Good ways to break bad news

Good ways to break bad news

An overweight owner with an obese pet. A possible euthanasia patient. An older pet in decline. Use these tips for talking to pet owners in tough situations.
Jan 01, 2008

The bottom line
They're the situations you dread. Counseling a teary-eyed, indecisive client on whether euthanasia is the right choice for an ailing pet. Explaining to an overweight client that his or her pet is obese and needs exercise. Convincing a client that an aging cat or dog has a few good years yet, even if the furry friend doesn't play much and can't get up and down stairs anymore. Now, don't feel bad if these conversations are hard for you. That's normal, say communications experts and the veterinarians we talked to. But these sources all agree that you can learn to face them more effectively. Consider this a quick class in communication and human behavior. And take these nuggets of wisdom and turn them into exam-room excellence today.

Pet obesity

What not to do: Own the problem without the owner

What to do: Clients need to be your partners, says Dr. Brent Cook. If they won't acknowledge the risks of pet obesity—joint pain, heart disease—you'll get nowhere by nagging. More than anyone else, the owner is responsible for increasing a pet's exercise or decreasing caloric intake. "Most people don't come in looking for help with their pet's weight, or they've heard it before and haven't changed their habits," he says. So your first step is to help the client recognize the problem. Dr. Cook or an assistant uses handouts that show cats and dogs with different body condition scores. Clients circle the body condition category they think their pet falls into. "Until they really recognize the problem, they don't want to do anything," he says.

What not to do: Tackle weight without your team

What to do: Send a team message to support owners who need to get their pets' weight down, says Dr. Cook. His receptionists are trained to notice when pets are carrying extra pounds and mention it to clients: "Wow, has Fluffy put on some weight?" When pets are weighed, veterinary assistants say, "You know, last year Fluffy weighed 32 pounds. Now she's 46 pounds. Were you aware of that?" Dr. Cook says this all sets the stage in the client's mind: "Wow, this must be a really big problem." When he then sees the client, Dr. Cook explains why obesity is a health risk and asks if the client would like to set up a weight-loss program for the pet.

What not to do: Make a pet's obesity personal

What to do: You may feel uncomfortable talking about a pet's obesity with a visibly overweight client. Just keep it focused on the pet, and no one will be offended. "We don't talk to clients about themselves," Dr. Cook says. "If overweight owners happen to get more exercise walking their dogs, all the better. But don't bring their weight into the conversation."

Dr. Brent Cook, co-owner of Kingsbrook Animal Hospital in Frederick, Md.


What not to do: Push the client