Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “Leading and Managing Veterinary Teams: The Definitive Guide to Veterinary Practice Management.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.comRead Articles Written by Amanda Donnelly
At a dinner last fall, one of my girlfriends said she finally found a Thanksgiving bowtie for her cat, Oliver, who always wears a bowtie on his collar. Another friend showed cute photos of her polydactyl cat, Mikey, sleeping with his paws outstretched. Then she shared how Mikey uses his extra toes to open kitchen cabinet doors to get food and how he loves to fetch. Mikey is one of four kittens rescued in our neighborhood last year. Their adoptive families use a group text to exchange photos and chat about their cats’ similar personalities.
Hearing my friends speak lovingly about their feline family members inspired this article. As veterinary professionals, we know that cats are an underserved pet population. So, how about evaluating your communications with cat owners? Do your marketing initiatives attract cat owners? Are you doing everything you can to cater to the needs and desires of cat-owning clients?
Think Like a Cat Owner
I suggest reviewing your practice’s website to ensure you focus equally on cats and dogs. For example, does your website have visuals and information about cats or does it mostly center on dogs? Reviewing websites, I noted one with helpful how-to videos for cat and dog owners. However, on another one, I saw “Cat Wellness Plans” superimposed over a photo of a family and its dog. Unfortunately, such a marketing mistake can inadvertently send the wrong message to feline owners.
I recommend leveraging your website and social media to provide links to credible resources on feline medical topics and to post articles on feline health care. Such actions show that your team is interested in and knowledgeable about feline medicine.
Another way to attract cat owners is to look for opportunities to network with and educate them. For example, you might want to speak to breeder groups, work with local feline rescue groups, and sponsor community events where you showcase your feline medicine expertise.
Lastly, remember that your hospital décor should be attractive and inviting to cat owners, not just dog owners. Make sure photos and artwork don’t predominately focus on dogs.
Many feline patients are stressed when they enter a veterinary hospital. Often, the stress starts at home when the cat sees the travel carrier. So, send clients an article or video links that provide tips to lower stress during car rides and after arrival at the hospital. Your efforts to minimize feline stress will help cat owners feel more welcome and encourage return visits.
Also, make your reception room as inviting as possible for cats. If you don’t have a separate waiting room, use signage to designate one area for cats to minimize encounters with dogs and loud noises. Moreover, try to get feline patients into an exam room quickly, allowing clients to let the cat out of its carrier and acclimate to the exam room.
Here are other ways to support low-stress visits:
- Schedule cats in appointment blocks whenever possible so that they don’t see dogs.
- Plug in a feline pheromone diffuser, or spray feline pheromones on a towel placed on the exam table.
- Stock towels and wipes in exam rooms to clean a carrier if a cat urinates or defecates during the car ride.
- Place cat toys, including one with catnip, in each exam room, or sprinkle catnip on a small rug. Play can alleviate stress in a cat.
- Use a small scale to weigh a cat in the exam room.
Build Trust and Rapport
As a team, discuss the importance of showing the same interest in cats as you do in dogs. Sometimes, team members unintentionally ignore cats because they arrive in carriers. To avoid such a scenario, always acknowledge and greet cats (and dogs) at the beginning of an appointment. Even if the cat is still in the carrier, a team member might say, “Oliver is so handsome,” or “Oh, I can see that Indie looks a bit scared. We will do everything we can to minimize her stress.”
To build trust with cat owners, team members should create connections and show how much they care about the client’s bond with the pet. Given the opportunity, clients are happy to talk about their cats’ personalities and how they spend time together.
Here are examples of comments and questions you could use to build trust and rapport with cat owners:
- “Tell me about Chloe’s activity level at home.”
- “What kind of toys does Bucky like to play with?”
- “I love Oliver’s bowtie. Does he have more at home?”
- “I can see how much you love Earl.”
- “Tell me about Maggie’s diet, water consumption and eating habits.”
Feline veterinary visits have historically trended lower than dog visits. Unfortunately, the perception of some cat owners is that their pet doesn’t need routine preventive care, especially if the cat stays indoors. Therefore, asking dog clients whether they own a cat is a good idea. If the answer is yes, a team member can educate the pet owner about the value of feline veterinary visits.
One of the best long-term strategies to increase compliance with treatments and product recommendations is to tell clients during kitten wellness appointments about the value of annual exams. Let them know that a cat is more likely to live a longer, healthier life with proper care. In addition, explain some of the common medical conditions seen in younger cats, such as dermatologic issues, obesity, cystitis, behavioral problems, viral infections, diabetes and renal disease.
Be sure to talk to clients about the value of laboratory testing since cats tend to hide signs of illness until a condition worsens. For example, my niece’s veterinarian discovered early kidney disease and slight weight loss after checking her cat’s lab values and weight. I’m sure you have similar stories to share with clients.
Another strategy for improving client compliance is communicating what is unique about feline medical conditions and treatments. For example, when recommending dental radiographs and a dental cleaning, talk about the frequency of tooth resorption in cats. With the owners of senior cats, you might discuss the value of checking blood pressure since hypertension is relatively common in cats and a serious but treatable condition.
Consider how your team can engage and educate cat owners. Catering more to the needs of feline patients can help more cats get the care they deserve.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers this advice on transporting a cat: “When carrying your cat in the carrier, do not hold it by the handle alone, but instead hold the carrier underneath to reduce movement and keep it level.” Other suggestions and downloadable client brochures are at bit.ly/3V8TUgt.