Cat’s Night Out program like catnip to feline patients

Wednesday nights at VCA-Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic are all about setting the mood: exotic scents wafting through the air, cushy towels spread across tables, privacy screens hanging to shield cats from prying canine eyes.

Why does the clinic’s staff go to such great lengths to create a spa-like environment?

It turns out that both cats and their owners are often creatures of comfort, and they’re less likely to visit the veterinarian if it might be a stressful experience. That’s why this California clinic debuted the weekly Cat’s Night Out program in February 2012 to make hospital visits a more pleasant outing for everyone involved.

All indications point to success for the program, according to Amy Eldridge, community outreach coordinator. The clinic’s total number of feline patient visits has risen 17 percent on the year, and Cat’s Night Out attendance has been rising steadily, she said.

Hospital Administrator Jon Cunnington, CVPM, said he has also found that feline-associated revenue has increased since the program’s inception.

“I think the fact that we’re talking about targeting and offering a focused form of care for cats and their owners has driven awareness, overall visits, and revenue to the practice,” he said.

Creating a cat-friendly environment
Setting up for Cat’s Night Out involves paying attention to the small details that can turn a disorderly feline into a purring patient.

Hospital staff members cover the stainless-steel tables with soft towels, scent the air with a pheromone spray called Feliway, and hang privacy screens. They also set up separate check-in and check-out areas for cats to ensure that there is no interspecies interaction.

Dr. Jeralyn Terry, DVM, said the hospital even goes so far as to put images of cats on computers in examination rooms. “Some of the kittens will actually stare at the screens,” she said.

The only staffing change required for Cat’s Night Out is that the hospital allocates one doctor who just sees cats during the three-hour time period, Cunnington said. The clinic has four doctors who rotate through the Cat’s Night Out program.

Making a big push to differentiate the hospital environments of cats and dogs is a step toward more effective veterinary care for both species, according to Eldridge.

“It falls in line with how we treat our cats as pets. We treat them differently than dogs and being able to do that at the clinical level just parallels that,” Eldridge said.

Defying an industry-wide trend
The hospital’s rising influx of feline patients bucks the general nationwide trend of fewer feline veterinary visits, which Eldridge said her hospital wasn’t immune to before they began Cat’s Night Out.

“As many people have seen in the industry, the dropoff of cat visits to clinics is an industry-wide occurrence, and we’ve seen it, too,” Eldridge said. “We wanted to encourage current and new clients to make appointments and come back in if they hadn’t been in … create a low-stress environment where cats and clients can be treated with TLC and kid gloves.”

Cunnington said there are several reasons why people neglect to bring their cats in for checkups. For one, he said that many people view their cats as self-sufficient animals that don’t require much health maintenance.

Another big reason is that cats tend to stress out during the ride to the veterinary clinic, then have a traumatic panic attack once they are inside. By the end of the whole experience, some owners are ready to visit their own doctors for treatment of anxiety.

With owners hesitant to bring their cats in regularly, practices such as VCA-Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic have had to get more creative with how they market their services.

The future of Cat’s Night Out
The clinic’s staff knew they were onto something good when a client told them that Cat’s Night Out was like a date with her cat, Cunnington said.

Because of the program’s popularity with cats, owners, and hospital staff, Eldridge indicated that the hospital plans on expanding the program and running it indefinitely.

Terry said she supports the program’s continuation because owners are more likely to bring their cats back once they see their cats being treated gently in a stress-free zone.

“We’re getting more clients in who have fears about getting their cats to the hospital. Once they get there, with their fears about cats’ stress levels or their cats being manhandled at the hospital, they see how calm it is and that there are no dogs sticking their noses in cages,” Terry said. “It has definitely increased the number of people coming in and coming back. They realize that the first time it wasn’t so bad.”