Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Talking to Your Vet

Talking to your vet can be stressful. You’re already upset because your pet is sick, medical information can be complicated and confusing, and it’s hard not to worry about the bill.

But you may not realize it can be frustrating for your vet as well. We talked to a couple of experienced veterinarians about how it feels from their side and how you can help them help you.

How to Make Dr. Google Part of the Team

These days the first thing most of us do about a medical problem is search the web. While a good vet wants clients to be well-informed, online information can be a mixed bag, and you should think about how you present it.

“We all do the same thing; if my car is making a weird noise I immediately get on the internet,” says Amy Learn, VMD. “But we want to check the sources of that information and make sure that what you’re finding is appropriate for your pet and is the right information.”

Some vets can feel threatened by a client who comes in with a stack of printouts, but even those who don’t say it needs to be the start of a conversation, not a conclusion.

“I personally don’t mind having a Dr. Google conversation,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM. “I stay fresh, I’m aware of new things that are out there and what my clients are reading. But the way I want to be approached is ‘This is what I found; what do you think of it?’”

It’s easy to go online and find a list of symptoms that correspond exactly to those your pet has and be sure you’ve found the answer, but Dr. Learn says to remember that it’s really not that simple. “Vomiting and diarrhea could lead to a diagnosis of maybe a hundred different diseases,” she says. It’s also easy to latch on to the worst-case scenario. She recalls one client who was positive her dog had gotten botulism from eating out of a compost pile. The dog in fact did not have that very rare condition, but it wasn’t easy to talk the owner down and get to the real cause of the problem.

“She found the worst thing that could be wrong and was deathly afraid,” says Learn. “It’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole and get stuck on one track about what we think is happening. It’s easy to get into a panic mode.”

Learn understood how the owner got into that state–she loved her dog and was desperate for him to get well–but she inadvertently made the situation more stressful for herself than it needed to be. So do your research but be ready to listen. “We’re a team and together we’ll find the right information,” says Learn.

Be Ready to Explain Why

Both Radosta and Learn say the most common frustration they encounter is a client who is dead set against a certain approach without giving a clear reason. “If you can explain it to me, then I can work with it. If you can’t, then that’s frustrating,” says Learn.

If a previous pet was made sick by a certain medication, or a certain behavioral solution just won’t work for your family, or you don’t think you can realistically follow through with a certain treatment, don’t just say no; say why, so the vet can find a workaround.

“I’m not going to judge you; I just need to know why so I can come up with a different solution,” says Learn. “How can I work within those confines and still achieve the goal? I’m happy to find another way, so let’s just talk about it.”

Maybe It’s Not You

When you and your vet disagree, it’s a fine balance. Radosta says to remember that you know your own pet best, but you also need to have an open mind.

“You know your pet. If you think your pet’s not right, your pet’s not right. Period,” she says. If your vet says everything looks fine and you know something is still wrong, don’t be afraid to ask what to do next.

“Don’t be adversarial, but say, ‘I know that’s what your tests found but I know something’s wrong, so what else we can do?” she says. “Trust yourself. Come to the table with respect, but stand by your guns.”

A vet who is confident should still be respectful and should be able to present you with information that reassures you. “I would say, ‘Can you lead me perhaps to some scientific article that says this isn’t worth worrying about?” says Learn. “They should be able to say, ‘Here’s a source of information that will make you feel better.”

If these discussions consistently don’t go well, it may be time to look for another vet. Sometimes the problem may just be different communication styles, but don’t downplay the importance of that in a relationship with any medical professional. Learn says, “When I look for my own physicians, I don’t just want the smartest guy. I want to know, am I going to feel awkward? Can I ask the most intimate questions of you?”

Money Talks

It’s hard to talk about money with your vet, but no matter how much you love your pet, few of us have unlimited funds, so don’t be afraid to bring it up.

“I appreciate being told about the budget,” says Radosta. “That feels uncomfortable because it feels better to be rich than not to be rich. But when people tell me they have a budget, I always thank them, then I tell them straight up, I’m going to help them figure out where to put that money.”

For almost any problem, there’s more than one solution. “The minimum you should expect from your vet is that they should offer you more than one option, and they should advise you of the ups and downs of that option,” says Radosta. Differences in cost should be part of that discussion.

While financial concerns are real, Radosta would also like clients to remember that most vets are not rich, and that while the best solutions aren’t always the most expensive ones, you need to be realistic about what you get for your money. “You want the fancy anesthesia; I want it too,” she says. “That costs money; that machine costs $50,000.” She recommends reducing the stress of future decisions about care by investing in good pet health insurance.

Your Life is not Your Vet’s Life

With all this talk about how your vet should offer you options, the problem can sometimes be that deciding among options is stressful in itself. Even if you’re a bit of a control freak, sometimes you may want to throw up your hands and say, “You’re the vet, tell me what to do!”

The reality is that there very often isn’t one right answer, and both Learn and Radosta say, please don’t ask THAT question.

“Please don’t ask your vet ‘What would you do if this was your dog?’” says Radosta.

Everyone comes to the table with different ideas about ethics, lifestyles, home situations, backgrounds, and experience. All of this will play into what solution will work for a certain individual.

“I don’t live in your home with your pet and your family and have to live this life every day, so my answer is not the right answer for everyone,” says Learn. “I can give you different viewpoints and facts so you can make the best, most informed decision, but at the end of the day your heart has to be okay with the decision that you make and so I cannot make it for you.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.