The overprotective pet owner

dvm360dvm360 November 2022
Volume 53
Issue 11
Pages: 74

Veterinary professionals can recognize and manage anxiety in clients to improve communication and outcomes for patients

Editor’s note: All names and businesses in this dilemma case are fictitious, but the scenario is based on real occurrences.

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The Clinton Animal Hospital was a progressive small animal practice with 5 veterinarians and a technician staff support of 16 individuals. Additionally, 2 hospital administrators coordinated the management and continuing education of the talented professional staff. Because of recent frictional contacts with some pet owners, the hospital director scheduled a workshop on how to recognize and assist the overprotective pet owner.

Overprotective pet owners display their anxiety and concern in a manner such that staff often brand them as difficult clients. This attitude does not assist the pet’s care. The staff were hopeful that the workshop would provide the tools necessary to resolve these conflicts.

The course taught the staff that the first step is recognizing indicators often displayed by the overprotective pet owner. When entering the exam room, it is not unusual for the pet owner to position themselves between the staff member and their pet. In their initial greeting they may state that their pet is not comfortable with strangers, does not like to be touched, or has had a bad experience when visiting the veterinarian in the past.

When the pet is placed on the exam table, the overprotective owner often wants to assist. Finally, the overprotective pet owner will attempt to relate the dog’s medical history in a way that may minimize symptoms so that the doctor will, hopefully, not reveal any disturbing conclusions.

Unfortunately, a staff member’s initial response to this behavior is to take a defensive posture. But it is important to recognize that these are very anxious pet owners and they are not the enemy. Sometimes we forget how stressful it can be for people to bring their beloved pets to the veterinarian. They often feel helpless in the face of their animals’ discomfort.

When you encounter an overprotective pet owner, the first thing to do is to engage the pet owner in a nonmedical conversation. Compliment the pet. Relate an anecdotal story about your own dog or cat. This way, the client sees you as a fellow pet owner as well. You might ask the client what it is they feel may be the cause of the problem. This allows them to feel they are working in concert with the veterinarian and their defensive posturing often morphs into a cooperative team effort. Implementing de-escalation and emphasizing compassion will lead to a client feeling comfortable and an easier road to the resolution of the pet’s problem.

Do you have further suggestions as to how to assist an anxious overprotective pet owner? We would like to know.

Rosenberg's response

Sometimes we forget just how stressful and frightening a pet owner’s visit to the veterinarian’s office can be. When a pet is ill, and cannot relate its symptoms to the owner, both frustration and fear set in. When coming to a veterinarian, the client often feels powerless and can understandably have
a defensive mindset. It is important not to view this pet owner as a “difficult client.” When I am aware that an anxious, overprotective client is scheduled to see me, I often will not wear a medical smock or a white coat but rather casual clothes. This often decreases a client’s subliminal feelings of intimidation.

Overprotective pet owner indicators are excellent guides to helping the patient, the pet owner, and the veterinary staff. Acquiring the tools to assist these clients leads to more effective veterinary care.

Marc Rosenberg, VMD is director of Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors, and employees described are fictional.

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