Musings of a Veterinarian

Empathy: I Has It. (Or at least I’m working on it.)

December 07, 2011 By: Dr. K Category: Just For Fun, Opinion

Every now and then I need to remind myself what it’s like to owner a pet without all the knowledge I’ve accrued as a veterinarian. I often find myself diagnosing a limp, finding lumps, and grasping at lymph nodes when I am in the company of my friends and family. That auto pilot is awfully hard to turn off!

Several weeks ago I allowed myself to immerse in the unbridled joy of being a crazy cat lady as I shopped for a kitty staircase for Winston, my debilitated old man. I purposely failed to divulge my career status to the very enthusiastic and obviously crazy cat man who assisted me in my purchase. It was so awesome to just enjoy being a pet owner without the expectation of expertise. Dipping my toes into the non-veterinary pool was so refreshing I’ve decided to plunge wholeheartedly into my reflection and reconnect with my clientele.

If you’ve followed my posts in the past, you’ve realized I’m an all-or-nothing gal; I hate it or I love it. This personality trait proves challenging for a little emotion called empathy. I’ve outlined some of the pet owner quirks that, frankly, drive me nuts and paired each with an empathetic thought process that keeps my sanity and helps me practice better medicine.

I am trying to better connect with clients while alleviating self-induced irritation. Win-Win!

1. Any Nervous Dog or Cat Has Been Abused

I encounter at least one pet owner a day who believes his pet was abused prior to adoption. The default thought process of an owner is this: “He cowers so he must have been beaten. He barks at men so he must have been abused by one.” If every nervous pet I see was truly abused, every neighbor is a suspect animal abuser.

There’s certainly no harm is believing Fido was beaten under previous ownership but it really chaps my hide when an owner allows this perception to foster bad pet behavior. The perceived abuse provides a scapegoat for their animal’s aggressive behavior and lack of training. Instead of reinforcing good behaviors, owners unwittingly allow the biting, writhing, pain-inducing creature to wreak havoc on me and my staff.  All the while they reinforce the behavior with coddling and praise under the notion that discipline equals abuse!

Empathetic Moment: Human nature, lack of understanding of animal behavior, and compassion drive owners to these conclusions. Submissive behaviors and failure in appropriate socialization most likely account for a majority of these fearful “abuse” cases. However, the truth is abuse does exist and dismissing the idea altogether is a disservice to the pet and owner. Educating owners to the variety of behavior types and teaching them to acclimate their pet to new situations is key.

2. What Breed Do You Think He Is, Doc?

Who cares?!? Okay okay, owners care about their mutt’s constitution. I hate this guessing game because it sets me up for a discussion about a subject I find irrelevant and, it seems, I never tell the owner what they want to hear. Not many owners are keen on me telling them their “Labrador-mix” is actually a Pit Bull. After I’ve offer my best guess, I’m told the groomer/friend/neighbor  has told them it’s an insert-name-here-a-poo and they agree with them over me. *face palms*

From a veterinary standpoint, does it really matter? Nope. The genetic diversity of a standard mutt generally equates to less inherited diseases and medical problems overall. Do owners still want to know? Yep. Some owners seem so fixated on figuring out the amalgam of breeds they even throw money away on those dreadfully unreliable doggie DNA tests.

Empathetic Moment: Why is it so important for owners to know what breeds their dogs are? Knowledge of your pet deepens your emotions and creates a greater bond! I will continue to play the guessing game and call your new rescue a labrashepacockadoodle, but I still refuse to recommend those DNA tests!

3. My Groomer Said/My Breeder Said….

It’s like nails on a chalkboard. The Dr. House part of me begs to ask, “Oh? And where did your groomer attend vet school?” Of course, I’d never. Okay, maybe once but only in the right circumstance.

Now, don’t hang me by my toes yet, all ye breeders and groomers. You folks are often advocates for the pets you care for and for that, I’m grateful. Some of your advice is excellent! But some, particularly pertaining to vaccinations, is woefully inaccurate and not rooted in science. I dread refuting bad advice and fear that if not worded just-so, I’ll come off pretentious and judgmental.

Empathetic Moment:  How are pet owners to tell the difference between good and bad advice? Veterinarians should welcome questions regarding alternatively sourced information handed to the client; sometimes the only way we find out what type of misinformation is out there!

The best pet owners hunger for knowledge and desire the best for their pets. Veterinarians must educate pet owners with reliable and scientifically-based information or they might just get their information from unreliable sources. I don’t want my clients to rely on Drs. Google and Wikipedia exclusively for their veterinary information.

4. We Left Our Last Vet Because Fluffy Didn’t Like Him

New clients who reveal they’ve left a practice because the pet was unhappy with the veterinarian immediately ring alarm bells in my head. This equals one of two things in my book: (a) the client is either using the dog/cat as a mouth-piece to voice disapproval of the care and service provided at another veterinary hospital, or (b) she simply does not understand animal behavior.

All puppies and kittens enjoy visiting the hospital during those first innocent check-ups. Gradually the smartest of the patients, Labradors and Goldens excluded, catch on that maybe this veterinary hospital thing is not so much fun. Do clients really expect their pets to like vaccinations, blood draws, rectal exams, and nail trims?

Empathetic Moment: It is crucial to avoid labeling new clients as “high maintenance” or “difficult” because they were unhappy with service elsewhere.  The new client may have a legitimate reason for leaving disgruntled. A preconceived notion may change the tenor of the appointment.

This initial conversation opens the door to conversation about expectations for Fluffy’s care at my hospital. Meeting a client’s expectations will not only leave the client satisfied but will also, hopefully, establish a long-term relationship of care.

Empathy is perhaps innate, perhaps learned, or even both. No matter, I’m striving to practice mine everyday!

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