Seventy-eight percent of practice owners say cats represent one of the most significant missed opportunities for the profession, according to a new study. The study found that many, but not most, practices are taking steps to increase feline veterinary visits, which lag far behind canine veterinary visits even though pet cats outnumber pet dogs. Reasons for the discrepancy between pet ownership and veterinary visits could include the stress of the experience for cats and a notion that cats need less veterinary care.
“Probably the greatest opportunity for veterinarians to improve companion animal health care, as well as their own incomes, is to solve the cat riddle,” said John Volk, senior consultant with Brakke Consulting Inc.
The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings examined the problem and potential solutions from the viewpoint of veterinarians. Bayer HealthCare partnered with the American Association of Feline Practitioners and Brakke on the study. They presented preliminary results Jan. 21 during the North American Veterinary Conference.
The study consisted of six focus groups during September and October 2012 of owners and associates of companion animal veterinary practices in Boston, Atlanta, and San Francisco and a national survey in November 2012 of 401 owners of companion animal practices.
“We heard from veterinarians, ‘We want to change the situation; we’re trying to do a few things,’” said Dr. Cristiano von Simson, director of veterinary technical services for the Animal Health Division of Bayer HealthCare. He saw a big gap between where veterinarians are and where they want to be.
Half of practices are taking actions to increase visits among current feline patients. Forty-six percent are making an increased effort to attract more cat-owning clients. Forty-one percent are taking specific steps to make the practice more friendly to cats and cat owners.
In the preceding two years, 41 percent of practices have implemented changes specifically to reduce stress for cats. Twenty-four percent intend to make such changes, although 35 percent do not intend to make such changes.
More than half of practices use certain cat-friendly techniques such as covering carriers or examination tables with a towel, having staff members with good feline-friendly handling skills, and training staff in feline handling. Less than half have created cat-only examination rooms, reception areas, and appointment hours.
“Not surprisingly, veterinarians think that cats are more challenging to work with and to diagnose (conditions in) than dogs,” said Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, spokeswoman for the AAFP’s Cat Friendly Practice Program. “So we have some attitude issues, too, that are important for us to look at.”
According to the survey, 65 percent of veterinarians found cats easy to work with during examinations, in comparison with 90 percent for dogs. Fifty-seven percent found it challenging to diagnose conditions in cats, in comparison with 34 percent for dogs.
Just 17 percent of veterinarians prefer cats in general, while 48 percent prefer dogs—although 70 percent own cats and 81 percent own dogs. Twenty percent of veterinarians examined their cats less than once a year.
Volk said a key finding from the focus groups was that most veterinarians have difficulty explaining to cat owners why they should come back in a year for an annual appointment if a cat does not need a vaccine.
“We need to educate every pet owner on the importance of the work we do, the annual exams we do,” Volk said.
Veterinarians said overall patient visits and revenues have stabilized somewhat.
“They say things are better, but they’re still not great, meaning the decline in visits slowed down,” Dr. von Simson said.
The previous phase of the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study found that, in 2010, 51 percent of companion animal practices reported a decrease in visits over the preceding two years. Fourteen percent saw no change, and 34 percent saw an increase.
In 2012, 38 percent of practices reported a decrease in visits over the preceding two years. Twenty-three percent saw no change, and 39 percent saw an increase.
Many practices continue to have capacity for more appointments. More than half of practices reported filling less than 70 percent of appointments during the first nine months of 2012.
Cat Friendly Practice Program
Dr. Colleran said participating in the AAFP’s Cat Friendly Practice Program is one approach for companion animal practices to use in making changes to improve the quantity and quality of feline veterinary visits.
“It’s really hard to effect change in a veterinary practice,” Dr. Colleran said. “That’s why we did Cat Friendly Practice.”
The AAFP launched the member program in late January 2012. The program allows practices to evaluate their care of feline patients, their environment for cats, and the relevant skills, training, and education of their personnel. Practices can make changes at their own pace and within the parameters of their needs, Dr. Colleran said.
As of late January 2013, 285 practices had earned approval as AAFP Cat Friendly Practices, while another 539 were going through the process.
A survey of AAFP Cat Friendly Practices found the factors attracting them to participate were opportunities to increase the frequency of feline veterinary visits, thus allowing for better care; to differentiate the clinic; and to reduce stress on feline patients.
The benefits that the practices experienced included less stress for feline patients, a way to demonstrate how much the clinic cares about cats as patients, more expertise on feline-specific care in the clinic, listing as an AAFP Cat Friendly Practice on the AAFP website, and higher satisfaction among current cat-owning clients.
This year, the AAFP plans to launch a consumer campaign to educate cat owners about the need for routine veterinary care and to increase awareness of AAFP Cat Friendly Practices.