Vets know very well that nipping pets’ health problems in the bud before they develop into serious, possibly life-threatening, conditions is common sense. The challenge is convincing pet owners to book their animals in for regular preventive health checks. Sue Nelson reports
Many pet owners are yet to see the value in lifestyle and preventive medicine for their pets. When pet owners present at the vet, their pets usually have serious and painful problems that are expensive to treat. For vets, these traumatic one-off visits do little to increase the number of regular clientele.
A renewed focus on regular, preventive health check-ups for pets can help vets to form trusted relationships with clients—and ensure that there are regular appointments filling up their books.
For Dr Leigh Davidson, who has been practising for 17 years and is the founder of Your Vet Online, good housekeeping is the starting point. “This is an issue for both the systems vets have in place at their practices, and the training they’re giving their nurses,” says Davidson. “The first step is to get people back in the door, using simple software reminder systems.”
“You can do this for regular six-monthly check-ups for chronic disease, for dental cleaning, worming and vaccinations,” she says. “Whenever you write a script, set up a six-monthly reminder for that client.”
Recommending heartworm injections is one very specific way to encourage clients to return. “People aren’t religious about monthly worming, and missing a month can have dire consequences,” says Davidson. “But it’s really important to ensure that pets follow a regular schedule for heartworm.” A yearly heartworm injection is not only essential to the health of your clients’ pets, it’s a way to bind clients to your clinic—they will need to come back at least once a year. This is a no-brainer, because of the clear threat that heartworm poses to the life of a pet.
Dental health is one of the key areas in preventive veterinary medicine, because of the potential for local infection in the mouth to migrate to other parts of the body. This makes it an important reason for regular appointments.
“Not enough vets are promoting prevention through teeth cleaning,” says Davidson. “It’s a good idea to remind clients that there is a link between periodontal disease and systemic disease. Bacteria from the mouth are transferred systemically to the heart, liver and kidneys where it has been proven that histological changes occur. We see the proof when patients return home after dental treatment and they have a new lease on life, presumably due to the discomfort being removed.”
“It’s all in how you talk to your clients,” Davidson continues. “Remind them that it’s better to do a scale and polish while oral infection is low and their pet is only experiencing minor oral discomfort. Explain that while the pet is under general anaesthesia you are able to probe each tooth individually and take radiographs to check for disease below the gum line, where oral disease can be very problematic.”
“Obesity, arthritis, dental and ear checks and parasite control are all areas where we can develop better preventive programs.”—Dr Leigh Davidson, Your Vet Online
In this context, it’s important to train and up-skill nurses in oral care—they can then run the six-monthly dental check. And because it’s often nurses who are giving the dogs and cats in your waiting room a cuddle and a pat, they can use this as an opportunity to suggest complimentary nurse dental exams and other future treatments to clients.
“Nurses are your front line for this,” says Davidson. “Train them to do nurse checks and to be able to identify issues and recommend appropriate dental care tools such as a scale and polish, or dental biscuits/treats from your suppliers.
Small, family-friendly clinics aren’t so good at upselling, Davidson notes. “Often the nurses are really friendly and have been taught about good customer care, but they don’t pick up the opportunities for marketing and sales that present themselves. To use the dental example, you wouldn’t expect nurses to know how to grade, but they can definitely point out gingivitis and tartar and the other things that you can see clearly. They don’t need to be specific or quote, because they don’t have the skill set to do that, but they should be on the alert to funnel clients to a vet consult.”
After every dental appointment, vets might also consider sending clients home with clinic-branded instructions for after-care, Davidson advises. Offer to have your nurses train them in brushing their pets’ teeth, she says. During vet consults, educate your clients—point out and explain what you see, and draw diagrams for them if necessary.
Older pets and those that seem to be carrying extra weight can also benefit from more regular preventive health checks. Older pets, in particular, can start to suffer from cognitive dysfunction. “Vets and their nurses should consider the likelihood of cognitive disease whenever they hear an owner discuss behavioural change in an older pet, such as ‘star gazing’, frequent need for the toilet or vocalisation,” Davidson says. “It’s worth encouraging owners to book in for a consult to rule out other causes of disease.
“Every time a dog comes in, you should be weighing them—cats are a different story because you’re not going to get them out in the consult room—but encourage their owners to come in and weigh their dog any time they want, and get the nurse to give them a treat. This is a good move, as dogs realise the clinic isn’t a bad place, and it also gives your nurses a chance to have a chat about the pet and alert owners to potential issues that require a vet consult.”
Another effective way to foster client loyalty and encourage return visits is to offer subscription services that invite clients to come in for monthly treatments such as a nail clip, anal gland squeeze or ear clean, says Davidson. “Nurses can perform these, and clients love it because they aren’t stressing out their pet.”
Davidson recommends some other tips: running an online store so clients can make purchases between visits, which will have the effect of keeping your practice at the front of their mind. It also helps to make it easy for clients to book appointments online. And a social media presence, including discussion boards on various health topics, will also remind clients that their pet is due for a visit. Indeed Your Vet Online is developing such a service that will be going live shortly—feel free to contact Davidson for further details.
“Obesity, arthritis, dental and ear checks and parasite control are all areas where we can develop better preventive programs,” Davidson says. “They are an easy sell to owners and nurses can handle the examinations. Severe issues are picked up and vet involvement can then be called upon before the animal is suffering.”