How to Have Meaningful Communication With Your Veterinarian

When Mary Harris arrived home after leaving her beloved Max at the veterinary hospital, she felt totally lost and more than a little anxious. Although Max’s veterinarian was kind enough, his jargon-filled description of Max’s problem and the tests he wanted to conduct overwhelmed her.

“Even if I understood what all those words meant, I still wouldn’t know what I want to know,” Mary explained later. “I don’t care what the problem means to Dr. Jones. I want to know what it means to Max and me.”

In an ideal world, all veterinarians would receive training that would enable them to communicate in a meaningful way with pet owners. But until then, those who share Mary’s views need to take the initiative. One easy way to ensure that you cover all the bases regarding how a particular medical problem or procedure will affect your animal involves focusing on two areas:

  • Your pet’s physical health
  • Your pet’s behavior

Chances are your veterinarian automatically will give you information regarding any physical effects of the problem because that’s the focus of veterinary education and training. However if that person provides this information in a manner you don’t understand, say so. Most veterinarians don’t deliberately try to confuse their clients. They just forget that those people don’t speak the same language they do. Consequently, it’s up to you to remind them. If you find it difficult to concentrate in a busy veterinary setting, don’t feel embarrassed to ask the veterinarian to write down any critical points for you. Many veterinarians also will provide pre-printed hand-outs describing many problems in simple language that you can read at home. Increasingly more may have these available on their websites or they can send them to you in electronic form.

Some veterinarians may not  think about how a medical problem may affect an animal’s behavior so you may need to remind them about this. Will Snoopy’s surgery make him groggy? Will her sore leg make Daisy snappy? Will Misty’s medication cause her to break her house-training? By knowing about any behavioral effects in advance, you can make preparations to avoid or cope with these if and when they arise.

Coping with the behavioral changes associated with pet medical problems brings us to the second half of your fact-finding mission: How will your pet’s problem affect you? One convenient way to simplify this for both yourself and your veterinarian is to view the problem in terms of the four kinds of limits that underlie practically all human-animal relationships:

  • Financial
  • Time
  • Emotional
  • Physical

Some owners feel incredibly guilty asking about the cost of any proposed medical treatment, but that’s foolish. Most of us need to budget our money and knowing how much FiFi’s surgery or medication will cost allows us to do this. Knowing the cost beforehand also enables us to discuss time payments or other financial arrangements to pay for the care if necessary. Sometimes veterinarians only will suggest what they consider the optimal treatment which also may be the most expensive. But they’ll propose other, less costly but equally viable options if they know owners can’t afford this. However if the owner doesn’t bring this up, the veterinarian probably won’t either.

Does this mean you’re putting a dollar value on your pet? Not at all! Knowing how much Dizzy’s treatment is going to cost and how you’re going to pay for it relieves you of all the worries associated with that part of his medical problem. That, in turn, keeps you and your veterinarian from becoming involved in negative fee-related discussions later than might undermine your relationship with that person and your pet’s well-being. It also frees you to focus all of your energy on helping your pet get well.

Additionally pet owners need to address any time limits they may have. If you work a 12- hour day and your veterinarian wants you to give Egbert one pill every 8 hours, you need to discuss this. Even the very best medication won’t work optimally if it’s not given as directed. Worse, failure to do so could make your pet’s problem worse.

Even though most of us like to say that we’d do anything for our pets, the fact remains that most of us do apply certain emotional limits to our animal companions. Some people fear to open their pets’ mouths to administer a pill. Others find the smell of that icky ear or the sight of that swollen eye enough to make their stomachs churn. As far as that pus around Frankie’s “private parts” goes, well, forget about that! If you feel that way about anything associated with the treatment of your pet’s medical condition, admit it. Sometimes the veterinarian or a helpful technician will show you some tricks that will enable you get over those negative feelings. If you still can’t, more and more veterinary clinics offer daycare service during which staff members do all the medicating, bandage-changing, or other tasks some owners find emotionally trying. But once again you won’t know about these options unless you ask.

Most of us also have physical limits that affect our response when our pets experience medical problems. Giving weekly baths to exuberant golden retrievers with skin problems can exhaust a physically fit twenty-something. If you’re a senior citizen with arthritis it can be downright painful. Even the most placid animal may prove impossible to medicate if owners’ eyesight or coordination makes it impossible for them to get the medication where it needs to go. Treating pet problems that pose little threat for the average owner may be downright hazardous for those with suppressed immune responses. If your veterinarian doesn’t bring up these issues, bring them up yourself for the sake of your own health as well as your pet’s.

Admittedly, the idea of asking your veterinarian to supply this information may seem a bit daunting at first. On the other hand, addressing all of these behavioral and owner-related factors can have as much or more influence on your pet’s recovery as the most sophisticated surgery or drug. The nature of the human-animal bond guarantees that our pets will pick up on our anxiety and confusion and it will effect them both physically and behaviorally, and almost invariably negatively so. To avoid that, take a few minutes and think about your pet’s behavior and what kinds of changes would bother you most and how you would handle them. Think about any financial, time, emotional, and physical limits that could come into play if your pet developed medical problems. That way when those problems arise, asking your veterinarian for that information won’t cause you any embarrassment. It will seem like the most natural thing any loving pet owner could do.