There’s nothing worse for a pet owner than having a pet who is off-colour, out of sorts and not their usual bouncy self. They can’t tell you what’s wrong, and as a good owner, you’re only too aware of the concerns that can afflict your pet’s species. Along with that is the fear that this could be the start of a long and very expensive treatment plan.
“I must also choose the right language to explain the situation to the owner.”
As a vet, what do I tell them? Most pet or animal owners want to know immediately what the problem is and the available options for both the pet and the owner. And yet… although I have the training to make a diagnosis, I must also choose the right language to explain the situation to the owner.
Jane says her cat Voddy has had an ongoing ear infection for some weeks, and she’s worried that it’s cancerous. From a cursory examination, I don’t think it is, but I need to look inside the ear more closely to make an informed judgment. Before I can tell Jane this, she says, ‘Please tell me if it’s bad. I love my cat but I can’t afford to pay for an expensive operation.’
“I’ve always believed in telling the truth straight up.”
I’ve always believed in telling the truth straight up, but there are ways to do this. If Voddy has indeed got cancer, it does not necessarily mean a death sentence. Knowing Jane has limited means I could say, “The cat’s got cancer. I’ll have to put her down.’ But I won’t.
Animal owners need to have the truth presented to them in a supportive, compassionate manner so they can make an informed decision and plan ahead. They need to be able to understand the diagnosis, explore the options and make an informed decision about the treatment that will suit both the animal and its owner.
It might take several discussions, and if the treatment is lengthy, options could change during this time. The owner should be in charge, empowered by the knowledge they now have about the condition and the treatment.
In Voddy’s case, she has a growth in her ear that can be scraped. She may have to return in a few months to have the procedure repeated, but Jane is mightily relieved it isn’t a cancerous growth or that the treatment isn’t going to render her penniless. Now that her fear has receded, she’s able to take in my instructions about aftercare.
What would have happened if I’d failed to be empathetic about Jane’s concerns? She might have left to look for another vet who could give her a different diagnosis. She might have decided not to seek any further treatment at all.
Vets often face fearful, belligerent, or weepy owners who are at the end of their tether, or who are just plain scared. The result is that sometimes I feel as though ‘compassion fatigue’ could set in quite easily. In fact, it is our compassion toward animals and our ability to relate to their suffering that attracted us to the job.
It’s the expression of our empathy and our compassion that will convince a pet owner to trust us with the care of their animal. And that’s how it should be.
I’d love to know your thoughts.
Dr Sue Samuelsson is a caring and dynamic vet in the Northern Territory, Australia who has had a profound effect on many remote communities around East Arnhem Land. She is the creator of i-Vet, an innovate online service designed for pet owners. Away from her busy schedule she enjoys catching barramundi in the Daly River.