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
The U.S. cat population has risen by several million over the past five years, according to several studies. However, the number of feline veterinary visits is declining and nearly three times as many cats, as compared to dogs, did not receive any veterinary care in the past year.
This is an incredibly disturbing trend that should trouble every proactive and progressive veterinarian.
While client surveys have yielded myriad reasons behind the decline — higher veterinary fees in an up-and-down economy and a willingness to search the internet for answers to veterinary questions, for starters — we can gain some insight on how to fix these issues.
But let’s take a hard look at our practices. Are we meeting the needs of our feline patients and their owners?
As general small animal practices cater more toward the dog-owning client — another possible reason for the decline — you can start to recapture feline clients if you embrace strategies designed to reduce fear, anxiety and stress at home, in the lobby and in the exam room. The customer experience will become positive, the patients will be less anxious and reactive, the hospital staff will enjoy the appointments more, creating a better work environment, and feline veterinary visits will increase, driving revenue and overall growth.
Follow this three-step approach:
1. Generate a successful plan for the client’s home well before the scheduled veterinary visit.
Your practice website should contain specific information about how a client can achieve calm and controlled transport of the cat to the practice. This should include a number of common recommendations:
- Making the carrier part of the home’s “furniture.”
- Administering pheromone therapy.
- Discussing with the veterinarian the possible use of anti-anxiety nutraceuticals or medications.
2. Upgrade your lobby.
Most current hospital design plans include separate waiting areas for cats and dogs. (This wasn’t initially possible at my practice because of space constraints.) Instead, consider:
- Creating a cat-friendly area. This is a quiet space adjacent to or near the lobby where cats can remain in their carriers, with a Feliway towel draped over the top to help reduce fear, anxiety and stress.
- Strategically placing plants and other visual barriers to minimize sight lines between patients.
- Painting walls and ceiling in hues of soft yellow to violet. Heather Lewis, AIA, NCARB, of the design firm Animal Arts, recommends avoiding white, orange and red.
The lobby is a good place to introduce a variety of treats that are considered of high reward to the patient. The handouts can begin at home just before car travel, assuming the patient does not display signs of motion sickness. Try adding a small cooler or fridge behind the front desk to store tuna or salmon in small disposable containers, deli meat, and canned cat food or baby food (without onions). Other food options could include freeze-dried treats and other treats of variable textures.
3. Improve the exam room.
Ideally, a practice should have an exam room or exam times designated for feline patients. If this isn’t possible, the next best step is to make sure every exam room is prepared for a feline visit at all times. For example:
- Make sure the room has been cleaned using a scent eliminator. Some agents only mask scents, which might be detected by the feline patient.
- Plug in a pheromone diffuser during office hours.
- Stock towels that have been warmed and sprayed with Feliway two hours before the appointment.
- Use Zen collars and other low-stress distraction collars as an alternative to a muzzle.
- Supply a litter box. A full bladder or full colon can add to a cat’s irritability and cause more difficulty with the exam.
- Furnish a cat tree or similar perch to improve the environmental enrichment of the exam room.
- Provide toys, which are incredibly helpful to mentally engage or distract feline patients. These should include wand toys, food puzzles, catnip and even brushes (if the patient enjoys the contact).
Although the physical exam should be the core of the annual wellness visit, vaccinations have an important role. Take a look at your vaccination protocols for feline patients. Are you using a fresh needle for injections? Additionally, some vaccines offer a lower volume and frequency.
In highly reactive or sensitive patients, consider offering a topical anesthetic before an injectable vaccination or even placing a catheter. The patients will respond more favorably, and clients will appreciate the extra effort for comfort.
What is equally important to consider is the client in the exam room. Our clients have been conditioned in so many ways to be fearful about veterinary visits. We need to break down the walls to show that giving pets the quality health care they deserve is possible and that we can do it without making the experience stressful for the cat and pet owner.
We know that the more we see these pets, the healthier we can keep them. The tools to make their lives easier are available, but we need to use them.
All the techniques described above will allow you to show the client her cat’s teeth and, if arthritic changes are suspected, the lack of range of motion in the hips. The client will be able to listen to a heart murmur, and you can demonstrate how to trim nails.
If a client can hear your recommendations and see them translated onto the cat while the patient is more relaxed and comfortable, the client will be much more likely to comply, move forward, develop trust and follow further recommendations. You can increase practice revenue by generating more repeat visits — clients will come once or twice a year instead of five years — and by being able to better diagnose and provide services.
We have lost ground as a profession with our feline patients, but using proper techniques at all parts of the veterinary visit will help recapture clients. We’ll never truly control what they see on the internet or what they buy for their pet in a store, but we can control the veterinary experience.
If we want repeat patient visits, and not just when an emergency arises, we need to make sure that clients walk out our clinic doors feeling satisfied with the service they received.