At its core, veterinary medicine is a business of caring for people.

Or, it should be. 

Recent events have made me wonder if we’re losing sight of this, and instead focusing our efforts on the patient and failing to consider the owner’s values, goals, and circumstances. Could failing to connect with our clients in this way contribute to deeper industry problems such as burnout, dissatisfaction, and poor well-being?

Let’s take a closer look at why connecting with clients is vital to our success as veterinarians, caregivers, and human beings. 

“Don’t be mad at me…”

My client was an older gentleman with a long history of compliance. But on this particular evening as he presented his aging female cat for inappropriate urination, his request was direct—while he was open to environmental modification strategies, he only wanted medication at this time. As he placed the cat on the table, her textbook diabetic neuropathy shifted the conversation. When I explained my suspicions about diabetes, his response was emotional but certain. “I can’t deal with that right now. I’m going to have to let her go.” He paused before adding, “Don’t be mad at me.”

My heart broke open. 

Mad? Why would I be mad? This was a man who loved his cat and was making a difficult decision for reasons I didn’t expect to learn and may not be able to understand. But somewhere along the line, he’d experienced embarrassment or shame for his pet-related decisions—so much so that he felt it necessary to express his guilt and regret. His already dark and heavy emotional state was compounded by the fear of personal judgment.

Empathy for all

In situations such as this, we need to remember that most of our clients are doing the best they can for their pets according to their abilities and resources. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be seeking our services. And unless our clients decide to share personal information, we’ll never know what factors are at play in the decisions they make. We can’t presume to know what they’re going through, or that we know why they’ve declined our recommendations. And despite what many believe, such weighty decisions are less often about cost but instead involve more complex and unknowable variables such as personal values, beliefs, goals, or availability of resources (e.g., time, assistance, or the physical ability to provide recommended care).

Not knowing—or even understanding—the “why” behind our client’s decision does not preclude or prevent us from making a connection and providing high-quality care. But it does demand greater sensitivity, empathy, and concern for both sides of the pet-owner bond. We must have respect for these unknowns and create space for the client’s values, goals, and resources, or potentially compromise our ability to build trusting relationships and provide optimal care. 

Let go of outcomes, deliver better care

Connecting with clients often means detaching ourselves from what we think they should do for their pet. While it’s important to practice good medicine, concepts such as the gold standard and personal biases about what we’d do for our own pets can impair our ability to provide care that’s medically and circumstantially appropriate for each pet and their family. When we fall short of these high all-or-nothing levels of care, we’re left with a sense of failure or frustration, which can color our client interactions, create a sense of guilt or failure, and affect our overall job satisfaction.  

But when we can see our client’s efforts as genuine, acknowledge the unknowable factors that inform their decisions, and realize that we both share a common goal of helping the pet, we can work collaboratively and compassionately to build stronger connections, provide necessary and appropriate patient care, and experience greater fulfillment—knowing that our efforts are supporting the pet and the client. 

Helping pets, helping owners, helping ourselves

Another recent example of connecting with pet owners involves a Ready, Vet, Go mentee who was struggling to adjust and navigate common first-year challenges. I encouraged her to remember her why and explore how she might reconnect with or rekindle that feeling. She admitted that she couldn’t recall what originally drew her to veterinary medicine, only how she currently felt—after years of studying and mired in early career growing pains.

After giving her space to reflect, I received a text message several weeks later. The message included pictures of the mentee, fresh out of surgery, proudly displaying a distended and excised uterus along with a note explaining that she’d remembered her why.

Her client arrived at the clinic expecting to euthanize their sick pet, but the young veterinarian accurately diagnosed the problem, took the time to discuss various care and cost options, and called the practice owner in to assist with surgery. While she was proud to save the pet, her why went deeper. “My why was helping the owner,” she said. Being able to restore and preserve the precious relationship between the client and their pet had in turn revived her love and motivation for being a veterinarian. And now that she knows where to find her joy, I expect she’ll feel more empowered and less frustrated in the days and years ahead. 

Pet owners are not a barrier or a challenge we must navigate in order to care for pets—they’re essential to the care we provide and deserve our understanding, compassion, and support. Approaching each client interaction with an open mind, a non-judgemental heart, and a desire for genuine connection and understanding can help you deliver authentic meaningful care that benefits everyone involved—including yourself.

Ready, Vet, Go Veterinary Mentorship is committed to ensuring the future of veterinary medicine through high-quality remote mentorship and community support. Visit our program page or contact our team for more information about our individual, small practice, and corporate membership options.

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