Scientific reasons your veterinary loyalty program boosts dopamine — and revenue

11 min read

Dr. Ivan Pavlov introduced the groundbreaking discovery of positive reinforcement conditioning in the late 1800s. As one of the earliest investigators on the inner workings of the gastrointestinal process, he discovered that the parietal glands in the mouth could be stimulated to secrete saliva by pairing a bell with a positive stimulus like eating. The breakthrough led to the realization that the brain controls physiological responses to external stimuli.

Pavlov external stimuli chart

Understanding the reward center of the brain

Further discoveries throughout the 20th century led to the identification of the reward center in the brain. This complex system works like this:
When a stimulus is experienced, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain releases dopamine, which travels to the following areas of the reward circuit in the brain:

  • Prefrontal cortex — Focuses attention and planning
  • Nucleus accumbens — Controls motor functions
  • Amygdala — Responsible for emotions
  • Hippocampus — Responsible for formation of memories

This system, known as the mesolimbic pathway, works collectively to produce what is known as a “dopamine hit.” The hormone dopamine triggers a surge of happiness and euphoria—the “feel-goods.” There are many known behaviors that lead to dopamine release, such as a compliment, eating, sex, gambling, drugs, and winning something. The higher the dopamine level, the more addictive the activity.1

Pleasurable activities trigger dopamine release

Various activities cause the brain to release more dopamine than usual. Enjoying food brings a 50 percent boost to dopamine levels in the brain, for instance. Video games and sex also increase dopamine, and drug use does so significantly. It’s not reasonable to equate the brain response to drug use with that of video games.

dopamine bar graph

Chart: The conversation, CC-BY-ND • Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse • Get the data

Triggering a dopamine release with your veterinary loyalty program

One of the biggest differences between a reward program and a discount program is this neurological pathway and whether a dopamine hit is being triggered. To get the maximum dopamine hit with your loyalty program, you need the following:

  • Cue
  • Reward
  • Appropriate timing

Looking back to Pavlov’s infamous discovery, by omitting any of these three elements, the dog would not have drooled, hence there would not have been a significant dopamine release. Here’s how your reward program can trigger a dopamine release for your clients:

  • The cue — The trigger needs to be a clear and obvious stimulus. For Pavlov, it was a bell. For a veterinary loyalty program, it’s receiving an invoice after your visit.
  • The routine — The routine is the actual paying of the invoice by handing over your credit card or cash. This is more powerful than you may realize. For example, it has been proven that cash is the biggest stimulus, because when you pay with cash, you get less back in your hand after the transaction. When paying with a credit card, you hand over an intact piece of plastic and you are returned an intact piece of plastic, hence your perception of the cost is minimized. This is why using cash is the most effective way to curb overspending.
  • The reward — The reward is a proxy for the dopamine hit. In a loyalty program, the reward by proxy is the stamp or points in your loyalty app. In order to pull this off, the reward needs to be something desired by the subject (person or animal), otherwise there will be no emotion of desire or want, which is what drives the pathway.
  • The Timing — The payoff (i.e., the reward for the desired action) needs to be as instantaneous as possible to the cue. The closer in time the reward is to the cue, the more reinforcement of the routine by maximizing the dopamine hit.

loyalty reward cycle

Avoiding common veterinary loyalty program mistakes

By not understanding the deep complexity of the neuroscience being leveraged, it is quite easy to miss the mark with your loyalty program. Unfortunately, when you miss the mark, you are probably creating a discount program, rather than a reward program geared toward driving positive reinforcement behavior modification. Here are some common mistakes:

  • Too much time between the cue and the reward — This needs to be as instantaneous as possible. I would argue that anything over five minutes will cause an exponential loss of reinforcement. By waiting until the next day, it is possible to create a negative reinforcement, especially if the cue is painful, like paying an invoice.
  • Giving a reward that isn’t desired by the subject — If the subject (human or animal) doesn’t want the reward, there is no desire to fuel the pathway, and the program will run out of gas.
  • Not being mindful of the behavior trying to be modified — When implementing a loyalty program, it is imperative to have an end result in mind. For veterinary practices, that is most likely going to center around increasing the compliance for our patients so they can live longer and be pain-free (or as close to that as possible). This is accomplished by driving visits and uptake in recommended therapies.

Harnessing this pathway can be one of the single most important ways to influence client behavior in your business, but missing the mark by not implementing the core requirements to fuel the pathway will result in an effort unworthy of the outcome.

Coming soon: Loyalty program study results

How are the veterinary loyalty programs of Vet2Pet’s customers working? We’re doing the final polishing on the 2020 Loyalty Program Data Analytics Report, and we can’t wait to share insights and ROI information on visits, ATC, and practice revenue. Watch for further communications when this report is finalized!

Is your practice winning with a loyalty program? Click here to learn more about this simple, yet customizable, feature. And, schedule a demo to see the entire Vet2Pet platform in action.



1 “Reward Pathway in the Brain.” Khan Academy

Stacee Santi, DVM

Stacee Santi, DVM

Dr. Stacee Santi founded Vet2Pet, the only customizable, all-in-one client engagement system for veterinary practices, which was acquired by Vetsource in 2022. Since earning her DVM from Colorado State University in 1996, Dr. Santi has accumulated more than 20 years of clinical experience in small animal and emergency practice, has spent significant time serving on various industry advisory boards, and served as 2020 president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. Considered a key opinion leader on mobile applications and veterinary reward programs, and selected as 2021 Continuing Educator of the Year—Practice Management by Viticus Group, Dr. Santi is passionate about helping veterinary practices better connect with their clients so pets get the best care and veterinary professionals enjoy more fulfilling, balanced careers.

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