The Cat’s Meow
Expand your feline patient base by altering how you accommodate patients and communicate with their owners. CFP certification is a plus.
When I was 13, I found a litter of abandoned kittens in my 93-year-old neighbor’s backyard. All the kittens were dead except for one. I persuaded my parents to let me rescue the survivor and, being a teenage girl, I named her Melissa. Weird name for a cat, I know.
Melissa lived for 18 years. I recall her cool calico coloring and how loudly she purred. I recall how she loved to go outside first thing in the morning and how she’d come running home every evening when I called to her from the back door: “Melissa! Here kitty, kitty, kitty!” I don’t recall her ever visiting a veterinarian until I was an adult.
It’s funny the things we remember about childhood. I recall both of my parents being animal lovers but not them taking our pets to the veterinarian for wellness visits. Perhaps that’s why Melissa hated veterinary visits much later in her life. Once, she clawed my leather jacket, ruining it, when I tried to get her into her carrier.
It’s well-known that cats visit a veterinarian less than their canine counterparts do. Today, I’m reminded of how easily cat owners can give up, throw their hands in the air and wait until their pets seem sick enough before attempting a veterinary visit.
Veterinary professionals and feline organizations have attempted to remedy that all-too-common scenario.
“We knew there was an issue with people getting their cats to the hospital and with people thinking that their cats didn’t need regular veterinary care,” said Dana Wile, practice manager at Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital in Austin, Texas. “Our cat numbers were very low and we wanted to see that number go up.”
It was 2012 and the American Association of Feline Practitioners had recently created its Cat Friendly Practice certification. At the time, about 20% of Star of Texas patients were cats, so Wile’s team decided to apply for certification and work toward growing the feline base.
Since becoming a Cat Friendly Practice, Star of Texas has focused on making the practice something of a cat haven and worked on marketing to pet owners and educating them about the importance of feline veterinary care. Today, more than 30% of the patients are cats.
Here are four ways to attract more feline patients.
1. Complete More Continuing Education
Think your client service representatives don’t need feline-specific CE? Think again. Your entire staff can influence patient care and client service. CSRs can ask about other household pets when clients call to schedule an appointment or when they check out and then inform those clients that cats need regular veterinary care, too. CSRs also can offer stress-reducing tips on getting cats to the clinic, and they can incorporate methods to reduce feline stress during check-in and checkout.
Cat-focused, role-specific CE helps ensure that your feline patients and their owners are well taken care of from the moment the appointment is requested to when they check out.
2. See Your Hospital from a Cat’s Perspective
Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital “changed everything,” Wile said. “We made one exam room that was far away from the other exam rooms for cats only, and we made it a lot more comfortable for cats. Where that really made a difference was for those middle-of-the-road cats — the cats who weren’t quite sure about coming out of their carriers. Suddenly, they started coming out and walking around the room with their tails in the air.”
To create a space that cats will love:
- Dedicate a separate entrance and waiting room if your facility allows.
- Do as much as you can in the exam room. Star of Texas does all treatments in the exam room so that cats don’t go back and forth through the hospital. A computer is kept in the feline exam room so that cat owners can check out before leaving the room.
- If clients can’t check out in the cat exam room, place a table in the lobby so that cat carriers can be elevated rather than sit on the floor near canine patients.
- Use a feline pheromone diffuser in cat areas of the hospital and spray pheromones on towels, blankets and other items used to handle cats.
- Place cat toys, fresh catnip, scratching posts and cat trees in feline areas.
- Play calming music in the cat areas of the hospital.
- Provide high-value cat treats during exams and treatments.
- Incorporate the outdoors. Choose a windowed exam room and place a birdhouse and bird feeder outside to keep patients pleasantly distracted.
Star of Texas has a cat boarding facility that felines and their owners love. The hospital is a converted old house, and the cat boarding area, which Wile calls “the sanctuary,” is in the second-floor master bedroom, which was previously unused.
“It now has cat condos, and we added a bird feeder and a birdhouse outside the windows,” Wile said. “We play cat-friendly music and have Feliway diffusers in there. We have team members who go up there and let out the cats for supervised play so they can stretch their legs. It’s quiet and serene. We have clients come to take a look at the sanctuary and they’re like, ‘This is where I want my cat.’”
3. Market Your Feline Services
So, you’re dedicated to providing an exceptional experience for cats. Now it’s time to let pet owners know about your efforts. Don’t be shy. Spread the word in the following ways:
- Email: Send monthly email communications that include cat-specific messaging. Tell clients about the importance of feline veterinary care and about the steps you’ve taken to make your hospital a great place for cats.
- Website and blog: Include feline messaging on your “Services” web page and regularly publish blog posts about cat care. If you are a Cat Friendly Practice, use the logo on your website home page.
- Social media: Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital posts on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, letting current and potential clients know about its Cat Friendly status and its commitment to making the hospital a great place for cats.
- Printed materials: Star of Texas is located on a busy street, so the certification is advertised on a giant banner in the front yard. “It attracts a lot of attention from people driving by,” Wile said. The practice also uses handouts to educate pet owners about various feline-specific conditions and the importance of veterinary care.
- Word of mouth: Train your staff to talk about cat care and your feline services. “Let people know about the special things you do,” Wile said. “If someone is there with a dog, they won’t necessarily know that we have a cat-only exam room. We make sure to tell everyone that we see cats and that we have created a cat-friendly hospital.”
4. Make Visits Easier for Clients
One of the biggest barriers to cats receiving wellness care is the stress that cat owners feel before they leave the house, Wile said.
“People leave the carrier in the garage, so it’s covered in cobwebs and dust, and then they bring it inside and expect the cat to magically go into it,” she said.
Wile’s team educates clients about making the cat carrier a safe and comfortable place. A video posted on the Star of Texas YouTube channel demonstrates how to get a cat into a carrier.
A cat kit is provided to make getting to the veterinarian easier. “Our kit includes gabapentin, Zylkene, a Feliway wipe and information about how to use each product,” Wile said. “We give it to clients at no charge so they can get their cat into the hospital.”
Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer and the owner of Denver-based Rumpus Writing and Editing [rumpuswriting.com]. Her cat, Leo, visits the veterinarian at least annually, much to his chagrin.
GO THE EXTRA MILE
Certification as a Cat Friendly Practice sets Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital apart from its neighbors, practice manager Dana Wile said.
“If you can show clients that you’re committed to making a pet’s visit the best it can possibly be, they’re more likely to be compliant and come back again next year,” Wile said.
Cat Friendly Practice certification is available from the American Association of Feline Practitioners. The designation, according to the AAFP website, “equips you with the support and resources needed to deliver elevated and quality care that incorporates the cat’s perspective throughout the entire experience.”
Cat Friendly Practices are listed on the AAFP website. The searchable database has brought new clients to Star of Texas.
“Other nearby hospitals that aren’t able to manage some of the more difficult cases are referring to us because we’re Cat Friendly and Fear Free certified,” Wile said.
“Our certifications have brought nothing but great things, and they’ve brought us so much joy. It’s so nice to work with animals who are happy and aren’t scared or stressed.”