Communicating With Your Vet: What Did She Say Again?

Communicating with your veterinarian may leave you confused, but it’s OK to ask questions. In fact, we encourage it.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. By: myfuture
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. By: myfuture

Too many people are confused after leaving their veterinarian or their doctor visit. Questions are left unanswered. When a client leaves her appointment and says to my receptionist that she doesn’t remember a word I said, something went wrong.

Was I too technical? Was the client not listening? Turns out that veterinarian/client communication is a complicated exchange, and both parties have to come to the table prepared.

When you visit your doctor or your vet, the visit can be fraught with anxiety. It’s natural. We’ve all watched the movie scene where the husband and wife sit uncomfortably across from “The Doctor” in the white coat, hanging on his every word waiting for “the news.”

The movies usually make this exchange ridiculously melodramatic and simplistic. “How long do you give me, Doc?” In real life, talking with your doctor is much more involved and layered, and it’s difficult to stay present if you feel overwhelmed.


Many people are nervous about all doctor visits, no matter what kind. Ophthalmologist, dentist, gynecologist. Even “routine” visits can create anxiety. Bringing your pet to the doctor is actually more difficult because you need to advocate for your pet who cannot speak for itself. You may feel inadequate, guilty or worried for days before the appointment.

Doctor Speak

One of the hardest things to learn as a young doctor is how to explain things to the client. The new veterinarian knows more than she could possibly tell you in 3 hours, but how to boil it down?

What is important and how to make that relatable? How much information is too much? Not enough? Too scientific? Not scientific enough?

All vets know a lot more about what may be wrong with your pet, how to diagnose it and how to treat it than they can communicate in ten or fifteen minutes. The task is to simplify the essential information, make a plan of how to proceed and not talk above or below the client’s head.

Complicated medical conditions, diagnostics and treatment plans must be translated from medical mumbo-jumbo into intelligible words.

The Nodding Head

When an expert is explaining something to me, I sometimes turn on my “listening intently” eyes, try to look smart and nod my head in agreement. That usually means I’m not taking in a word of what’s being said. My brain turned off at “distributor cap.”

We should all be more willing to tell somebody we lost them at “Hello” if we have lost focus and can’t track what they are saying. If I am trying to explain Cushing’s disease to a client and my client loses me, it would be much better to ask me to please stop talking and start at the beginning rather than leave the appointment and go home confused.

I can sympathize. With my lack of mechanical aptitude, if my mechanic continues to talk about the timing belt and I am still trying to understand the concept of “car won’t go,” I need to ask him to begin again.

This video shows typical vet appointments that might leave you confused:

Your Job: Be Prepared for Your Appointment

Make the right kind of appointment.

If you are scheduling your annual visit, for example, but have a laundry list of problems and are really worried about your dog drinking too much water or your cat pulling out all of its fur, tell the receptionist. You need more than an annual appointment. This helps with scheduling and prepping the doctor.

Some people make a nail trim appointment with a technician but then say, “Can you just check this?” Actually, no. The vet may be able to fit you in, but this is not the way to schedule an appointment with the vet.

  • Bring your paperwork.
  • If it’s a new appointment, bring previous records or make sure your new vet received faxes from the old vet.
  • If it’s a first appointment, bring puppy or kitten records, adoption papers, etc.
  • If it’s a second opinion, bring previous lab work and medical history.
  • Be prepared for the visit.
  • This is a correct situation to prepare a list.
  • Bring a family member if you need support or if another person is the pet’s primary caretaker.
  • Try as best you can to get your history straight.
  • Be honest.
  • If the problem is going on for 3 months, don’t say 1 week.
  • If you have intense financial constraints, get this out on the table.
  • Ask questions.
  • It’s better to say “I don’t understand” 5 times than leave the appointment confused.
  • Ask for handouts or websites.

If you are the type of person who likes to read and ponder information, there are great resources available. Googling on your own may prove more confusing than helpful or reliable. Ask your veterinarian where to search for veterinary advice including traditional, academic and alternative viewpoints.

Don’t Leave the Hospital Without a Plan

  1. Ask for a written treatment plan of proposed diagnostics and procedures. This is not only helpful for budgeting, but going over line items together and having them explained is another way to better understand what your vet is thinking.
  2. If your vet is giving you instructions before or after a procedure, read them over before leaving the hospital.
  3. Make sure you understand any medications dispensed and what they are used for. Check the dosing with a technician.
  4. Ask to see X-rays or bloodwork if you feel inclined. Even if you don’t understand what you are looking at, hearing the doctor explain things again while you are both looking at the X-ray may clarify things.
  5. Likewise with the bloodwork. Seeing the abnormal kidney values in red will reinforce the concept of kidney disease. Clients sometimes call me back and say they can’t remember if I said their pet has kidney or liver problems. This means the communication wasn’t adequate.
  6. Call your veterinary office back sooner than later if you get home and you still have questions. Accept answers, information and clarifications from qualified technicians. It will often be quicker than waiting for a phone call from a doctor. The doctor can always call you back a little later if it isn’t an emergency.

A Little Humble Pie…

For some of us it can be difficult to admit we didn’t understand something or weren’t paying attention. Remember when nerves or anxiety are involved, we can’t always listen up and stay in the moment.

This happened to me recently when I had a minor dental procedure done. The procedure went well; the oral surgeon talked to me for a few minutes, I nodded in agreement and proceeded to checkout. The receptionist handed me some prescriptions and asked me to make another appointment.

“What for?” I said. Then I looked at the prescriptions and asked her what they were for.

“Didn’t he go over things with you?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I guess he did.”


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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