Dr. Wendy Hauser is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting. She writes extensively and speaks frequently about hospital culture, communications, leadership, client relations and operations. She is a member of the AVMA Veterinary Economic Strategy Committee.Read Articles Written by Wendy Hauser
People bring pets into the home for many reasons, including companionship, safety and as working animals. Pets deliver immeasurable joy to families, and the bond usually forms quickly. So, how can veterinary teams help forge permanent family-pet bonds and prevent the ties from severing?
Understanding the Pet
The first step in supporting strong ties starts with pet owner education, said Colorado-based behavior veterinarian Kerry Muhovich, DVM, MPH, CCRP.
“Pets and owners are more likely to bond well when they understand each other,” Dr. Muhovich said. “Owners understand their pets best when they know what causes behaviors. Pets understand their owners best when the owners are consistent about rewarding the behaviors they like.”
This article is the second in a three-part series on cultivating client trust, promoting the human-animal bond and alleviating client concerns. This issue’s Clinic Consult article is brought to you by Zoetis.
Colleen Currigan, DVM, the medical director at VCA Cat Hospital of Chicago, wants clients to understand that “Cats are not small dogs.”
“The better the cat owner understands and appreciates basic feline behavior and feline needs, the stronger the bond,” Dr. Currigan said.
The challenges to bond formation can begin during the selection phase.
“Some people bring cats into their homes because they want a lower-maintenance pet, not recognizing that while it is true cats use a litter box and don’t need to be walked several times daily like their dog counterparts, they have basic needs,” Dr. Currigan said. “When these needs are met, the human-animal bond will be strong. Additionally, if cat owners are aware of feline behavior changes that may come about secondary to environmental stress, anxiety or pain, they will be better able to provide the best care for their cat, which further enhances the bond.”
How Strong Is the Bond?
How can veterinary teams measure the strength of the bond, and which clients need help? Dr. Currigan looks at the interaction between the pet and the client.
“Most owners that bond with their cats are more observant of its daily routines,” she said.
Dr. Currigan also perceives “the way the owner speaks to the cat in the exam room, how he or she approaches the cat, how much he or she is familiar with the cat’s daily activities and life routine, and the interest level that the owner shows in the cat’s overall health and welfare.”
Owners who acknowledge their pets’ needs while in the clinic exhibit a strong bond, Dr. Muhovich said. She said they might advocate “a considerate approach during examinations” and arrive with favorite treats.
Like Dr. Currigan, she observes the interactions between pets and owners, specifically “their willingness to share space and their responsiveness to each other.”
Threats to the Bond
What can challenge the family-pet bond is when owners aren’t comfortable asking for veterinary insight, Dr. Muhovich said.
“The conversations we have 20 times a week are new information to clients who just got a pet,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that the behaviors troubling owners, such as destructive chewing and house soiling, may be new to someone who has never owned a pet. Unfortunately, there is a lot of incorrect information available to owners online and on TV. Providing correct information before bonds are strained or broken can be a challenge.”
Cats adopted as strays are sometimes considered “accidental pets.” The accompanying challenges are often due to a lack of knowledge of normal feline behavior and how to meet basic needs, Dr. Currigan said. Bond-harming behaviors that should be addressed include poor litter box use, unwelcome scratching and aggression between cats.
Other threats that veterinary teams can assist with, she said, include the struggle of getting cats into a carrier before a veterinary visit and medicating a pet.
The Hospital’s Role
From Dr. Muhovich’s perspective, client education and partnering with pet owners are two foundational responsibilities of veterinary hospitals.
“A hospital culture that encourages better bonds between pets and people is one where education of clients and the staff is abundant,” she said. “In a bond-centered practice, successes in the improvement of a pet’s comfort are celebrated, and setbacks are approached collaboratively.”
When considering feline patients, Dr. Currigan said many practices are “very dog-centric in culture, including team members who may be less fond of working with cats even though they see them as patients.”
To build credibility with cat owners, she said, “It is critically important that they sense a genuine interest in and fondness for cats from the veterinarian and veterinary team members. It should also be evident to the cat owner that the veterinarian and his or her staff understand cats, recognizing their unique differences versus dogs.”
Cat owners might not readily assess the quality of medicine at a practice, Dr. Currigan said, but they can sense how much a practice cares through the interactions between the veterinary team and a patient, the history questions that are asked, and how the therapeutic and diagnostic plans are tailored to the patient and owner.
Treatment plans should include a conversation about which types of therapies can reasonably and safely be undertaken by the pet owner, including how to minimize negative interactions between the cat and client.
Dr. Currigan recommends offering different drug formulations and “prioritizing in-home treatments, or even considering no treatment after discussion with the owner when that might be in the best overall interest of the patient.”
The most crucial aspect of cultivating a culture that supports and encourages the bond between an owner and cat is to be welcoming to felines and embrace gentle, caring interactions, including how cats are handled when they are in fear or pain. A great resource, she said, is the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ Cat Friendly Certificate Program. (Learn more at bit.ly/3w3HgWQ.)
“Teams armed with knowledge about cats will be poised to be better at educating cat owners about keeping their cats healthy, preventing behavior issues and meeting basic needs,”
Dr. Currigan said. “The trust from owners comes when they know the team cares.”
What Pet Owners Say
An article about the bonds between pets and families wouldn’t be complete without perspectives from the pet owners who open their homes and hearts to their furry companions. I solicited insight via a LinkedIn post that asked, “What creates strong bonds between you and your pet?” The overwhelming answer was unconditional love, including observations that “Their lives are so short, yet they have the biggest impact” and “They got me through some of the hardest transition times in our family.”
Surveys have found that the veterinary team’s role in the successful creation of family-pet bonds is a key reason people choose to stay in our profession. The part we play in forming and preserving bonds is a sacred privilege and obligation. How does your hospital fulfill that mission?
THE ROLE OF SHELTERS
Given their limited exposure to a new pet owner, how can animal shelters help create a lasting relationship between an adoptive family and cat or dog? Apryl Steele, DVM, CAWA,the president and CEO of the Dumb Friends League shelter in Denver, encourages a culture of compassion.
“The absolute key to helping owners form strong bonds with their pets starts with thoughtful counseling when selecting a pet,”
Dr. Steele said. “We have conversations with our potential adopters to understand their motivations for seeking a pet and the lifestyle the pet will experience.
“If the animal is not a match, we encourage the adopter to bring the pet back and try to find an animal that fits better. We learn more about the adopted animal and the adopter’s needs every time. Forcing a bad fit is unkind for both the person and animal.”
Dr. Steele said that what’s equally important is to educate new owners about introducing the pet to the household and provide “exhaustive behavior resources.”
“People must feel safe to reach out when they struggle with a pet’s behavior, and they will not do so if they feel judged,” she added.
About half of the animals received at Dumb Friends League are surrendered by their owners.
“Most pet owners report the reason for relinquishment was either allergies or housing issues,” Dr. Steele said. “Housing is a primary driver. … The bond with the pet is often still strong, but the pet owners feel they have no other options.”
When relinquishment isn’t forced, she said, the main reasons were behavior and medical issues.
BUILDING THE BOND
The human-animal bond is supported when veterinary teams help clients select a pet that would best match their lifestyles and when they educate about proactive health care, environmental enrichment, and signs of illness and distress. These online resources can help teams become excellent educators: