Head to Tail with Steve Dale: Six Ways Practices Can Improve Services

By Steve Dale, CABC

There’s a reason why each time I speak at a veterinary conference, I inquire, “Who’s a technician or nurse here?” Hands go up, sometimes a pawful of folks to a half the room or more. And then I thank veterinary technicians for being the backbone of the profession. And if applause doesn’t naturally happen, I ask for it. It’s the reason I write for this publication. I appreciate techs and nurses, and I also believe you are generally underutilized.

In effort to utilize skills of profession and to better support talent for making an extra buck, I have had the following ideas for several years now. Please, potential corporate sponsor – come out of the dark to help make these ideas come to life in an organized manner. Not only are these beneficial to techs/nurses, but also to bond clients to practices and definitely advantageous to dogs, cats and other species.

Some practices already do one or more of these, but nothing (as far as I know) is currently standardized.

Pet Planning: You all know clients who are 105 years old (or act like it) and are all thrilled with their new Border Collie; light sleepers who relinquish a snoring Pug, expect a kitten not to be curious and climb, and thought an exotic was a good idea because little Johnny wanted the bearded dragon lizard but now has lost interest.

No pet will be a perfect fit – that never happens. However, the goal is to come as close as possible to clients up for success to get the right pet to match their lifestyle. After all, that family with triplets and still another baby on the way may not be prime for a puppy, A guinea pig, even a betta fish is arguably a better option.

Most dog breeds have been bred for thousands of years for certain attributes. A terrier is not likely to be a quiet dog and a Bulldog isn’t going make for a jogging partner. The examples are more than obvious to make a point.

Guiding pet parents to make the best companion animal choice is a beneficial service, which can be provided via a virtual call. I envision a fee, depending on what you believe clients where you live would pay, about $25. The technician should be able to keep this money. It’s not about the money, it’s about setting up folks with a companion animal that isn’t likely to be relinquished, as well as a positive experience with the practice.

Pet Behavior Counseling: Behavior is a more common cause of death in cats than heart disease or osteosarcoma for example. Yet, many veterinarians aren’t going to take the time to have a long conversation about house training 101 or explain how to encourage cats to use a scratching post. That’s fine – it’s where technicians and nurses can fill a void, one which may save a pet’s life. Of course, sometimes a veterinary behaviorist or a certified animal behavior consultant or technician specializing in behavior might be a preferred hands-on option, however, there are many behavior issues which a technician or nurse can reliably handle. Certainly, you’re far more qualified and knowledgeable compared to a random person at the dog park or employee stocking shelves at the pet store.

What’s more, a series of two to three 30 minute consults are best when virtual so the technician/nurse may actually see what’s happening (which may be applicable). The fee would vary on geography but approximately $100 to $250 for all three. Follow up is important to ensure the client is following instructions properly and to ensure some progress is being made. The message from the practice is “we can help,” which further bonds the practice to the client. What’s most important is that you can likely help. If at some point a referral is suggested, that’s fine – the pet will be better for that too!

Puppy Classes: With basic training from a certified positive reinforcement instructor, any technician/nurse can learn to teach a puppy class. Classes aren’t only teaching puppies; they are about teaching clients. Meanwhile, if the puppy has a positive experience at the clinic, it may not be so scary for the same pup to visit the clinic in the future.

Many studies demonstrate the importance of puppy classes (how puppies take it all in like sponges and socialization is enhanced), and how necessary it is that those classes are taught with positive reinforcement.

Depending on practical considerations (such as existing clinic hours) and what other dog trainers in the community are doing, the classes should be weekly for about four to six weeks (sometimes twice a week for three weeks). The fee should be commensurate with what others in the community are charging or just under that (after all having puppy classes associated with a veterinary practice may be new to some). Not only is the client bonding to the practice, so is the puppy; who should learn to tolerate or even enjoy a mock exam as a part of the curriculum of the class.

Kitten Class/Happy Kitten Visits: Wouldn’t it be a dream come true if cats didn’t mind hopping into their carriers for the car ride and a routine exam? Besides, a kitten’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. I’ve written for this journal on the value of teaching kittens. There’s no doubt that if traveling in the car was a positive experience, more cats would visit the veterinarian. This novel idea most likely would appeal to millennials in particular; as they already attend cat yoga classes or cat movie festivals.

Kitten classes aren’t about play time as puppy classes are; mostly kittens are in their carriers (in part, so they don’t become over-stimulated). Also, kittens must be between 8- and 16-weeks.

A step down from kitten classes are Happy Kitten Visits, which include kitties in that same age range, merely popping in for a visit. An appointment for 10 minutes is required so the kitty can visit the exam room and fed treats, while a technician offers a quickie mock exam, pets and treats. Previous to either Happy Kitten Visits or a kitten class, information is sent to clients regarding positive reinforcement carrier training kittens.

Happy Kitten Visits should be on the house (at least up to three visits). There should be a fee for a kitten class or kitten classes however.

What’s It Like at Home? Absolutely when considering a painful pet, there’s no replacing actually getting hands on the pet, radiographs and/or other diagnostics. However, let’s talk about follow up. Using a virtual platform to peek into the client’s home is a real veterinary consult. Are the clients following multi-modal instructions? Compliance can be the greatest challenge regarding a multi modal approach. And how is the pet really moving? In your exam room, watching their real gait is impossible compared to their comfortable home environment which is especially true for cats. Technicians and nurses can pick up on subtle differences that pet parents are unlikely to note, also particularly among cats.

The fee associated will vary on geography, but this is a real and helpful use of telehealth or telemedicine.

End of Life: Of course, there’s nothing new here – and many practices already do have at least one technician or nurse formerly trained at assisting clients with loss and grief. Of course, feeling profound grief at the loss of a beloved pet is real. When end of life isn’t handled properly, the client will never return and may never again get another pet.

End of Life may also include all that leads up to the ending moments; offering information to guide family members (children in particular) to prepare for the inevitable and perhaps to include pet hospice.

Personally, I don’t feel any extra fee should be charged for this service. Clients appreciate and almost (rightly or wrongly) expect this demonstration of empathy from the veterinary profession.