Maintaining the health of your feline patients when they reach their golden years involves engaging owners in their cats’ care before they become seniors.
Cats are a growing yet overlooked sector of the pet population. For decades, veterinary medicine has treated cats like small dogs. Much cat behavior is misinterpreted and misunderstood by society and animal professionals alike. These factors, combined with a cat’s independent nature, have led to a lack of healthcare for felines worldwide. This article presents ways for veterinarians to engage clients in their cats’ healthcare — well before they become seniors. This improves quality of life, deepens the human-cat bond, and ensures healthier senior years for your feline patients.
Step #1: Implement ways to get cats in the clinic
We cannot advocate and care for our patients without seeing them on a regular basis. Most cat guardians are not aware that their cats need regular veterinary care. As a result, painful conditions such as tooth resorption, IBD, and arthritis go undiagnosed and untreated. Our job as veterinarians is to reach and educate as many cat parents as possible. One of the easiest and most efficient ways to do this is by reaching cat guardians via text, email, and social media. The following are strategies to engage cat parents and increase the number of feline exams in your practice.
Use email and text engagement
Most veterinary practices communicate with clients via text and email to send reminders. Email and text are fertile mediums for creating a consistently engaged relationship with your clients. Keeping in touch with clients with relevant content pertaining to their cats is a great way to educate and increase compliance. Weekly email or text messages can be a mix of fun and informative content. This allows clients to learn with digestible forms of information and gives them the opportunity to hit reply and engage with you.
For example, many cat guardians don’t realize that vomiting at any frequency is abnormal for a cat and should not be ignored. This fact, delivered in email or text, may trigger a visit that allows you to perform diagnostics and recommend diet changes. The discussion about IBD can start years earlier and save many cats years of pain and suffering. When clients understand that their cat may have IBD, and they understand it is treatable, they are more likely to return for diagnostics or come in for regular examination.
Producing weekly content may sound overwhelming for the busy practitioner. However, using email marketing tools such as MailChimp or ActiveCampaign can automate emails. These emails can be repeated yearly to save time. Blog posts and video content can be created by the entire veterinary team. As content is created, it can be stored in a bank and be updated and recycled as needed.
Current clients with cats are the most important group on your email list to engage. If your client has only cats, be sure they receive cat-specific content. This will help them feel connected and engaged with you and your clinic. The second group to engage is clients who bring their dogs or other species to your practice, but have cats at home who are not yet established in the practice. Individual clients can be added to this group by asking if their other pets live with cats at home. The third group includes cat guardians who have not been seen in your clinic but live in the area. Running targeted ads on social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest is a great way to grow your email list and increase the number of cat exams in your clinic. Hiring an ads expert is recommended to help create the most targeted ad possible.
Write blog posts
Blog posts are a great way to maintain an accessible bank of information for your clients. Links to these posts can be sent out via email, text message, and even in exam notes to provide your clients with more information on everything from nail trims to tips on managing diabetic cats. These posts can also be shared on social media to reach current and prospective clients.
Blogs can be quick and easy to read and help prepare clients for veterinary visits. For example, when a feline patient turns ten, you may send out an article on the top three reasons the cat needs bloodwork. The client may also be interested in learning the top five ways cats show pain. This blog could be sent out annually after cats reach the age of 12.
Your blogs can also help cat parents find credible information written by a veterinarian or veterinary professional. Writing and publishing these articles on WordPress helps cat parents find your clinic when they use common search terms applicable to the article.
Create video content
Video is a great way to educate and stay in touch with cat parents in and outside of your practice. Video links can be sent out via text message and email while producing great ranking on social media channels. Educational videos can help demonstrate common procedures performed at home and can also be entertaining. It’s helpful for cat parents to see videos that demonstrate how to medicate cats, trim nails, and administer subcutaneous fluids. Providing links to these educational videos can also decrease the time spent by veterinarians and staff in the exam room.
High quality videos can be produced with a lavalier lapel microphone, a smartphone, and a tripod. Videos can easily be edited and uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo from a smartphone.
Step #2: Make the kitty’s experience positive
After you have successfully scheduled your feline patient for an examination, it’s time to ensure that the experience is positive for both the cat and owner.
