The human-human bond

The human-human bond

Focusing on the best care for pets is great—just don't forget about the critter on the other side of the leash
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Mar 01, 2012


Michael Paul, DVM
Veterinarians have always been recognized as animal lovers. A recent survey of more than 3,500 veterinarians asked what drew them to veterinary medicine. Nearly 40 percent of respondents cited a love of animals, 18 percent answered that they were fulfilled by seeing a healthy pet and happy pet owner and 10 percent believed it was a higher calling.

Because of this commitment to animals and pet owners, we chose to devote our education, develop our careers and invest our security in the pursuit of quality healthcare for our patients. Literary references to veterinarians always focus on sacrifice and gentle care and invariably demonstrate the respect and affection between veterinarian and animal or between pet owner and animal—the human-animal bond.

I, too, treasure these relationships but at the same time remember one of my professors frequently reminding those in our class who didn't relish the veterinarian-client relationship that animals rarely present themselves for care and never pay for their own bills, so developing that third side of the triangle is just as important as providing patient care.

I wonder if we have been as committed to cultivating that relationship as thoroughly as we might. In our service of the human-animal bond, have we lost site of the human-human bond?

Loss of the personal touch

In the last few years, our profession has begun to struggle with new issues. Not so long ago, we were a full-service profession. There were few specialists, we handled our own emergency coverage and, as such, we were accessible to clients at some pretty inconvenient times. If a person needed veterinary care or services or products, they came to us. We were the authority figure, the counselor and pretty much the sole source of veterinary information.

That sounds almost foreign today. Veterinarians rarely take phone calls at home and even more rarely provide emergency care. Vaccination protocols necessitate fewer routine visits to our clinics and, thus, fewer opportunities to interact with clients. Many surgical procedures are sent to specialists, and challenging medical cases are often likewise referred.

While this trend has improved medical care, our care of the critter on the other end of the leash may have suffered. Increasingly, business, including veterinary medicine, is about customer relationships. Clients have a lot of choices, and, given the option, we all prefer to do business with someone we like, someone we know and someone we trust.

Not surprisingly, surveys of veterinary clients reveal the same sorts of issues and concerns that human patients voice. Just as we prefer to see the same physician, pet owners tell us they want to see the same veterinarian whenever possible—yet many practices seem to actively discourage that. Like human patients, clients are more and more sensitive to the cost of medical or veterinary care. They tell us they want to have input into care decisions—they want to have their options clearly communicated. Don't you feel the same way? See a trend? They want a relationship with their veterinarian just like we do with our physician. They want to feel that we know them! My bet is that surveys of diners and purchasers of automobiles, homes or any major purchase would respond much the same way.

Work on your human-human bonds

As a profession, we have become sensitive to the importance of an animal's experience when we provide care: how we approach and handle dogs and cats and put them at ease so we can better evaluate their problems, provide comfort and care and have things go just a little bit easier for all involved.

Give clients what they want in a professional relationship. Build on their wishes, not yours. The adage "Treat people the way you want to be treated" is in error. Treat people the way they want to be treated.

If we are to succeed in our mission, we must remember that we serve not only pets but the people who live with them, and they all need to benefit from the relationship.

Dr. Paul is a veterinary consultant as well as a founding member and former executive director/CEO of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. He has served as president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He now lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.