The evolution of the role of pets in the lives of humans has opened new opportunities for veterinarians, especially those in primary care (general) practice. Owners become deeply attached to their companion animals and care about their pets' health and well-being. Owners' expectations for veterinary care are becoming similar to the care ideally provided in human medicine, particularly as high-tech medicine expands within veterinary specialties. Not surprisingly, pet health care spending is increasing year by year. In addition, the increased importance of animals changes the nature of veterinary practice to include the entire family, and a sophisticated level of family support is expected by many clients. The style and emphases of companion animal practices have shifted, as reflected in the term “veterinary family practice.”
Practices that include the entire family build lifelong relationships with families and their animals. Clients look forward to consistently seeing the same veterinarian. The addition of a new animal to the family is the occasion to discuss the animal’s life cycle with the family and provide an overview that can optimize the likelihood of a positive human-animal relationship with few behavioral problems. Veterinarians no longer just treat the animal; emotional needs of the family are addressed along with the medical needs of the pet, throughout the lifetime of the pet and beyond.
Animals are acknowledged to play a central and formative role in children’s lives. In some studies, pet-owning preadolescents scored higher on measures of self-esteem and autonomy. Veterinarians may consider incorporating children into their communications with the family and making it easy for families with children to be comfortable during veterinary visits (eg, providing a play area in the waiting room or planning for children to be present in or visibly near the examination room). Hospitals providing extended care for animals with complex diagnostic procedures and treatment plans that require hospitalization sometimes find entire families visiting to offer support to the animal, perhaps spending hours with the pet; these hospitals may want to plan accommodation for such families.
In addition to implementing thoughtful measures to decrease the physical and mental stress to patients, but also providing areas for clients' relaxation, softer light in public areas, and comfortable seating in examination rooms without barriers from the medical staff are some features that improve the satisfaction of clients. Impeccable cleanliness also matters. Veterinary practices that exhibit these values and settings demonstrate the understanding that medical interventions carry emotional consequences and that medical competence and providing emotional support go hand in hand.
Communication has a key role in the owner-pet and veterinarian-client bond, because it affects the care that pets receive and makes clients more comfortable. Communicating effectively and building rapport with clients appreciably affects the loyalty of the pet owner to the veterinarian. Clients value the genuine love and interest that veterinarians show for their pets. The veterinarian's empathetic concern expressed through effective communication builds relationships with clients and enhances client satisfaction, potentially affecting the rating of the veterinarian's expertise and trustworthiness. Clients expect veterinarians to educate them with empathy, explaining important information clearly and in various formats. Clients want to be provided options and offered a respectful partnership with the veterinarian in the health care of their pet. They expect interactive, two-way communication with good eye contact that includes listening and asking relevant questions. Clear recommendations and effective communication from the veterinarian about the rationale for treatment plans leads to better adherence to those plans by the client.
A strong owner-pet bond is associated with greater attention to veterinary care. Owners feel strongly about the quality of life of their pets, as revealed in studies involving surgery or medical problems of pets. Owners want effective pain management for the animal before, during, and after surgery, including spaying or neutering, even though they may not wish to administer such medication at home. People feel that a good quality of life for their pets includes mobility, play or mental stimulation, health, and companionship. Research found that owners of dogs with heart disease expressed extreme concern regarding their inability to subjectively assess whether their pet was suffering. Teaching owners to assess and improve the animal's quality of life is an important aspect of veterinary care and client education. Veterinarians and pet owners can use a quality-of-life scale (eg, the 5H2M Scale to monitor the pet's hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, mobility, and more good days than bad) as an aid in assessment. A strong majority of owners indicate they would trade their pet's longevity for quality of life, particularly considering the pet's ability to interact with the owners.
Good communication skills also build a strong client-veterinarian bond, and successful veterinarians pay close attention to their nontechnical competencies, including interpersonal relationship-building skills. Such skills enable veterinarians and staff members to facilitate clients’ understanding of medical situations and preventive medicine throughout the animal's life; from encouraging clients to attend puppy socialization classes to preparing clients to provide palliative care or deal with end-of-life issues. Follow-up communication can also improve client adherence, which tends to be lower than veterinarians believe. Curricula for veterinary students increasingly include opportunities to develop communication skills in which students can practice engaging clients, asking open-ended questions, offering reflective listening and empathy, educating clients, meeting clients’ and patients’ needs, dealing with difficult situations, and emphasizing support and partnership.
Veterinary schools now pay more attention to developing communication and client-relationship skills than they have historically. However, even veterinarians with optimal communication skills inevitably encounter owners who are inattentive, neglectful, overinvolved, or completely cost driven; as well as pets that are uncontrolled, dangerous, or dirty, adding to the medical problems of the animal and the emotional challenges for the veterinarian. Most veterinarians feel their education and training did not prepare them to deal with such nonmedical issues. Continuing education in honing communication skills, making plans in advance, and developing specific protocols for interventions can prepare the veterinary staff with strategies for these situations.