Fearless columnist Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.Read Articles Written by Natalie Marks
When the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III was published in 2014, the findings were startling. It revealed that more than half (52%) of U.S. cats weren’t receiving regular veterinary care. In addition, 83% of new cats went to a veterinary hospital within the first year of ownership, but too often, they didn’t return. Sadly, I suspect only minimal improvements in those statistics going into 2023, which is something we can’t accept. Instead, let’s consider five key areas to focus on in our practices to create a continuum of care over a cat’s lifetime.
While pet owners used to find us in the Yellow Pages and through mailers, nearly every new client today searches online and reads reviews. That means pet owners will learn about your hospital and its feline care from your website and social media channels, not your incredibly friendly and helpful customer service team.
What grabs cat owners and keeps them loyal? They want community, recognition and feline-specific resources. So, audit your website with an objective friend or family member. Do you post photos of dogs only? Do you have a section all about feline diseases and prevention? Does your online pharmacy advertise feline products? What exam room technology can you showcase that’s essential in feline medicine, such as digital dental radiographs, ultrasound and Doppler blood pressure measurements? Do you provide feline-only hours and dedicated exam rooms? Does your hospital have Cat Friendly certification? And, of course, is every Saturday “Caturday”?
Kitten owners want to feel welcome, important and unique. We can shape that feeling digitally.
Once cat owners decide your hospital should be their hospital, they need to logistically come and go with the least amount of stress possible. While the first trip might be seamless, one of the major reasons cats don’t return to see us is the stress of the travel carrier on the kitten and owner. Instead of waiting for that unfortunate moment, we should proactively teach about cat carriers at every first kitten exam.
Encourage the use of the cat carrier as home furniture. It’s all about the positive association and visual desensitization. Instead of being a trigger for kittens, the carrier becomes the space where they eat yummy food, enjoy relaxing pheromones and nap because it’s comfy inside. It’s a safe space. I like carriers that you can disassemble and open at the front and top.
At one time, I assumed every cat owner knew this stuff, so I did nothing to lessen the reason cats and their owners stress out over veterinary appointments.
Don’t want to reinvent the welcome-kit wheel? Download and share this amazing resource from the American Association of Feline Practitioners: bit.ly/3TgzQIN.
Experts agree on four main reasons that kittens and older cats scratch:
- To sharpen and remove old nails.
- To mark territory visually and olfactorily.
- To stretch after sleeping.
- To exercise the body.
Inappropriate scratching can become a big problem for cat owners if a kitten isn’t trained from the beginning. A 2017 study published in The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery showed that 83% of cats presented to a small animal practice had scratched inappropriate items.
We should share these three critical points with frustrated clients, especially first-timers who think adopting a kitten is as easy as placing food in a bowl a few times a week and putting a litterbox inside a closet:
- Scratching posts should be in prominent social areas where normal cat exploration happens.
- Until kittens settle in on a scratching post, they should try different textures, such as cardboard, sisal and fabric. For clients who want only one suggestion, the S-shaped cardboard scratcher was revealed to be most effective in a 2019 study.
- Kittens and older cats love to live in vertical spaces first and horizontal places second. Owners shouldn’t be surprised to see kittens climbing, perching and jumping off high structures.
When a kitten is happy and comfortable in the exam room, the owner and veterinary team relax. It’s an organic strategy involving toys, high-reward treats and vertical exploratory spaces. In addition, team members should be in cat-handling mode, which means using minimal, slow movements to accommodate a kitten’s weaker sense of sight and playing low-level classical or reggae music in the background to suit their strong sense of hearing.
I recommend that every practice invest in a towel warmer and stock it with clean towels sprayed with pheromones at least 30 minutes before the exam. Once the appointment begins, the warm towels become “purritos,” in which kittens often snuggle and knead their paws.
One thing we don’t talk about much is a kitten that struggles during the first visit. A behaviorally normal kitten should explore, play with toys, accept treats and engage with the team. If a kitten suddenly acts fearful, don’t ignore the response. Instead, offer socialization tips or give a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. No age is too young for a referral.
Finally, take a minute or two to give each kitten owner a glimpse of what’s ahead. This means discussing:
- How often you want to see the kitten.
- The adult and senior life stages.
- Parasite prevention.
- Abnormal health so that the owner knows when to call for an appointment.
Another study reported in 2021 that 57% of pet owners thought the cost of veterinary care was too high, so go ahead and introduce great financing options. I am a strong proponent of pet health insurance and wellness plans.
Lastly, encourage consistent preventive care, and don’t forget to forward-book the next appointment.
LITTER BOX LESSONS
Offer cat owners this advice about the “purrfect” litter box:
- The box should be 1½ times the size of the cat, from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail.
- Start with one litter box per cat, plus an additional one.
- Kittens typically prefer unscented, clumping litter at least 1 inch deep.
- Litter boxes should be scooped daily and emptied and cleaned weekly.
- Each box should be placed in separate locations at least 6 feet from food, water and loud noises.