Helping Clients See Their Pet's Health Issues as Their Own

How to tell clients “If you had this problem, you’d seek relief, STAT!” and compare it to their pet’s problems.

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I’m a wimp. My wife, Teresa, is a warrior. I get a canker sore inside my mouth (the size of a pencil eraser in diameter), and I gargle with salt water and directly apply a little dexamethasone cream, and then I take oral NSAIDs to further blunt the discomfort. Teresa, on the other hand, forgoes Novocain at the dentist when she gets root canals and fillings, and she doesn’t take pain meds after the procedures. I’m not sure how common it is for the man of the family to admit he’s the weak one when it comes to pain and discomfort, but I do know that, regardless of gender, veterinarians can use the “wimp” factor to our advantage in the veterinary exam room.

I think pets are a lot like Teresa in their ability to ignore, endure or hide pain. Yes, there’s the whole prey-predator thing, where an animal that shows weakness can be consumed—the old “sick-is-supper” analogy bromide—but I think pets use their wagging tails to display a tendency to “grin-and-bear-it,” too. So I’ve flipped this fact on its head when talking with one pet owner in the exam room, giving a speech to thousands or reaching millions as a TV vet. I draw the parallel between a human problem and the pet’s same malady.

For example, to demonstrate severe pain, it’s often said that something “hurts like a toothache.” Dental pain is a raw, debilitating pain that can’t be ignored. I tell pet owners when I show them a dog or cat’s mouth that looks like a flame-thrower went over it, “If you had one single tooth as infected as any one of the dozens that are diseased in this pet’s mouth, you wouldn‘t last a single day without seeking treatment, relief and, hopefully, a cure. Your pet deserves the same level of concern, compassion, care and urgency.” The pet owner, now feeling the pet’s pain more directly, has more reason to accept recommended treatment. After all, many, if not most, pet owners think of their pets as their children—and wouldn’t they want the same treatment for their children as themselves, if not a more robust approach?

Make Other Important Connections 

Earaches. Most of us know how uncomfortable it is to have water stuck in our ears after swimming or showering. Ever had a mosquito or small insect get inside your ear? In Vietnam, I had a small bug that couldn’t fly out, and we couldn’t reach deep enough into my right ear to remove it. (I think bug in the ear would be a very effective means of torture.) Ever have a blocked ear canal from allergies or a cold and be on the descent in an airplane? It’s a searing pain! 

Enough examples. Just know that rather than simply talking in medical terms about how the cat has ear mites, the dog might have a weed seed or other foreign body in his ear, or his ear smells like there’s a fungal infection going on, either focus first on what the same thing would be like for a human or weave it into the narrative very early. 

For example, with a cat with ear mites: “Mrs. Jones, ear mites are something that even creeps veterinarians out. These eight-legged parasites live inside of the ear and cause extreme discomfort. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a bug in your ear, but imagine the feeling of having hundreds using your ears like a busy intersection.”

Skin problems. It’s hard to know where to even start with this one. When humans get sunburned, we feel the heat of inflammation and send somebody to the drug store—stat—for a cooling lidocaine/aloe gel. A single mosquito bite balloons up, we scratch, apply more Off! Deep Woods, scratch, show others our bites, complain, scratch. We get athlete’s foot between our toes and race to the bathroom for the can of Tough Actin’ Tinactin in the strongest formulation and spray it until the product is dripping off of our feet. 

Here’s a sample of how you connect pet and person. Let’s say the dog has fleas. You say, “Besides the fact that fleas can cause anemia and carry other pathogens such as tapeworms, let’s not forget that each bite is very painful. I’m sure you’d agree that as humans, we never get bitten by a bug, and think, ‘That felt good, or I can ignore that.’”

Nail issues. Hangnails, ingrown toenails, hitting your finger with a hammer and having the pressure of blood under that nail … oh, these are easy ones to use in our battle to prevent or relieve animal pain and suffering. 

All of us have pulled off a hangnail and felt the discomfort. I’ve hit my finger with a hammer. I’ve watched my daughter, Mikkel, shut her finger in the sliding door of a van. In both cases, the blood underneath the nail caused me unbearable pain that was relieved only when my dad drilled into my nail with a tiny drill bit (this was tough farm/ranch medicine). I used a hot needle to burn a tiny hole in Mikkel’s finger, and blood shot up and hit the bathroom ceiling. I also had an ingrown toenail that hurt even just to look at. Me, the wimp, had Teresa, the warrior, use a nail file to lift the ingrown toenail up and out of the swollen red tissue. It hurt like h-e double hockey sticks, but when the nail came up and the pus came out, the pressure was released, and I felt like the lion with the thorn removed from his paw. 

Again, the key to helping the pet get treatment and relief is to draw the owner into the pet’s condition and associate it with the same painful problem they or another family member has experienced.

So wimp or warrior, know that your shared experience of pain, itching, burning and other discomfort may be the fastest highway to heaven for a veterinarian trying to convince a pet owner of the seriousness of a diagnosis. 


Dr. Marty Becker writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com.

Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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