses, see the Related Links at the end of the article.) While a few wrote in that Hillard
Johnson's comments were helpful, more responded defensively. "Some cats ... are quite pleasant to be around. Others, such
as your cat, obviously don't share that trait," one reader wrote. "You don't really expect us to say, 'Oh, what a wonderful
cat you are,' as it tries to bite or scratch us, do you?" another asked. And yet another reader accused Hillard Johnson of
throwing a pity party for herself. And those are just the letters that got published.
As a cat owner myself, I've struggled with the same issues as Hillard Johnson in the veterinarian's office. I know Rosie isn't
an easy patient. I know they know she isn't an easy patient. Nobody needs to point it out. Now I take her to a cat-only clinic, and when Rosie hisses
and screeches, no one bats an eye. The doctors and employees laugh at the "bad names" she calls them while restraining her
securely but gently. They tell me she's "aloof" during boarding (what a diplomatic adjective) but that she's beautiful and
is "welcome back anytime." The message I hear? "We like your pretty cat—despite her quirks."
Here at the office, I've watched the recent cascade of Firstline communication with a lot of interest—not least because we were planning our own feline cover story (see "The forgotten feline:
Grow your practice by attracting cat owners"). And all this defensiveness makes me wonder if herein lies part of the problem.
Maybe cat visits are declining because (1) it's a difficult process for both cat and client, and (2) cat owners get the impression
that doctors, team members, or both just don't like their pets.
I am absolutely convinced that those declining feline numbers could turn around. But not until cat owners are convinced that
they and their frazzled kitties are not the problem children of the veterinary world.