5 top client questions answered


The barrage of queries can be head spinning. Keep your responses straight by following this advice.

Fielding client questions is an essential part of a veterinary team member's job. And boy do you get questions. Some of them you hear over and over, umpteen times a day. The autopilot in you might be tempted to brush these FAQs aside with short, even terse answers—especially if they're asked at the end of a long day.

But remember that your responses can make or break a pet's health. And the client that's standing before you this afternoon didn't hear you explain the same details earlier in the morning. Therefore, it's important to answer each and every question thoroughly—even when they're grating. (No, your pet doesn't need to have a litter before she's neutered.) Listed here are the most common client concerns, complete with advice for responding in a way that inspires confidence, not contempt.

Q: Why does my pet need parasite prevention in the winter months?

Don't say: Chances are, the freezing temperatures will stave off most parasites. You might as well save your money for future veterinary visits.

Do say: Cats and dogs—even those living indoors—need parasite prevention all year long. While the infection rate decreases in cold weather, pets are still at risk. One reason is that outdoor parasites tend to move inside during winter months. Another thing to keep in mind is that the cost of treatment far outweighs the cost of prevention.

What you need to know: Times, they are a-changing. Pets travel now more than ever, families relocate more often, and climates are less predictable. All this means that parasites are increasingly showing up in so-called atypical areas. Take heartworm infection. Cases have been recorded in every state except Alaska. Even in the northernmost sections of Maine and Washington, veterinary clinics reported one to five cases of heartworm infection in 2007, according the American Heartworm Society. That's not a high number, but for the one to five clients whose pets became infected, the low risk didn't matter.

Fleas and ticks are hearty creatures, and they can survive inhospitable conditions including cold weather. This is especially true if they manage to find their way into homes or crawl spaces or other areas that are sheltered from winter elements. Bottom line: Pets aren't safe even when the temperatures dip.

If you live in a climate that's warm all year, be sure clients understand that parasites could infect their two- and four-legged family members. "Most clients don't realize that common parasites are zoonotic, meaning that pets and people can pass them between each other," says Gina Toman, RVT, practice manager at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. "Hookworms can be transmitted through feces, and, even if dogs stay inside most of the time, they're still going outdoors for bathroom breaks and walks." Remind clients that even indoor cats can be affected. People can pick up fleas or ticks on their pant legs and transfer them to animals, and mosquitoes can sneak inside through open doors or windows and transmit heartworm disease.

Click here to download a seasonal brochure on parasite prevention to give to pet owners.

Q: If I keep my pet on parasite prevention, why do I need to test for heartworms each year?

Don't say: Testing for parasites is an added precaution we like to take.

Do say: Even though today's preventive medications are highly effective, like with any medicine, none are 100 percent effective, especially if your pet inadvertently misses a dose. Testing is the only way to ensure we catch infection early.

What you need to know: Testing for heartworms is crucial, regardless of whether a pet is on preventives, says Tiah Schwartz, CVT, client care team supervisor at Laurelhurst Veterinary Hospital in Portland, Ore. "It's rare but possible for pets to contract heartworms while on preventives," she says. "We tell clients that if this happens, the medication will kill the heartworms. If a large number of heartworms die, they could clog the arteries and kill the pet."

The likeliest reason protected dogs and cats contract heartworms is that pet owners—even well intentioned ones—forget to administer doses, do so improperly, or don't realize that a pet didn't actually swallow a pill.

The tests available today are also more sophisticated than before. In fact, they might be able to detect the presence of just one heartworm. This type of early detection allows you to provide treatment before the heart and lungs have been seriously damaged.

Another reason to encourage regular testing is that clients might not recognize the signs of heartworms, especially in cats. Feline heartworm infection often makes itself known through asthma-like symptoms, such as coughing or wheezing. While encouraging testing, be sure to explain the symptoms dog and cat owners should watch for.

Q: Does it really matter that my pet gained a pound or two?

Don't say: One pound really isn't that much. Plus Milly looks so cute with a little extra weight.

Do say: Any weight gain in your pet should be taken seriously because getting heavier could signal or lead to more complicated problems like thyroid disease, diabetes, or osteoarthritis.

What you need to know: "One pound on a pet can equal six to eight pounds on a human," Toman says. "And if a pet leads a sedentary life, it's hard to get extra weight off." The good news is that pet owners are in control of this situation. A cat or dog can't open the cabinet and get out more food. So a change in diet—either feeding a therapeutic food designed to encourage weight loss, changing portion sizes, or eliminating snacks—should help. To get the discussion started, the team at Schwartz's clinic has placed a weight chart in the lobby. This visual helps clients understand the importance of getting their pet's food intake—and weight—under control.

Click here to help clients determine how much food their pets should consume daily.

But Toman issues a word of warning: "If a pet is on a good diet and still not losing weight, it's important to run blood work. Metabolic disorders such as thyroid disease can affect how a pet loses or gains weight." Receptionists, be sure you schedule follow-up visits for these types of patients.

Q: Why does this service cost so much?

Don't say: Unfortunately, quality care doesn't come cheaply.

Do say: This itemized treatment plan outlines all the costs, including that of digital radiography. Our state-of-the art digital radiography machine enables us to catch potential health problems we wouldn't otherwise be able to see. Also, to help defray the costs, we offer several payment options, including pet insurance and third-party payment plans.

What you need to know: "First, explain the value of the service they're getting and the reason why the cost is what it is," Schwartz says. "Then reassure clients that you have resources like third-party payment plans or pet insurance to help them pay for it."

When discussing your practice's payment options, be sure you know the ins and outs of each plan you offer. For example, some pet insurance policies don't cover certain breeds or pets with preexisting conditions. Various third-party payment plans charge different interest rates. Also, be sure you and all your team members are recommending the same options to avoid confusing clients.

Q: How will this treatment help my pet? She's just old.

Don't say: Older pets often do experience problems, but it's worth a try.

Do say: With the right treatments and services, most pets can still experience a high quality of life even if they are getting on in years.

What you need to know: "Most people mistake arthritis changes with old age, especially if their pet is lying around more, is reluctant to go for walks, or has a decreased appetite," Toman says. "But in reality these can be signs of pain. Adding glucosamine, omega fatty acids (fish oils), or even NSAIDs can improve their pet's quality of life."

Also be sure to talk to clients with senior pets about wellness visits. Annual check ups are important for every pet, but especially so for mature ones. Since pets age faster than people, let clients know that when a dog or cat goes more than a year without an examination, it's like you staying away from the doctor for seven years. Yearly or twice-yearly appointments allow veterinarians to catch health issues before they affect a pet. And this ensures that a pet's later years truly are golden.

Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer living in New York City. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com.

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