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The missing link

Asking dog owners about any cats at home — forgotten felines number in the millions — promotes animal health and can help fill a practice’s appointment slots.

The missing link
Dog owners frequently have cats that we don’t even know about, let alone provide with veterinary care. 

The animated television series “CatDog” was released in 1998 on Nickelodeon. If you never saw it, envision a species that is one-half smart, cunning cat and one-half happy-go-lucky dog.

Today, the cartoon reflects many U.S. households in which both species happily co-exist while battling for the attention of their owners. However, unlike “CatDog,” who had to go everywhere together because of their inseparability, combined pet households are much more likely to seek ongoing veterinary care for a dog member while the cat plays poor stepchild and stays home.

A Little Background

The numbers below, sourced from the American Pet Products Association’s 2017-2018 Pet Ownership Survey, are relevant to this discussion.

  • 68 percent of U.S. households, or 85 million families, own a pet.
  • 60.2 million households have dogs and 47.1 million have cats.
  • 94.2 million cats are owned, compared with 89.7 million dogs.
  • The average household owns 1.5 dogs.
  • The average household owns 2.0 cats.
  • $69.4 billion dollars was spent within the U.S. pet industry.
  • $16.62 billion was spent on veterinary care.
  • The average spend on routine veterinary care was $257 for dogs and $182 for cats.
  • The average number of visits to the vet per year: 2.7 for dogs and 2.2 for cats.
  • 46 percent of pet-owning households have multiple types of pets.
  • 32 percent of pet owners have a combination of dogs and cats.

Take a look at the last statistic. One-third of your clients have at least one cat and one dog.

We know from all the statistics published by the Catalyst Council and others that cat-only households are underserved. What we probably don’t recognize is that dog owners frequently have cats that we don’t even know about, let alone provide with veterinary care.

What can we do to help the one-third of our clientele ensure that both species get equal care?

Just Ask

For all new or existing clients, create a system or process whereby you are always asking whether other pets are in the household. Simply stated: “Mrs. Smith, we are so glad to see you and Fluffy here today. Are there any other pets at home that we can put in our system, so we can keep you up to date on their health care needs?”

Put this question on your “Welcome to the Practice” form. If the information is left blank in the computer or on the paper form, just ask!

Follow Up

In situations where a dog owner has acknowledged a cat in the household, follow up. Make a phone call. Send an email. Gather information about the pet. Set up your reminder system to include these additional pets.

Simply stated: “Mrs. Smith, it was great to see you and Fluffy yesterday. We just wanted to be complete and thorough on the information we have for Kit Kat and Garfield. Can you reply to this message with the following information? Thanks.”

Did You Know?

Many clients think that cats and dogs have little in common except that each is a pet. It isn’t until you explain the common afflictions that both can get — whether it’s fleas, heartworm disease or internal parasites — that pet owners realize the indoor-outdoor dog could bring problems into the house for the inside-only cat. Or that the indoor-outdoor cat could introduce fleas to the purse Chihuahua.

Once you know about a cross-species household, take the time at dog visits to express concerns about the needs of the cat that is under-represented in terms of veterinary care. Of course, you can’t dispense prescription flea control or heartworm medications for a pet you haven’t seen, but you can let your clients know that you are eager to ensure that the cat becomes part of your veterinary family.

Also, educate, educate, educate. Focus on both species’ needs and, if necessary, set up follow-up phone calls or emails or even texts to remind the client of the conversation. However, be careful not to go too overboard on the cat discussion when the dog is in front of you. On the other hand, if you don’t express concern for the clients’ cats, they won’t know.

Have an Easy Button

As much as you think your clients enjoy coming to see you, you likely do not top their list of fun places to go. Ever watch a client with two golden retrievers, two kids and two Happy Meals try to navigate her way into your clinic from the parking lot? It isn’t pretty. Then add a cat carrier to the picture.

Since pet owners would rather get everything done at the same time and have all pets on the same schedule, try to help make the cat-dog visit easy.

For multispecies visits, ask the pet owner to text you or call from the parking lot so you can send somebody outside to help. It isn’t unheard of for a pet owner to leave one pet in the car while the other is brought into the clinic. High-risk activity! Help out.

Teach clients how best to transport their cat with their dog. A plastic carrier vs. a cardboard carrier. A tightly sealed pillowcase vs. under the jacket. Pheromones vs. anal glands.

Have a Second Easy Button

This may not be practical for every clinic, but consider scheduling house calls for cats. It will put you ahead of the competition. Getting cats out from under the couch or bed is barrier No. 1 for feline visits. If you truly want to be the veterinarian of choice in your community and you have a large number of dog owners with underserved cats, think house call.

Have a Third Easy Button

Set aside clinic time for dog clients to bring in only their cats. Yes, doing this may require clients to make two trips, but they will appreciate a quiet lobby and no dogs stressing out their fractious feline.

Make an Ethical Bribe

The thought of getting their cat into the carrier vs. their dog onto a leash is a deal breaker for many cat-dog owners. Sometimes they need an incentive. Many practices offer a multipet discount — bring in one animal and the second gets the office call at a reduced price. The client is already present, and you can save time with check-in. So, offer a discount.

Also, why not offer an incentive to the cat-dog owner to bring the cat without the dog? It is easier for them and for you.

Missed Opportunities

Great effort and focus are needed to bring new clients into a practice. There is an associated acquisition cost — your marketing budget — to get new clients. But what if you could get new patients without having to spend a penny? Think about the cat part of the cat-dog equation as an easy way to find new patients, minimize the acquisition cost and add value for your dog clients.

If you focus on the one-third of cat-dog owners in 2018, you can grow your practice and fill your appointment book simply by spending a few moments to ask, “Are there any other pets at home for which we can provide care?”

Dr. Peter Weinstein owns PAW Consulting and is executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association.