Prepare your client and patient
A smooth veterinary visit starts at home. Send your client information on how to prepare in advance, when possible. A series of videos or blogs with tips on carrier selection and the process of acclimating the cat to the carrier can help reduce stress on the way to the clinic. Using synthetic pheromones, such as Feliway, can also reduce stress.
For established patients, prescribing gabapentin to be given by mouth two hours prior to the visit can greatly reduce a feline patient’s stress, and increase compliance. This improved compliance may expand the diagnostics and treatments the patient is willing to tolerate.
Educate veterinary staff
Handling and treating cats is an art. Skillful handling can increase compliance while keeping veterinary staff safe. Investing in staff training on how to gently restrain cats can yield great returns for both cats and veterinary practices, including a larger number of tolerated diagnostics and treatments. This author recommends training from Fear Free Pets and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Both offer education and certifications for staff and hospitals.
Keep the cat and guardian together
Letting the guardian stay present for physical exams, treatments, and sample collection can help keep them engaged, and build a relationship of trust. Using pre-visit medications such as gabapentin can make sample collection and treatments easier and safer for both the patient and staff. Gentle restraint in the presence of the guardian may further enhance client compliance due to increased comfort levels.
Some clients may feel uncomfortable while some procedures may be inappropriate to perform in front of them. It’s important to communicate with your clients to understand their preferences.
Step #3: Maintain communication and contact points
Once you have established a relationship with your client, and have a clinical picture of the feline patient, it’s important to set up ongoing communication. Below is an outline of common areas in feline disease and how to maintain communication and education with clients.
This is an area where cats are often neglected. Many cats live with painful resorptive lesions their entire lives. Start talking about tooth resorption at every exam when cats are young. Show guardians how to look for these lesions and which teeth are commonly affected. Teach that these lesions are painful, and most cats will not stop eating nor express their extreme discomfort. For cats that have already been diagnosed and treated for tooth resorption, send reminders for free quarterly oral exams and yearly sedated exams with full mouth radiographs. Educating clients on the clinic’s anesthesia protocols may also increase compliance with regular dental procedures.
Teaching clients how to examine their cats’ mouths can be more attainable than recommending that they brush their teeth daily. Empower them to look for canine tip fractures, tooth resorption, and gingivitis on a weekly basis. This information can be delivered in exam rooms and also as video or blog delivered by email, text, and through social media channels.
Most cats will experience some degree of kidney disease in their senior years. It’s important that clients know the symptoms associated with feline kidney disease and understand the importance of early detection. Diagnosing renal disease in its early stages may help slow its progression and allow the detection of related problems such as hypertension and pyelonephritis.
This is a great opportunity to use the reminder systems in your veterinary software to trigger client communication. For example, when a patient has been diagnosed with IRIS Stage 1-2 renal disease, a reminder for blood pressure readings should be set for every six months. This would also be a good time to send an automated email sequence educating clients on different aspects of renal disease, such as diet, supplements, and subcutaneous fluids.
Many cats live with chronic pain from arthritis and other orthopedic and neurological diseases. Indoor cats are often expected to be sedentary, and cat parents don’t often notice when they become less mobile. Teach your clients to look for changes in mobility and how to assess pain while petting their cats. Discuss the possible treatment options such as chiropractic, acupuncture, laser therapy, massage, and pharmaceuticals. When clients know there are ways to help treat pain, they may be more motivated to look for signs of it.
Mental health issues
As we begin to better understand feline behavior, we can appreciate that keeping cats indoors with other cats, as well as feeding them twice daily, can have serious impacts on their mental and emotional health. These effects can manifest in lower urinary tract disease, psychogenic alopecia, and inappropriate elimination. Our canine patients often have professional trainers advocating for their mental health. Cats rely on veterinarians to educate their guardians on ways to enrich their mental and emotional well-being.
Mental health tips are great to disperse in emails and through social media. Giving your clients tips about the number and location of litter boxes, recommending food puzzles, and encouraging play before feeding to mimic the prey cycle can have positive impacts on feline mental health. Recommending catios or other ways to help kitties safely enjoy outside time can be life-changing for many cats.
Cats depend on you as a veterinarian to engage guardians to help them receive the medical care they deserve. Felines have long been under-served, and they need us to advocate for them now more than ever. This author encourages you to utilize the strategies in this article to reach and educate more cat guardians.