How to Talk with Your Veterinarian
by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
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Q: Our dog, Buffy, was kicked by one of our horses. Buffy’s left rear leg was broken in the accident. Our young daughter witnessed it, and became hysterical. We rushed the dog to our veterinarian with his leg dangling. In all the commotion, I am not sure that I made the right decision about his treatment. The surgery cost way more than we can afford and Buffy’s leg is still not better. Is there anything I can do in the future to make better decisions, especially in an emergency?
A: The chaos of a medical emergency is a difficult time to make a decision about the best medical treatment for our animal companions. Emotions run high, and we may forget to ask basic questions regarding the best options for our pets. If you find yourself in such a situation, take a deep breath to calm yourself, and ask some straightforward, commonsense questions. The more information you have, the better able you will be to make the right decisions for your pet.
First, understand that talking with clients is part of the job for any veterinarian. You need to know what is wrong with your pet, what tests are needed for diagnosis, what the options are for treatment, the probability of success for each option, and the cost of each option. This type of conversation should occur before treatment begins. In a life-or-death situation, the conversation should be held as soon as possible after the animal is stabilized.
Your job as the guardian of your pet is to advocate for her/him, just as you would for any member of your family. Make it your responsibility to initiate such conversations if your veterinarian doesn’t. Ask questions. The only foolish question is the one not asked. Don’t make assumptions. Veterinarians are humans. They may have forgotten to mention something.
Here are topics and questions to discuss with your veterinarian:
Detail the symptoms of your pet’s problem for your veterinarian. If you think you won’t remember everything, make a list. Then ask what tests will be needed to make a diagnosis. It is fair to question each test. Unnecessary tests do nothing to improve the health of your dog. Ask to see test results. For example, your veterinarian can show you the x-rays. This helps you better understand the exact nature of your pet’s problem.
Once the diagnosis is made, ask about the treatment options. Your veterinarian should go over each one thoroughly. Talking about money makes some people uncomfortable. Put aside that notion when you discuss your pet’s diagnosis and treatment. You need to know up front the approximate cost of any tests or procedures. Ask about all treatment options, the probability of success of the treatments, the amount of pain and suffering your pet will have to endure with the treatments, and the cost of each option. When you have all of this information you can make an informed decision. And the most expensive option is not always the best. In considering medications you can ask for generic brands. If there are no generics for your pet’s condition, ask if there are alternative medications that are just as effective but less costly. For example, there are many antibiotics on the market. They vary tremendously in cost. Ask what is the most cost-effective medication for your pet’s condition. Many times there are reasonable and effective alternatives.
Sometimes it is necessary to weigh the pain and suffering caused by a treatment against the potential outcome. This is often true for severe injuries like a shattered bone and for illnesses such as cancer. For example, with some cancers, the treatment is difficult for the animal to endure. You need to share with your veterinarian your concerns about this. The hard question is whether the pain and suffering of the treatment will be worth the outcome i.e., how likely will the treatment contribute to a cure or to the quality of remaining life.
Keep in mind that factors such as your pet’s age and health status play a roll. What might be the right treatment for a two-year- old healthy dog may not be right for a 13-year-old diabetic dog. Ask how these factors influence any treatment you are considering. Your pet is an individual, and her/his medical treatment should take that into consideration.
Don’t forget to ask about pain control. Animals do not always show signs of their pain the way humans do. Ask about pain medications even in the absence of signs.
When you are ready to take your pet home, make sure you know the details of the aftercare. Many veterinary clinics now provide aftercare sheets that have information on what to expect, how to give any medications, side effects, special diets when needed, and other details necessary for proper home care. If your clinic does not provide such information sheets, make sure you ask for the information before you leave. Once you are home, don’t be afraid to call your clinic if you have any questions or concerns. It is easier and safer to make a call to clarify something than to correct a medical error.
Developing and maintaining good communication with your veterinarian is in the best interest of your pet. If you find that your veterinarian is not willing to give you the time for such a conversation, it’s time to get a new veterinarian.Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.
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