Giving Pet Owners Bad News: Part II

Kitten with BandageBy Ashley Watson

This weekend I was given some scary news about my cat. I had to take her to a new clinic because my regular veterinarian is on vacation until the end of July. This experience gave me some perspective on how vets must deal with giving clients bad news. Even though I trusted the vets at the clinic, it was not the same as hearing the news from my own vet, who has worked with my cat since 2008. This week, I’m sharing that experience to start a discussion about the different approaches vets take in situations like this one. – See more at:

In the last post, I introduced the topic of giving pet owners bad news by writing about a personal experience. You can read about it here. But to give a quick recap, I recently had to take my cat Nella to a new veterinary clinic (River Cove) because my regular veterinarian is out of town for the month. Nella had a growth in her mouth, and they immediately diagnosed her with bone cancer without taking an X-ray or biopsy. I couldn’t believe it. The vets at River Cove also said there’s a slim chance it could be just an infection and gave her an antibiotic to see if the swelling would go down. Like any pet parent, I was extremely concerned, but what helped was how all the vets handled the situation, including my regular vet, Dr. Susan McMillan.

Luckily, Dr. McMillan is a very attentive vet, and as an added bonus, I am house sitting for her in exchange for free veterinary services, which I could have used this weekend! In any case, I had all of her emergency contact information. She also stayed in touch with the clinic and asked them to email any records or updates to her. After a long talk with her over the phone the day after Nella got the antibiotic, Dr. McMillan convinced me that it would be best to get the X-ray for peace of mind. She explained the difficulty in that type of diagnosis, confirming what they had told me at River Cove.

What impressed me the most is how thorough the vets were. When I called Monday morning, they were able to fit her at 11am with Dr. Jennings, who had made the original assessment. She went over the entire procedure in great detail. She also kept telling me that she hoped that she was wrong about her prognosis, which did help soften the blow a little. While I was shocked that they immediately suspected cancer over something more easily treatable, I suppose I’m glad that they prepared me for the worst. Then I got a phone call that afternoon from Dr. English who performed the X-ray, and again, he was very thorough.

He explained that the X-ray was inconclusive, but he also gave me some good news. Part of the gum tissue showed signs of infection. He recommended removing two of the bottom canines. Veterinarian examining a catHe also said, “That’s what I would do if it were my cat,” which seems like a small thing to say, but it helped tremendously. They called back a third time to let me know that one of the canines he removed was very infected, which meant that a tooth infection was far more likely the cause of the swelling. Needless to say, I was relieved and elated to hear this news. Now we just wait to see if anything changes, but the prognosis is good.

I don’t know if this is something vets are taught in veterinary school, but knowing how to give pet owners bad news is a huge part of why clients choose to return to a particular vet. I know that if the vets had not communicated with me regularly or hadn’t shown they actually cared, I would not take Nella there again if I needed emergency services. That being said, I would like to thank the vets and vet techs at River Cove for taking such good care of her, and for being so flexible about working with my regular vet while she’s out of town.

How do you tell your clients bad news about their pets? Share your comments with us on Facebook.