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Improve the feline experience

Devoting a day to cats and practicing low-stress handling techniques all the time will elevate wellness care in the mind of pet owners and improve medical care.

Improve the feline experience
47% of cat owners brought their pets in for wellness care over the course of a year and an additional 7% visited a veterinarian solely because of an illness.

For the past five years, October has equated to CATober in my practice, a month where we rally around all things feline. The marketing program was a response to the industry’s call to expand our reach and enhance our approach to feline veterinary care. Nearly seven years after the release of the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings, the nagging question for those working to improve cat statistics in their practices is, what have our efforts amounted to and is continuing them worthwhile?

Interestingly, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s most recent Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook concluded that surveys conducted before 2016 overestimated the number of U.S. pet cats. The statistical flaw came from a survey sample biased toward women and urban households — demographics more likely to represent cat owners. Contrary to 2012 results, which indicated that cats were the most popular pet in the country at 74 million, with dogs a close second at 70 million, current estimates show a static pet cat population of 58 million and dogs the clear frontrunner at 77 million.

This significant adjustment is good news for small-animal practices perplexed at the notion that such a significant portion of community cats was not receiving basic veterinary care. While the quantity of non-served cats is less than previously believed, the rates need improvement. The AVMA study found that 47% of cat owners brought their pets in for wellness care over the course of a year and an additional 7% visited a veterinarian solely because of an illness. For dogs, the statistics showed 79% wellness and 4% sick.

Is Your Practice Certified?

Much has been written on how to adapt patient visits, external messaging and internal education to promote and improve the feline experience. The American Association of Feline Practitioners led the charge with the 2012 creation of the Cat Friendly Practice (CFP) certification, a designation that over 1,200 practices held as of late 2018. A survey of participants reported high satisfaction and improved feline handling, team education, patient load and revenue.

In my hospital, we work to incorporate best practices throughout the year, and specifically during CATober, when we:

  • Review and ensure adherence to CFP certification requirements.
  • Dedicate team training to low-stress handling techniques and feline-specific medicine.
  • Educate clients about feline health considerations and successful veterinary visits.
  • Reach out to lapsed clients with an invitation to return for routine care.
  • Incentivize proactive wellness care with a discounted flat-fee, all-inclusive, cat-only veterinary day.

During the discounted wellness care day, we fill four doctors to capacity with about 75 exams packaged with needed vaccines, a fecal parasite screen and a dose of parasite prevention. Lingering dog hair and smells are eliminated as much as possible, and feline pheromones fly. In a festive Halloween spirit, we don cat ears and whiskers.

Clients eagerly make appointments well before the annual marketing begins, and we have established a feline patient base, motivated by cost savings, that receives annual veterinary care on time. Our discounts are made profitably possible through manufacturer support, and we are looking to expand the promotion to include home visits and encourage biannual exams by hosting a spring event.

Small Steps Forward

Using Boehringer Ingelheim’s “Have We Seen Your Cat Lately?” program guide, I have tracked a variety of feline business metrics. While most of our numbers trend positive, they are, at best, tracking with the hospital’s growth. Despite the popularity of CATober promotions, our active felines continue to represent less than a quarter of all patients and on average generate $300 less income annually per patient than their canine counterparts.

So, why do we knock ourselves out every year to improve our “cattitude,” knowing that past attempts have yet to move the dial on key performance indicators in a significant way? The answer lies in individual veterinarian-client-patient relationships.

We might not have succeeded in broadening our patient base, but I feel confident we are better serving the cats and owners who choose to seek routine veterinary services. Cats in our care visit an average of 2.4 times a year, compared with the AVMA study average of 1.3. While cats generate merely half the annual revenue per patient than dogs, expenditures significantly exceed national standards.

Arguably the most beneficial outcome from our feline efforts are the less quantifiable intangibles: environment and handling. I cannot say I have a strong affinity toward cats, but my respect for the species has improved significantly throughout the processes of learning about their behavior. The same can be said for many of my teammates.

When we implement low-stress visit techniques, our doctors can more fully examine our feline patients and provide better medical care. Our clients notice when their typically fearful or fractious pets respond to our efforts, positively reinforcing their decision to visit the practice and possibly encouraging repeat appointments sooner at the sign of illness and on schedule for wellness care.

I would love to see our practice better motivate unvetted cat households in our community to seek out regular veterinary care. In the meantime, our best approach is to do our absolute best for the patients and clients we do see. Their positive experiences, once shared with friends and neighbors, will enhance our reach and legitimize our message that our practice has a special heart for the feline species. When those cats inevitably need us, we are ready and welcoming.

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.

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