Delivering bad news to veterinary clients in a 'good' way


Watch for clients' emotions in the moment, rather than trying to "fix" what they're feeling.

I once had a pet owner—let's call her Lisa—bring her beloved Golden Retriever in for her annual physical exam. Little did I know that in less than 15 minutes I was going to be delivering news that would turn Lisa's world upside down: 10-year-old Woofie almost certainly had metastatic cancer.

I started my exam of Woofie and before I reached for the corners of the jaw I saw enlarged lymph nodes.


I've known Lisa 45 years and have seen her through three cycles of beloved pets. Most of the time, we worked through physical exams, emphasized preventive care and then just celebrated the human-animal bond.

But not this time. For the first 15 physical exams of Woofie's life, I'd gone through my exam, and told Lisa what I was seeing, feeling, hearing and smelling. I'd felt those same lymph nodes 20 times, and they were always normal. But I make it a point to foreshadow future health problems and protocols when I see pets as puppies and kittens, and had told her that upwards of three-quarters of Goldens end up getting cancer.

Looking Lisa in the eye, I said, "Lisa, I'm finding grossly swollen lymph nodes, and with Woofie's breed and age we have to be concerned that this might be cancer." She broke into tears as she collapsed on Woofie, who didn't have a clue why her mom was so upset.

One thing I've learned over the years is, don't try to "fix" the emotion when bad news upsets a client. Rather, empathize and align with the client, depending on the circumstance. Such as: "I can see you weren't expecting this news. I'm disappointed, too, that we didn't get a better response to the treatment."

Rather than focus solely on the expected outcome when a prognosis is dismal, share both your expectations and your hope with patients. Veterinarians are obliged to never extinguish hope.

In this case everything went right. The initial news was bad, but with a lifetime of bonding between family, pet and veterinarian behind me, I empathized and aligned. Through the miracles of modern veterinary medicine, Woofie had three more years of tennis balls and turkey meatballs. The pet, pet owner, practice and the profession won.

Dr. Marty Becker, Veterinary Economics Practice Leadership Editor, is the author of 21 books. He practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho.

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