“Please don’t be mad at me.”

I blinked. The client standing across the exam table from me had just made the difficult decision to euthanize his senior cat after learning that the cat was diabetic and would need ongoing management.

Unprompted, he went on to tell me of recent family trauma and how he’d already assumed the role of caretaker for his grief-stricken spouse. He didn’t have to explain this, but he wanted to illustrate why an otherwise manageable condition—one he would’ve treated in a heartbeat a month ago—was now simply too much to bear.

“I’m not going to be mad at you,” I said, recognizing that we were providing the kindest outcome to his beloved cat at this given time and circumstance. But long after the visit, his plea echoed in my ears, as did a deeper question: How often do our clients feel judged by their veterinarian?

Why do our clients feel judged?

Clients come for our clinical—not personal—judgment, so where is this coming from? 

Let’s shed our metaphorical white coat, step into our client’s shoes, and consider what it means to be a pet owner in the veterinary clinic. If you sit with it for a moment, you’ll discover what I did—their role is surprisingly vulnerable, and they’re bringing more than their pet to the appointment. They also bring personal circumstances, beliefs, values, and resources—most of which we’ll never know about. 

Here are a few speculations about why clients may feel judged in the veterinary space.

Personal circumstances prevent them from providing care

Money isn’t the only limited resource for clients. Like us, our clients are busy maintaining jobs, caring for families, managing their health, and navigating difficult life situations we may never know about or have personally experienced. Sometimes, it may simply be that a client doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to continue care—such as electing for behavioral euthanasia after years of bending their life around various management strategies. Logistical limitations may also be at play, including the physical ability to meet a pet’s needs or a demanding work schedule that prohibits consistent care.

Clients can’t afford recommended care

Finances are a sensitive topic for most of us. We often perceive a lack of funds as something that indicates personal or professional failure and fear that others will do the same. Couple that with the emotional connection and responsibility we feel for our pets and it’s easy to see why our clients may grapple with deep shame, embarrassment, and guilt. To avoid the pain of embarrassment or the fear of being perceived as a “bad pet owner,” some may even agree to measures they can’t afford—compounding their personal and financial hardship simply to avoid saying “No” and being perceived as someone who doesn’t love or care enough for their pet.

Clients have different cultural values or belief systems

It can be easy to assume that everyone cares for pets the same way we do, but failing to recognize how cultural values and personal beliefs influence pet ownership can make these clients feel misunderstood, ashamed, or disrespected when their decisions don’t align with our recommendations.

Clients may not understand what’s happening to their pet

Some clients may struggle to comprehend their pet’s condition or understand the reason behind our recommendations. This may occur if we’re not doing our job to communicate clearly and break down obscure concepts, or it may be because of other unseen barriers such as health conditions or impairments. These clients may try to seek clarification through repetitive questioning—and perhaps feel shame when patience runs thin or answers are clipped. To avoid embarrassment, others may say they understand when they’re actually confused, frustrated, or scared.

How we can prevent our clients from feeling judged 

Fear of judgment isn’t just uncomfortable for clients, it can have an enormous impact on patient health and welfare. When clients feel pressured by emotional expectations, this can lead to additional personal hardship (e.g., if they pursue treatment beyond what their resources, including time, money, or physical constraints, allow) or compromise client-veterinarian trust, and may negatively affect the pet’s ability to receive quality care (e.g., if the client decides to go elsewhere or simply avoid veterinary care).

Here are four ways to prevent judgment—perceived or real—in the veterinary-client relationship.

Let go of attachment to outcomes 

This one is key. When we approach a case without expectation or the assumption that our recommendation is the only option for effective care, we create space for the client’s circumstances, beliefs, values, and resources. Rather than focusing on an ideal (i.e., the gold standard), we can focus on what’s best for the pet, utilizing shared decision-making to ensure the best possible care or outcome for this specific moment or circumstance.

Take the time to listen

The goal of listening isn’t to have your clients open up or explain the reasoning behind their decisions, but to show compassion, empathy, and concern for them and their pet. Active listening (e.g., focusing on the speaker, being present, honoring pauses, summarizing the message) replaces judgment with a sense of reassurance as clients feel acknowledged, valued, and understood.

Use open body language

Nonverbal communication can help you create a positive judgment-free environment for your clients and demonstrate your desire to support the pet and the pet’s owner or family. Some of my favorite techniques include:

  • Getting on the pet’s level to put clients at ease
  • Removing barriers (i.e., get out from behind the exam table or counter)
  • Maintaining polite eye contact
  • Using nonverbal encouragers or prompts (e.g., nodding, leaning in, “I see”)
  • Relaxing your arms, legs, and hands (i.e., no crossing, folding, or wringing)
  • Sitting at a slight angle to the client, rather than head-on

These nonverbal cues are a quick way to establish trust and confidence, sending a clear message that you’re there to gather information and provide help, not judgment.

Follow up after the appointment

Checking in on your client after an emotionally difficult visit is a thoughtful way to relay your concern, show support, and, when appropriate, continue the conversation. For the most effective results, conduct follow-up communication personally rather than delegating it to a team member. After-visit communication can take a variety of forms, depending on the nature of the visit, such as:

  • A phone call or text
  • An email message
  • A heartfelt card, note, or letter
  • Flowers or a small gift

Caring for pets and people

After I performed the euthanasia, my client’s shoulders seemed to lift with relief. He thanked me for giving his cat a peaceful end, but also for the safe space I’d created by honoring his decision without judgment. We both left the appointment with the peace that comes from doing the best we can—as humans, pet owners, animal lovers, and veterinary professionals—to care for and connect with each other, and ourselves, as we navigate the unpredictable and often invisible battles of life.

Ready, Vet, Go Veterinary Mentorship is an innovative online program and community that helps new and early career veterinarians build confidence, gain independence, and experience greater joy. Visit our FAQ page to learn more about what we offer or get in touch with our team

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