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Do you sometimes feel as though you and your vet are speaking different languages? Well, you're not alone — chances are your vet is thinking the same thing. But the communication gap I’m talking about isn’t the one you might expect, like when you patiently wait for your vet to explain a medical term you've never heard. What I’m talking about is how vets sometimes hear things differently. After a few years as a practicing veterinarian — more than 30, in my case — vets start to see the same situations again and again. And since the human mind loves a shortcut, what we eventually hear is not necessarily what a pet owner says, but rather what our experience tells us is really going on. For example, you may be convinced that your nippy pup doesn't like me, but I know that the dog is really just afraid of being at the vet's office.
Like most veterinarians, this is why I always make a point to see, hear, and even feel the same things as the owners who are trusting me to care for their animals. To help you better understand what your vet is likely hearing and thinking, I've compiled some common — and often amusing — scenarios I've encountered over the years.
What the Owner Says: She gets only a little handful of food.
What the Vet Thinks: Whose hands? A giant’s? What the Vet Says: Well, you know “a little handful” isn't a precise portion, especially for a small dog. How about using a measuring cup? It's an easy way to make sure she’s getting the exact amount she needs. What the Owner Says: I’m following your instructions and bathing her once a week with medicated shampoo, but her skin problem isn’t improving.
What the Vet Thinks: That matted chunk of fur by her tail has been there for a month now! What the Vet Says: I’m glad to hear it, because there’s no way that we’ll see improvement otherwise. If you feel that you’re unable to find the time to give her a weekly bath, we can do it for you, or you can hire a professional groomer. Did you know that some of them make house calls? What the Owner Says: This is my wife’s dog, and I'm just doing her a favor. I can’t stand little yappers.
What the Vet Thinks: Whom do you think you’re fooling? You love that dog, and she loves you back. What the Vet Says: I can tell your wife really loves this dog. She’s so happy! What the Owner Says: I think my dog’s nails may be too long.
What the Vet Thinks: Yes, the way they’re curling into his paw pads suggests that. What the Vet Says: Nails can get really long before you know it. Let’s cut them back when he has his teeth cleaned, and I will show you how to keep them short. With my dogs, I trim a tiny bit from just one nail each night while we’re watching TV. Then I reward them with treats. What the Owner Says: I'm so sorry that she tried to bite you!
What the Vet Thinks: Uh, oh. She thinks her pet doesn’t like me, but her dog is really just scared. What the Vet Says: She’s not mean. She’s just nervous. Let's talk about ways we can reduce her anxiety before her next visit. In my experience, people often stop bringing frightened pets into the vet, which is a shame because we can usually help lessen their fears. What the Owner Says: We'll schedule to clean his teeth next time.
What the Vet Thinks: Seriously. His gums are red and swollen — and boy is that breath stinky! Do you know how much pain he's in? What the Vet Says: Have you ever had a toothache? I think your dog is in that kind of pain right now. Let me show you the areas of his mouth where I suspect he’s really, really hurting. I don’t think you want to wait on this much longer. What the Owner Says: I'm brushing her teeth about once a week.
What the Vet Thinks: Perhaps in your imagination, but I see no sign of it here. What the Vet Says: I know that it can be difficult to routinely brush a dog's teeth. I have some alternatives to brushing that may not be as effective as using a toothbrush, but they will help. Let’s go over several good, better, and best approaches to daily oral care. What the Owner Says: The breeder told me not to listen to the vet and feed my dog this food.
What the Vet Thinks: Which veterinary school did the breeder attend? What the Vet Says: Good nutrition is a cornerstone of good health. Breeders mean well and often suggest great food, but I don’t believe in blanket recommendations. Let’s talk about the right foods — yes, there may be several — that are ideal for your dog’s age and health status, as well as your budget. I know we can work together to get the proper regimen in place now, and then we can revisit the plan as your pet matures. What the Owner Says: That's unusual! She's normally well-behaved.
What the Vet Thinks: Hmmm. New client. Adult dog who means business with those teeth. I wonder how many other veterinarians she's bitten. What the Vet Says: We’ll put a soft, comfortable muzzle on her for everyone's safety, including yours. May I refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who can help with her biting before something unfortunate happens? I know you don’t want anyone to get hurt. What the Owner Says: She's an indoor cat. She doesn’t need any tests.
What the Vet Thinks: Just like the indoor cat who was in kidney failure last week. I wish I could have caught that condition before it was too late. What the Vet Says: I always take an animal’s lifestyle into consideration when planning a preventive-care strategy. Even if you're certain your cat never gets out, she can still get sick. I can prevent future suffering — and save you money — if you let me check her thoroughly now. What the Owner Says: I would never do anything to harm my pet.
What the Vet Thinks: I’m looking at evidence to the contrary. What the Vet Says: Of course you wouldn’t. So let’s look at some easy things you can do to improve your pet's health, such as measuring food portions, daily oral care, and monthly parasite control. I know you'll do them because you clearly love your pet! And here's where I share the fact that I’m also an astute mind reader who can decipher what you're thinking:
What the Vet Says: Look! It’s easy! You just place the pill in the back of his throat, blow a puff of air into his nose, and flush his mouth with a little water.
What the Owner Thinks: Easy? No, it's not! I can’t ever get pills down my dog's throat. You’ve got to be kidding me! What the Owner Says: No problem! All joking aside, what is critical is that both the veterinarian and the owner do their best when describing what is going on with the pet. The owner needs to fess up to anything that they don't understand and the vet needs to answer the questions as clearly as possible. Great communication is critical to having a healthier pet.
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