The Value of Implementing Cat-Friendly Best Practices in Your Veterinary Clinic

Unless you manage a feline-exclusive practice, you probably see your fair share of big, goofy dogs who just want to give kisses and squish themselves into your lap. Those appointments are pretty easy to look forward to, and may actually help your veterinary team's blood pressure go down. But it's not as easy for them to love an appointment for a cat that may have FRACTIOUS or CAUTION written all over their record. These cats are likely very afraid and might act out if your team doesn't follow cat-friendly best practices.

As a feline specialist, I know that having a cat-friendly practice isn't as hard as you might think, and it can allow you to elevate your ability to care for these (seemingly) ungrateful patients. You'll be surprised how many of your cautious cats turn into agreeable pussycats.

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My Experience

After decades of seeing only cats, I've learned that to get things done quickly and efficiently with cats, you need to go slow. It may seem counterintuitive, but easing into things has better results. Unlike dogs, cats as a species are both predators and prey animals. The feeling of being prey really comes out when they're feeling threatened (i.e., the unfamiliar veterinarian is trying to manipulate them to do something that isn't fun), and they react by fighting back. Cats need to ease into things—and this all starts at home well ahead of the appointment and continues in the exam room.

Have Customer Service Representatives Explain the Basics

Your customer service representatives (CSRs) should be well-versed in how to make it easier for owners to get their cats in the carrier. Encourage CSRs to communicate with clients on how to create a more relaxed environment when it comes to cat carriers and veterinary appointments:

  • Owners should consider leaving the carrier out all the time and putting a bed in it to encourage their cat to spend time there, lessening the stress of being in a new situation.
  • Synthetic facial pheromone spray may help reduce stress.
  • Anti-anxiety medication may help facilitate a better visit. Owners can be very nervous about medicating their pets, but I like to describe cats taking Gabapentin as similar to owners having a glass or two of wine to relax.

Create a Calm Environment In the Exam Room

After arriving at the hospital, cats will be on high alert. Limiting time in the waiting area can help. Consider establishing a cat-only section of the waiting area and a feline-exclusive exam room. Another option is implementing cat-only appointment days or time blocks to help reduce stress.

Train team members to be relatively quiet in the exam room, to enter and exit the room slowly, and to allow the cat to explore the room and relax prior to any contact with them. Make sure team members don't immediately dump the cat out of the carrier—if the cat doesn't want to come out, take the lid off and do the exam in the bottom of the carrier. Pushing the cat to the back of the carrier can create more stress and tension and potentially make everyone's job harder. Have veterinarians and technicians wrap the cat gently in a towel, keeping sharp parts safely tucked away, and gather all samples in the exam room, while owners are petting the cat or feeding them a treat.

Help the Cat, Help You

Sometimes not having a horrible experience goes a long way for both the cat and the clinic. If you start to employ cat-friendly handling techniques and team members notice their patient has reacted in a more positive way, it will be easier in that visit and future ones to perform the necessary and critical annual wellness tests like a urinalysis and feline retrovirus and infectious disease screening. These tests can be difficult to achieve on cats so also consider optimizing a single blood draw by testing for multiple diseases like FIV, FeLV, and FeHW using one product. The less invasive appointments can be, while still gathering the necessary wellness information, the better.

Don't forget to set your team up for future success. Make a fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) score (0-5) a part of every exam record, just as you would record weight, temperature, and body condition scores. Ensure that it's easy to find in the record, so your customer service team can look at the score and help schedule appointments accordingly. For example, a cat with a FAS score of 4 might need to be scheduled during the quietest part of the day, when your most cat-competent team is present, and might have Gabapentin prescribed.

Build Trust With the Cat and the Owner

Implementing cat-friendly practices makes the experience safer for the cat, owner, and veterinary professionals. When the owner knows the whole team is invested in making the experience better, they'll trust and follow recommendations more readily. Additionally, communication between the owner and your team is imperative. Encourage team members to explain to owners what they're doing and how this will lead to a better appointment in the moment and in the future.

It's understandable that with a difficult patient, sometimes team members just want to get the appointment done and move on with their day. But if they're fighting with the cat, they're setting themselves up for more frustration in the future: The cat's behavior will worsen every time they come to the practice, and the owner will be more stressed about coming in—or they might not return at all. Owners who are stressed and worried about their cats aren't going to be able to listen to recommendations as well, and the cat isn't going to get the care they deserve.

The first appointment sets up the cat for a lifetime care plan, so making visits easier now will pay off in the future. Increased visits and increased compliance translate to increased revenue for your practice. By making cat-friendly adjustments at your practice, you're working smarter, not harder, by making a great investment in the owner's, patient's, and your team's mental and physical health.

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Renee Rucinsky

Renee Rucinsky, DVM, DABVP (Feline) is a graduate of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. As a private practice veterinarian, she understands the day to day challenges and management of both primary and referral cases, and enjoys sharing practical tips for managing challenging feline patients. Dr. Rucinsky is the owner of Mid Atlantic Cat Hospital and Mid Atlantic Feline Thyroid Center in Queenstown, Maryland. She has authored multiple national guidelines and book chapters on various topics in feline medicine, and is a frequent lecturer on all things cat. The views and opinions in this piece are the authors own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Vetiverse or IDEXX.

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