How I approach… Working successfully with breeders
Veterinarians sometimes find it challenging to work successfully with breeders, but this paper discusses how the relationship can be a positive experience for both parties.
Breeders are eager to choose a veterinary clinic that provides quality services, but the cost of these services is also important to them.
Clear communication, especially with regard to what is involved with a particular veterinary service, is key to a good working relationship.
Working with breeders may require a different business strategy, and costs should always be discussed before a procedure commences.
Provision of bespoke facilities, such as a room where a breeder can stay with their animal during parturition, is greatly valued by many clients.
During my first years in practice, I often received mentorship from more experienced veterinarians, and one of the most frequent bits of advice I was given was to be careful when working with breeders. As a young clinician I didn’t even really understand what was meant by the term “breeder”, but I was soon convinced that it was synonymous with a “difficult” client, someone with whom it is better not to argue and, ideally, not to have contact (Boxes 1 and 2). Face-to-face acquaintance with professional breeders then came about when I was invited to provide veterinary support at dog shows. Here I met a variety of people and heard their stories, and I started to inquire as to how exactly they had got into dog breeding. Some were in business primarily for a living, some were eager to breed a particular line of dogs with healthy genetics and nice looks, and some were individuals who were successful in other professions and for whom breeding was just a pleasure and a pastime. I started to admire these people, and I could never understand why relationships between veterinarians and breeders were apparently so difficult.
I was then invited to work for Royal Canin as director of breeder relations. It was a difficult decision for me to leave veterinary practice, but I saw that it was a great opportunity to gain new experiences and to go deeper into this field. My task was to visit breeding kennels, organize dog shows and arrange training seminars for cat and dog breeders. We also regularly held meetings for them alongside vets, handlers and groomers, and through dialogue I learned about their priorities, what difficulties they face when breeding, and what kind of help they require.
Box 1. Why do breeders have a reputation as a “difficult customer”?
Box 2. If you have a poor opinion of breeders, you will never work with them properly.
Working with breeders
I was convinced that breeders are eager to choose a veterinary clinic that provides quality services, but realized that the cost of the services provided is also an important factor for them. There is no doubt that someone who maybe keeps ten or more animals will spend a lot of money on their maintenance, so many breeders will try to do much of the healthcare by themselves instead of asking for professional help. Another reason for not requesting veterinary assistance is that a breeder may fear the risk of infection – they do not want their precious animal inadvertently contracting a disease when at the clinic – hence a frequent insistence on providing services such as assisted whelping or puppy vaccinations at their own kennels. In short, breeders will often go to the clinic only when the help of a veterinary specialist is unavoidable.
A few years later I returned to veterinary practice and the first thing I did was to upgrade the facilities and refocus our clinic’s workload: we created a separate entrance and waiting room where we could provide services exclusively to breeders. The area was designed so that an owner could comfortably bring several of their animals to the clinic at the same time. The next step was to stop animals that had a contagious disease from being hospitalized at the clinic, and we went on to create a separate branch for this purpose. Gradually, breeders began to come to the clinic more often: the level of trust increased, and the range of services provided expanded considerably.
Difficult clients can be the best mentors for business development.
I was then given the opportunity to train in neonatal care at the veterinary faculty of the University of Toulouse in France, and this allowed us to take the next step for the clinic – one which marked it as being unique – by creating a department for reproductive and neonatal care, which included an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). This now allows us to help our youngest patients when they are critically ill, animals which were often previously considered hopeless. In addition, because we were often asked to help with animals at parturition, we made the decision to accommodate an owner’s wishes wherever possible. In part this started when one of our clients asked us to supervise her bitch as her due date approached. This pregnancy was very valuable to her kennels, and she was worried that if the delivery was complicated, and especially if whelping started at night, she might risk losing the puppies and possibly the bitch as well. However, she was also adamant that she would not leave her bitch alone in our ICU because she was very bonded to her. On the expected delivery date, she arrived at the clinic with her dog, a whelping box, and a sleeping bag, and was quite prepared to sleep on the clinic floor in order to remain with her pet throughout the whelping process. After this incident we decided to set up an owner-animal “cohabitation area” which now has a separate client toilet, a sofa where an owner can sit with their dog, and facilities to enable the owner to prepare drinks and snacks during their stay.
As well as our in-clinic services, we now also provide a range of additional mobile options that can be performed at the breeder’s kennel. With the advent of portable ultrasound machines, we now offer at-home pregnancy diagnostics, which is especially popular for owners that have animals who get stressed in the clinic. We will also do vaccinations as a visiting service, which is very convenient for large kennels (Figure 1).
We have chosen the strategy of “playing a long game” whereby the clinic does not realistically make a profit on the services provided to the breeding community; however, this is compensated by the fact that the breeders, when selling their animals to new homes, make recommendations about our clinic, so that we receive a good flow of new customers and revenue (Box 3). And because the clinic has built a large client base, some existing private clients who want to get another puppy or kitten will come to us for recommendations in choosing a suitable breeder.
As well as providing a standard 10% discount on our fees for all breeders, we also give a significant rebate for specific services. For example, when vaccinating a litter of puppies or kittens, the receipt will show the cost of all vaccines but only one examination fee, rather than charging for each pet’s checkup. Again, this is not financially beneficial to the clinic, but it was our way of encouraging breeders to vaccinate in accordance with the WSAVA recommended protocols, and we emphasize our goal of keeping animals healthy and preventing potentially fatal diseases. The vaccination certificate has our clinic’s stamp, and when a puppy or kitten is sold, the new owners will usually come to us for further care. We also include information leaflets with links to our social media with the certificate.
