People are anxious to get out and get active with their pets – maybe even more so this year after the brutal winter weather that lingered over much of the country. Dogs and their owners are spending more time outside – in the yard, on walks, in the car, or at the dog park, and many people are planning summer getaways – often with their pets. Your veterinary clients are likely seeing lots of new puppies and kittens that are acquired this time of year.
More and more, dogs and cats are considered to be a member of the family and join in on any number of activities, but unfortunately, many of the inherent traits of our companion animals may be considered “problem behaviors” by some pet owners. Dogs have evolved to be our companions for thousands of years, yet many are left home alone or in a yard for hours a day and may suffer from separation anxiety, excessive barking or anti-social behavior. Cats scratch to mark their territory and remove the dead outer layer of their claws. They may not get along with new pets, or have litter box issues. Those new puppies and kittens being seen by your customers now, may be given away or surrendered to a shelter before they have a chance to make a return visit. The number one reason for a break in the human-animal bond is behavior.
Of the 6 to 7 million animals that enter shelters every year, approximately half are relinquished by their owners. A recent study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) showed some startling statistics on the characteristics of dogs and cats surrendered to animal shelters:
• The majority (47.7%) of dogs and (40.3%) of cats were between 5 months and 3 years of age.
• The majority of dogs (37.1%) and cats (30.2%) had been owned from just 7 months to 1 year.
• Nearly half of the pets (42.8% of dogs and 50.8% of cats) surrendered had not been spayed or neutered.
• Most dogs (96%) had received no obedience training.
Clearly, many pet owners need help with realistic expectations for their animals and successfully integrating new pets into their families. Veterinarians and their staff are often the experts that pet owners turn to for help, and you can provide valuable assistance by knowing and recommending the products and resources available that address behavior problems. Behavior is currently the fourth-largest growth segment in veterinary medicine. Practices who proactively address behavior challenges in pets before they become major issues not only help their clients strengthen the bond with their pets as lifelong companions, but will retain those owners and their animals as loyal customers and potentially increase their practice revenue.
People who view their pets as part of the family care for them like family members. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook shows the impact of this bond on practice revenue. The AVMA statistics show that households who consider their pets to be family members will visit their veterinarian nearly three times more often and spend almost three times more than households who consider their animals as “just a dog” or “cat” that they own. Contrast those figures with a report by veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Gary Landsberg, who has found that veterinarians can lose 15 percent of their canine and feline client base annually, simply due to behavior problems. Helping to prevent behavior problems is the most important factor to stop pet relinquishment or euthanasia of otherwise healthy pets.
Many veterinarians recognize the impact that the stress of clinic visits has on the behavior of some of their patients. Taking a dog or cat to the vet may cause so much anxiety for both animal and owner, that the owner makes appointments only when absolutely necessary, or avoids them altogether. The negative impact for both the pet’s health and the practice’s bottom line is obvious.
Solutions and products
Be ready to ask questions about what steps your customers are taking to make clinic visits a stress-free experience for their customers, and offer suggestions for solutions they might consider. Anxiety wraps or calming neutraceuticals may help to reduce stress in the car and at the appointment. Pheromone products – both in the animal’s carrier and in clinic exam rooms – have proven very effective. Warming mats or non-slip mats on exam tables and music and sound therapies designed to lower animal anxiety are used in a number of practices. Tasty treats in the waiting room and exam room can be a great distraction and help make the visit something to look forward to. Don’t forget tongue depressors for peanut butter or moist food!
Offer options to your customers that help make vaccinations less stressful, such as small-gauge needles, reduced dose or oral vaccines. For some pets, sedation may be the best option, either before the pet leaves home or prior to the examination.
There are several online resources with information on animal behavior that you can source for your customers. Here are just a few:
• Behaviorconnection.com has links to numerous websites on behavior and training.
• The Animal Behavior Resources Institute (ABRIonline.org) is a free resource for all companion animal behavior and training from many leading experts and includes online videos.
• The late animal behaviorist, Dr. Sophia Yin developed “pet-friendly” techniques for low-stress animal handling and behavior modification, which can be sourced on her website: drsophiayin.com.
Veterinary medicine has shifted from the treatment of pets to an emphasis on prevention, and the overall well-being of companion animals. Behavior is a key component of that well-being. Providing your customers with the tools they need to help pets become valued family members will benefit their bottom line and ensure that their customers enjoy a rewarding relationship for the life of their pet.
Behavior products to recommend:
• Pheromone products, such as Adaptil or Feliway sprays, diffusers and collars
• Tongue depressors for peanut butter and moist food treats during exams
• Buster Food Cubes, Buster DogMazes, Kongs and food puzzles
• Warming mats or non-slip mats for exam tables and scales
• Calming neutraceuticals such as Composure or ProQuiet
• Litter Magnet or Cat Attract for litter box issues
• Lidocaine gel for blood draws or vaccinations
• Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride)
• Treats for exam and waiting rooms
• Thundershirts/Anxiety Wraps
• Oral or low-dose vaccines
• Small-gauge needles
Dawn Singleton-Olson has over 25 years of experience in the animal health industry, including distributor sales, manufacturing, practice management, and as a zoo supervisor. She is a volunteer, fundraiser and board trustee for several humane organizations and the Omaha (NE) Police Mounted Patrol.