Boost veterinary client numbers with kitten classes

Try using kitten classes to build a larger cat clientele at your veterinary practice.
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Feb 25, 2013

I had an epiphany.

I was at the North American Veterinary Conference Post Graduate Institute attending a behavior class in 2004. Kersti Seksel was the instructor, and when she said, “When we offer our Kitty Kindy classes…” I said, “Your ‘kitty’ what?”

She explained that these kitty classes are socialization classes for kittens, in many ways like puppy classes—and the light bulb in my head began to flash. The major benefit of these classes is that feline veterinary visits are on the decline and this is a way to get cats to the clinic. By making a veterinary exam a pre-requisite to the kitty class, your team will have the opportunity to create a bond with the client.

When classes are offered at a veterinary office, there’s a positive association to the clinic communicated to the kitten and owner both. What’s most important is that wherever a class is held, if there were cats previously present an absolute thorough cleaning is a must— and I mean thorough. To avoid the issue, I’ve held classes at novel locations for cats—including a bank lobby (classes held after hours) to a room used for dog training adjacent to a groomer. Other examples include a local library to cat shelter.

Some rules of the road:

• Kittens must be 8 to 14 or 15 weeks. Due to kitten development (compared to puppies), kittens absolutely need to be in this range.

• Veterinary exams are required prior to attending a class.

• Kitten class may be two consecutive one-hour sessions (for example on two consecutive Tuesday evenings). Another option is one 90-minute session.

• You provide cardboard throwaway litter boxes

• You provide an array of toys (for when kitties are playing). You provide various scratching posts and various litter box for talks on those topics.

Here’s a list of additional benefits of kitty classes. Share them with your clients and team and see what you can accomplish.

• Kitten classes include basic lessons in care: Brushing teeth, habituating kittens to pill guns using a treat (so by age 10, when a pill may be required, acceptance may be more likely), nail clipping and coat brushing. There’s also a discussion of ways to appropriately provide enrichment, and explanation about why it’s so important to also offer cats an opportunity for interactive play.

• Among the most significant obstacles to visiting a veterinarian for routine care is transportation. It’s such a struggle to stuff cats into a carrier and many clients are distressed even thinking about it. When trained at a young age to the carrier and car rides, it’s possible that jumping into a carrier and visiting the veterinarian can be fun (or at least more tolerable).

• Kittens spend most of the class inside their carriers. This is one major difference between most puppy classes and classes for kittens. When they are out of their carriers, some kitties interact with each other, others prefer to interact with toys, which are provided. Seksel points out, “Socialization isn’t only about play, it’s learning to tolerate members of one’s own species as well as members of other species.”

• Class attendees play “pass the kitty.” Sitting down, people hand off each kitten to another person in the class, until everyone has handled each kitten. Early handling is beneficial, particularly since each person handling the kitty smells differently and each individual handles kittens differently, particularly senior citizens and children (of course, all young children in class must be supervised by an adult).

• There’s a scratching lesson, explaining appropriate scratching posts, where they belong and what to do if kitty has already begun to scratch on the sofa.

• Clicker training: Aside from kittens seemingly enjoying the experience, studies have demonstrated that “working” with dogs can enhance the owner bond, so I suspect the same is true for cats, Also, clicker training is something young kids can do with kittens.

• Just as puppy classes position the instructor (often a dog trainer) as a future resource, the same is true for whoever teaches a kitten classes, a supreme opportunity for veterinary technicians.

• When the kitty class is offered at a veterinary office, kittens can become accustomed to white coats, the smell of the veterinary office, and that cold exam table (though it’s always a good idea for clients to bring a blanket or cat bed with the cat’s odor).

Cat owners may not understand the need for preventive care. Many assume “My cat is indoors only” or “My cat appears to be acting just fine.” Kitten classes are an opportunity to explain what seems to be common sense; heart disease, kidney disease, cancers, hyperthyroid disease, and a long list of problems have no relation to whether the cat is inside or not. The subtle signs of illness in cats are also explained, so clients can learn what to look for.

• Many behavior problems may be avoided. This is very important since “bad behavior” is such a very common cause of owner relinquishment, especially in young animals. For example, offering a lesson in “litter box 101” might prevent inappropriate elimination. Explaining that playing with kitty using your fingers as a toy might be interactive and cute today, but also might be a tutorial in actually teaching a cat to bite—and therefore not so cute a year from now. Lesson number one for all kitten owners: Throughout the lifetime of your cat, anytime you witness a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian. In my experience when real life examples are offered, clients seem to understand that—for example, a cat might be urinating outside the box because interstitial cystitis or diabetes.

Bottom line, and those who have taught puppy classes know that the classes are about socialization, but even more so about communicating and educating owners. But kittens (and cats) are capable of so much more than many assume. As I always say, “A kitten’s mind is a terrible thing to waste.”