The cat conundrum: Veterinary care … when and where?

Following the release of the VPI-Veterinary Economics Financial Health Study, our  partners at Advanstar launched a yearlong “Leadership Challenge” to explore strategies that would help veterinarians and veterinary practices connect with pet owners to ensure that pets get the care they need and deserve.

ccOne of the biggest challenges?  Cats. More specifically, what people think they know and how they often define their relationship to cats. Together they present a major challenge to the veterinary community.

Let’s start with that relationship. Many pet-owners see their dogs as “companions” and their cats as “pets.” That’s according to a study conducted by Bayer Animal Health in collaboration with the American Association of Feline Practitioners and Brakke Consulting, Inc.  You can almost hear the word “just” in front of “pet,” as in, “just a pet.”

Now, that’s not my view of cats, and that’s not the view of those of us here at Veterinary Pet Insurance. Our pets are family, which you can see from this video from last year, of our associates talking about pets lost to cancer. (Tissue alert.) But when a pet-owner doesn’t feel that strong a bond (and studies say many do not when it comes to cats), your ability as a veterinarian to help your clients understand the need for regular veterinary care is going to be somewhat limited. I’m not sure that perception of cats  is going to change for most people. That means we need to adjust to the reality, and provide cat-owners with ways to help them provide the care their cats need within the context of the relationship as cat-owners understand it.

Part of closing the gap is education, of course, and much good work is being done in that area by the Partners for Healthy Pets, the CATalyst Council, the AAFP and more.  But as I follow the #catcrisis hashtag on Twitter, I see a lot of preaching to the choir. What would get cats the care they need? In almost every study, in every story sharing expert tips and by the electronic “water coolers” where veterinarians hang out, there’s one thing that always mentioned as something pet owners want.

What is that one thing? Pet owners want a way to manage the cost of veterinary care. Because cat-owners do, indeed, love their “pets” even if they aren’t as close to them as they are to their dogs.  Finding a way to help cat-owners provide better care for their cats is challenging. Be we as a profession are largely missing out on one of the biggest opportunities we have to reach cat-owners.

Here, we come to a topic I’ve spent a large part of my life thinking about, and working to provide. Of course, VPI was the founder of the pet health insurance industry in the United States, and we’re still the largest player — by far — among the companies that have come in to offer insurance.  But we looked at these surveys, conducted many more on our own (we have a fantastic research department!) and even watched for trends on social media. And what we found was an almost universal desire on the part of pet-owners to break down the cost of preventive and wellness care into manageable, predictable monthly payments.

And so, we expanded our product line to help pets, pet-owners and the veterinary community.

Of course, I’m talking about our VPI Preventive & Wellness Service (P&WS, pronounced “paws”). The problem with self-administered payment plans are many, and we all know what they are.  And of course, there are payment plans for major veterinary expenses (Care Credit, most notably), but those don’t move the needle when it comes to getting pets — especially cats — in for wellness care. VPI P&WS does, and it does so in the background. After you set up your plans (and we are here to help you), we handle everything in the background. But how it appears to your clients: That your practice is offering them the help they need.

We led the way with pet health insurance. We’ve seen competitors come, and we’ve seen competitors go. And it looks as if the pattern is set the same way for wellness plans. We’re here, and we’re here for the long run. But don’t take our word for this part of solving the cat conundrum: Wellness plans are mentioned as part of the solution in nearly every veterinary-facing media outlet:

  • JAVMA news: “The survey of pet owners found, for example, that 45 percent said they would visit the veterinarian more often if the practice offered a wellness plan billed monthly. The survey of practice owners found that only 5 percent offer such a plan, but 29 percent would be willing to do so.” (Link)
  • wellness program can eliminate the barrier [of expense], encouraging clients to bring in their pets sooner and more often. It can also attract clients and their pets year-round, even during your slowest months. That amounts to better care and more revenue.” [Link]
  • Veterinary Practice News: “[P]reventive care plans deliver the standard of care that veterinarians want, while giving clients financial solutions. […] Early adopters of wellness plans are seeing increases in patient visits while also boosting compliance. “[Link]

PHPYes, I’d like to get more practices on board with VPI P&WS. But that’s because I’ve seen the numbers that helped us to develop it, and I’ve seen the numbers from practices that are using it. Let’s get those cats into our practices!

The Partners For Healthy Pets website has an excellent section in its “toolbox” explaining how to get wellness plans off to a great start.  And I’d be truly remiss to close without mentioning ther emarkable collection of articles provided by the Advanstar family of publications in their “Leadership Challenge” section on feline care in crisis. Check them out at this link.