Box 3. Advantages of working with breeders.
Since natural labor can normally last 8 hours or more, we are very happy for the breeder to remain at the clinic during the entire process, which is beneficial for both the dog and the owner. Indeed sometimes breeders will then ask to remain at the clinic with their animal to allow close observation for a few more days, usually if the bitch or newborn puppies are at risk and need to be monitored carefully. This “cohabitation space” became so popular that a year later we opened another one for owners whose animals have a serious condition and are at considerable risk of death; as a dog owner myself, I understand that if my dog was on the verge of dying and needed hospital treatment, it would be difficult for me to leave him alone. I would want my dog to be with me for the last minutes of his life.
Nowadays the average number of patients in the clinic each day for pregnancy management is around eight. Mostly birthing services are demanded by those who have previously had complications or are first-time breeders, and we see new lives arrive at our clinic every day.
The birthing process is always monitored by ultrasound (Figure 2), and we will not use drugs such as oxytocin unless they are indicated. We are very aware that bitches have reproductive value and prefer to allow a dog to give birth on its own if possible; a cesarean is only performed if an animal’s condition indicates that it is necessary. When this happens, we take great attention in organizing the process. There is always a surgeon, an anesthetist, a neonatologist and an extra person for every two puppies or kittens – so if we are expecting around 10 puppies in a litter, there will be at least 7 or 8 people present during the surgery (Figure 3). This ensures that we can give enough attention to both the dam or queen and the newborn. It is also hospital protocol to mark the new arrivals with ribbons (Figure 4) and (if they remain at the clinic for a few days) to record daily weight increases on each patient’s card.
At discharge after parturition, the breeder receives detailed recommendations on how to care for the newborn and mandatory training on how to feed puppies and kittens by using a stomach tube; this is an easy technique for them to learn, and it can help save lives if the newborn’s reflexes have been impaired. We also make sure to take photographs that we can use on our social media, and most clients will really enjoy these newborn “photo shoots”.
We have all experienced the “difficult client” in our work with breeders many times over, but for every situation where there is a misunderstanding, there is an opportunity to improve our communication process. Some of the protocols we have introduced in our veterinary clinic to help this include the following:
- The cost of services is always discussed before any work is done. If at the outset there is doubt as to what the final cost of a procedure may be, a range will be provided in the client’s contract (see FAQs), with an agreed cap on the final figure.
- The client will receive a detailed report of the procedure(s) carried out at the point an animal is discharged home; this will include a list of all medications administered, and even detail what suture materials were used in any surgical procedure.
- Before proceeding with a whelping, the breeder must agree in writing that should the dam suffer from poor or no milk production, the puppies will receive an appropriate milk substitute. We also ask the breeder to agree that a newborn litter may be keep apart from the dam if it is deemed necessary immediately after parturition; the clinic staff cannot constantly monitor all patients whilst at the clinic (although we routinely check them every hour) and breeders must understand that there is a small risk of a new mother harming her puppies.
Working with breeders – FAQs
Q. How did you share with your team your common passion and understanding of breeders?
A. When we introduced a discount system for breeders, many veterinarians reacted rather suspiciously. We also had repeated conflict situations with “difficult clients” in our first year, but we then developed a system of contracts, which legally protected the clinic and the employees. The clinician will always make their best efforts with a case, but unfortunately an optimal outcome cannot be guaranteed. This obviously demotivates both the clinician and the breeder, but if the latter has signed an agreement before the procedure and understands the associated risks, including the possibility of an unfavorable outcome, they can be more understanding of the situation. It is also important not just to talk through the procedure and the possible risks with the client, but to record it all in writing.
At our clinic the priority is always the staff, followed by the health of our patients; the owners come next, and profit is in last place. If a customer is not being courteous to the veterinarian, we will refuse to serve him. The only exception will be if the animal requires emergency care.
Q. Any specific advice for dealing with cat breeders?
A. The split between dog and cat breeders among our clients is 70/30. This is due to the fact that cats usually need less help with mating and assistance at parturition, but I do not think cat breeders differ from dog breeders; again, they are enthusiasts who want to breed healthy offspring with good genetics, character and appealing looks.
Q. How do you approach a C-section with a breeder?
A. A C-section is always a possibility when dealing with a pregnant bitch or queen at term. We really only operate when specifically indicated, when a natural delivery is impossible, or if the risks of natural delivery are high for the mother or the newborn. So if a breeder is planning to have a C-section at our clinic, we try to invite him/her to talk through all the details of the surgery and post-surgery care in advance, which allows us to discuss the risks and to sign the necessary contracts.
Q. How did you solve the issue of dealing with “contagious” animals in your clinic?
A. If an animal is admitted to the clinic with a confirmed infection, it is taken to our infectious disease unit, a separate building not far from the main branch. We then clean the office and waiting area, and the clinician who treated the infectious animal has to shower and change clothes before coming into contact with any other animal. In addition, clients who are scheduled to bring a puppy or kitten for vaccination that day are informed by phone that they will be met at a separate entrance and will be seen in a dedicated sterile consult room.
Our experience with breeders has been transformed and improved over the past eight years, and we have achieved great success in mutual understanding and comfortable cooperation. Veterinarians should be keen to engage more positively with breeders, because we have a single shared goal – to give this world healthy pets and to make their owners happy.
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