Roy Smith, DVMAVMA Animal Welfare Committee
There are millions more owned cats than owned dogs in the United States, yet cats visit veterinarians less often than dogs. One reason for this is the stress of getting the cat to the veterinary practice and the experience associated with the visit itself for both cats and cat owners.
For cat owners anxiety can start days before the actual visit. Just thinking about corralling their cat, capturing it from under a bed, struggling to get it into the carrier and then the cat's howling all the way to hospital are enough to cause stress levels to increase drastically.
A team approach by everyone in the veterinary hospital is needed to overcome these problems. This includes educating all staff members on appropriate handling techniques and communication with clients. The appointment phone call is a client's first impression of the hospital. Providing information to assist them in getting the cat to the clinic and what to expect once there can help create trust and loyalty with the cat owner and shows the practice is committed to providing the best experience for them and their cat before they even step through the door.
Getting the cat acclimated to the carrier before the visit can help make handling in the hospital easier and provide a better experience for everyone involved. Helpful tips can be found in a brochure developed by the American Association of Veterinary Practitioners (AAFP) for cat owners called Getting Your Cat to the Veterinarian, and in a video available at the CATalyst Council website. If these suggestions are followed, "Cats and cat owners are far less stressed, and veterinary visits are much more pleasant. There are far fewer upset cats and less fear-associated scratching or biting. This allows us to educate the clients in a calmer environment, and most importantly allows cats to get the healthcare they need and deserve," says Ilona Rodan, DVM, DAVBP (Feline).
Fear is the most common cause of feline aggression in veterinary practices. The veterinary team should have a good understanding of feline behavior and how to recognize subtle signs of fear and stress. Time should be spent educating the team about feline friendly handling techniques. Much of the physical examination should be performed where the cat is most comfortable. The carrier door should be opened to allow the cat to explore the surroundings while the veterinarian is communicating with the owner and obtaining history. Having the cat arrive in an appropriate carrier can also make things better for everyone. As Dr Rodan explains, "The beauty of carriers that can be taken apart in the middle is that we don't need to take the cat out of the carrier. If the cat will not leave the carrier voluntarily, quietly and calmly remove the top half of the carrier so the cat can remain in the bottom half for as much of the exam as possible. Many of us have been taught to dump the cat out of the carrier, but this is frightening for the cat and does not allow for a sense of control or exploration of the environment. If the cat is highly aroused, slowly slide a towel between the top and bottom of the carrier while the carrier top is removed; this provides a safe hiding place for the cat and helps protect the handler."
Feline friendly handling can reduce fear and anxiety for the cat, but it can also reduce the stress of the veterinary visit for the owner and makes things go more smoothly for the veterinary care team. When an owner sees that you are able to handle and examine their cat in a calm and respectful way, they will develop a greater level of trust in you and loyalty to the practice. When owners develop trust they are more open to information, which can lead to better preventive and nursing care compliance. Two helpful resources for veterinarians are the AAFP/ISFM (International Society of Feline Medicine) Feline Friendly Handling Guidelines and the AAFP/ISFM Feline Friendly Nursing Care Guidelines which are available at CatVets.com
Taking advantage of opportunities to improve wellness care, client education and being proactive about diagnosing disease early are ways to help clients ensure a longer, better quality of life for their cat. This builds a strong and productive practice relationship with the client and improves the care for the cat. The AAFP has developed the Cat Friendly Practice (CFP) program to help veterinary practices become cat friendly in both the physical environment of the practice and the way in which medical care is delivered.
The Cat Friendly Practice program is a self-assessment process with the first step being the introduction of a practice standard checklist. A manual for Creating a Cat Friendly Practice is also provided that includes helpful tips and recommendations on how to incorporate cat friendly techniques into the practice. "The most important result of participation in this program is the potential to create and nurture trusting relationships with clients. With trust comes the opportunity to practice the best medicine possible and to achieve the best outcome for the patient, the client and the practice," explains Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, AAFP Past President and CFP spokesperson. "There are a number of perspectives to consider here. The community welfare issue is crucial. Cats are not being adequately vaccinated to prevent disease outbreaks. The second consideration is the individual experience. Cat owners who have an unpleasant experience do not come back to the practice and heath care needs go unfulfilled. The third consideration is the business perspective. This large under-served population is a potential opportunity for business growth."
As practices go through the Cat Friendly Practice program, they will have the opportunity to evaluate attitudes and care provided for their feline patients; examine the practice environment and equipment by considering the specific needs of cats; assess and implement practice skills, training and education; and understand the value of becoming recognized as a Cat Friendly Practice. Improving feline health and welfare is a major goal of this program. "Improvements in feline patient visits will increase compliance in community health matters including vaccination, parasite prevention and zoonotic disease education. Early disease detection will allow for more successful intervention. With calm and unhurried feline visits, an opportunity emerges to educate clients about important health care issues and preventive care for the patient and the owner," explains Dr. Colleran.
One of the goals of a Cat Friendly Practice is to promote a partnership between the client and practice so that both are actively engaged in the cat's healthcare plan. "Cat owners will feel that the veterinarian and staff understand their needs and the needs of their beloved cats. They will feel nurtured and cared for, and will have the confidence to return to the practice. They will be better informed about the health care needs of their cat and the characteristics of a rich and varied home life that will enrich the emotional, as well as physical health of their cats," says Dr. Colleran. For more information on how to become a cat friendly practice visit http://catfriendlypractice.catvets.com
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