In the old days, before every car had computers inside, when something went wrong with our cars we had to try and explain the symptoms our car was displaying to a mechanic. Success in getting a quick and accurate diagnosis could rely heavily on your ability to speak in terms your mechanic could understand. Trying to produce the same noise your car did may have produced success at times and a good laugh for your mechanic at others.
Anytime we try and communicate for our dogs, we face the same challenges. Our dogs can’t speak for themselves so they rely on us to do so for them. We have to use our powers of observation about our dog and their behaviors so we can effectively communicate these to the veterinarian. Sometimes this is easier said than done.
My guest this week is veterinarian Dr. Krista Gibson of Animal Medical Services in Scottsdale, AZ. Krista has kindly agreed to answer some question I have about being an effective communicator for our dogs. Here is what she had to say.
DLD: What observations and information should I be able to provide my vet with? What information is overkill?
Dr. Gibson: This is a great question! It probably seems obvious to you as a pet owner that something is wrong with your pet, but to us who don’t live day to day with them, sometimes vague or subtle issues are less apparent.
First and foremost, it’s helpful to have what we call a “presenting complaint.” This is really just, in one word or sentence, what is your main problem/concern? Some examples might be vomiting, diarrhea, lethargic, painful getting up and down, can’t go upstairs anymore, ears are bothering him, can’t chase the Frisbee as long as he used to, won’t eat his favorite food anymore and so on. Short, simple, and to the point, this helps us with a place to start gathering more information.
Next, and this is especially true if you’re unsure of exactly what the problem may be, knowing your pet’s habits and how they’ve changed can be invaluable to us. When did you first notice the problem? Has it gotten better/worse or stayed the same? How much do they eat, drink, urinate and pass stools normally vs. now? Are any of those increased or decreased? Changed in character? What is your pet’s activity levels now vs. normally? If the presenting problem is pain, when do they seem most painful? Are there certain activities that are more/less difficult? Times of day they are more/less comfortable? If they are vomiting or having diarrhea, what have they eaten over the last few days? Anything they aren’t supposed to eat/drink? Have you been anywhere unusual? What time of day does the vomiting/diarrhea happen? When does it happen relative to eating, if they’re eating at all? Have you noticed any subtle changes in your pet such as coat or breath changes, unintended weight changes, personality changes, or different sleeping habits?
One frustrating thing we veterinarians hear is, “Fido’s just not himself.” That doesn’t tell us much, and people will sometimes feel like we’re interrogating them as we pepper them with questions trying to get a better handle on exactly what the problem may be. That doesn’t mean that we expect you as pet owners to know the ins and outs of every medical issue you might be facing and to show up with a diagnosis in hand (in fact, that’s a whole different frustration!), but since our pets can’t tell us what’s wrong, it’s up to us to put on our detective hats and figure it out. The more specific information you can give us, the better we can be at finding the solution, and if we need to ask what seems like a ton of unrelated questions to better understand the problem, please be patient with us! I promise we’re trying to help!
Last, if you’ve been to another vet and have any lab test results or other testing done, if you can, bring that along, too. Some people are worried about asking for copies of test results or records to take for a second opinion, and that’s understandable. Just let us know ahead of time where you’ve been, and we can usually get copies ourselves directly from the other veterinarian. We’re all used to it, and we are happy to do it for you. The most helpful thing here is to tell us BEFORE you come in so we have ample time to gather what we need.
DLD: I like to use the internet to try and educate myself about potential health problems my dog may have; does this help or hurt the communication process?
Dr. Gibson: Ah, yes, the most dreaded words in many professions these days, I think: “So, doc, I’ve been doing some reading on the internet and…” They strike fear in the hearts of many a veterinarian.
Seriously, though, the internet does have a ton of great information out there. Places like your site and many others are doing a good job of helping to educate people with accurate, verified and useful information. There are also tons of awful websites spreading rumors, unsupported opinions and just plain incorrect information. So, how does an inquisitive pet owner tell the difference? I don’t have a great answer for that, but I do have a few websites that I trust to be reliable and accurate. This is the electronic age, and we know it. Most vets will have a list of places they recommend for reliable, accurate, and helpful information. You should be able to ask your vet and get a handful of possible sources from which you can start your own research. If I were to list a few I would reccomend the following:
1. http://www.PetDocsOnCall.com – For full disclosure, I participate here, but I don’t get paid – it’s a forum site for asking veterinary questions.
3. http://www.healthypet.com – The website for the American Animal Hospital Association
4. http://www.petmd.com/health-library – Really comprehensive library of pet diseases and problems, the info is good but it’s heavy on ads.
DLD: What should I do if I disagree with my vet?
Dr. Gibson: That’s another great question! We veterinarians are still human beings, and we do have feelings, and much as I hate to admit it, sometimes we don’t handle our knowledge or expertise being questioned well.
That said, good communication will always go a long ways. If you think perhaps your veterinarian either didn’t clearly understand your issue or even that they may have missed it completely, before you get angry and go somewhere else, try having an open and frank talk with him/her about your concerns. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, and sometimes it will go better than others, but we can’t try to do things differently or reassess our workup if we don’t know what the problem is.
My own experience is that when someone is upset with me (yes, in 15 years it has happened once or twice!), it’s usually because either a: I didn’t fully understand their problem and the client was frustrated that I was, in their mind looking in the wrong place, either from lack of listening carefully on my part or from unclear communication on theirs, b: I didn’t fully explain what the diagnosis, treatment plan, risks, likely outcomes and reasonable expectations are and the client had unrealistic expectations because of it, or c: they are angry about a bill, probably because they were unprepared for it. All of these situations can be resolved with good communication on my part, but also from the client. If you have questions, don’t be shy, ask! We can’t answer them if we don’t hear them!
I think it’s important to remember that most of us genuinely just want your pet to be healthy and happy, and we want you to be happy as well. But, we aren’t mind readers and we don’t have crystal balls. We don’t necessarily know or understand your values, financial situation or relationship with your pet, and this can often be a source of friction between pet owners/caretakers and veterinarians. If your vet either won’t or can’t take the time to listen to your concerns, and address them to your satisfaction, it may be time to find another vet.
Dr. Krista Gibson is the owner of Animal Medical Services in Scottsdale AZ. She is pictured above with her significant canine other Baloney. For more information about Dr. Gibson you can visit her website at http://amsscottsdale.com. Her Facebook page can be found at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Scottsdale-AZ/Animal-Medical-Services-Scottsdale/124795468856?ref=nf&v=wall – you can also find her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Scottsdale_Vet
Ultimately, both vets and owners have the best interest of the dog in mind. Better communication between the two means healthier, happier dogs. We invite you to share your comments and suggestions about effective communications between owners and vets.
Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha, Elbee