Dog at Vet
People who work in veterinary medicine aren’t hard to understand. We’re motivated primarily by two things:

  1. We desperately want to figure out what is wrong with our sick patients and diagnose their problems.
  2. We passionately want pets to have the best quality of life or outcomes possible and offer the best standard of care that we can. That desire is what called most of us to scrubs and stethoscopes in the first place.
These “drives” are good — they mean we’re in this business for the right reasons. The problem, though, is that sometimes the time, energy, stress and money required to achieve our goals (to get the “right” diagnosis and provide the “gold standard” of care) may go beyond what pet owners wish for or are able to invest in when they are faced with health care situations with their pets. As with all things, pet health care is subject to financial realities and other considerations — and the reality is, you can’t always give a pet every single one of the latest and greatest treatments. That’s life.

Making a plan to deal with a pet’s health care issues means making choices. And if you’ve got to make a choice, you may as well fully understand your options. To ensure you have all the facts, you can do your part by asking your veterinarian these five questions:

1. What will we do with this information?

As I mentioned, veterinarians are trained to find answers. We tend to believe that knowledge is power and that information by itself is valuable. (Often this is true, but sometimes it’s not.) As a result, we frequently recommend additional tests or diagnostic options.

If a test doesn’t change the course of treatment or the prognosis, is it still worth doing? For example, let’s say we have a patient with cancer. If there were a test or procedure that would let us know whether we could expect the pet to live for only a month or for six months more, but it would not affect how we treated the patient, would you agree to it? What if it was very expensive?

I don’t think there’s a wrong answer to this question. I also don’t think veterinarians are wrong to recommend tests that provide more information without necessarily affecting treatment. Everyone approaches these situations a little differently, and veterinarians are in search of knowledge. That’s why asking, “What will we do with this information?” is important to help you as a pet owner make an empowered, informed decision.

2. What are the next steps?

Information is great, but understanding what you and your vet are going to do with the information is more important. There’s nothing wrong with asking your vet to explain, step by step, what the plan is. Asking for next steps is a great way to get peace of mind and a grip on how to move forward.

3.  Are there other options?

It is the job of a veterinarian to make recommendations about your pet’s health. Sometimes what a vet recommends is not feasible, affordable or ideal for your specific situation or perspective. That’s OK.

When your veterinarian makes a recommendation about treating your pet, it’s never wrong to ask what your other options are. The important thing you need to understand is the differences among options when your veterinarian lays them out for you. That’s why, whenever you ask this question, you must also ask…

4. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each option?

Medical plans are a bit like phones: There is a seemingly infinite number of them, and they each offer a different quality level and features at different prices. If the phone salesperson showed you three phones, wouldn’t you want to understand the differences among them?

Likewise, you shouldn’t feel shy about asking your veterinarian to tell you the pros and cons of each option presented, because that’s how you will make a decision. This question is particularly important if your money is limited, because it may help you conserve dollars to use later for things that will really impact your pet’s quality of life or eventual outcome. Balance the benefits and drawbacks of each option, and then make the best choice for you and your pet.

5. What would you do if this were your pet?

Finally, your veterinarian has a wealth of medical knowledge and experience that you don’t have. It can be enlightening to know how a veterinarian would react to a situation if he were in your shoes. I feel it’s our job to be honest with our clients and to be true health care advisers and provide any and all information that we have. It’s important, on the other hand, to remember that your veterinarian is not you and may not have the same limitations. For example, veterinarians often don’t have the same financial considerations because they are able to perform many procedures or handle complicated home care requirements themselves. Some of those options may not be practical for the typical owner.

Realize that, given everything I have told you, some veterinarians are uncomfortable answering this question. That’s because they fear that if they answer it, it will seem that they are “dictating” a certain course of action to you or, at the very least, unduly influencing your decisions. If you experience reluctance from your veterinarian to answer this question, know that it is probably rooted in a desire to pursue the course of action that is right for you, not the one that is right for your veterinarian.

It All Comes Down to Your Preference

The bottom line is to listen to your vet’s recommendations and then make your own decision based on your own situation. 

These five questions will likely take some effort on your veterinarian’s part to answer. That’s fine — the questions aren’t simple, and the answers may not be either. But when you have a pet care decision to make, empower yourself to make that decision a fully informed one.

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