Vets Can Help Animals by Understanding Human Psychology
Advocates for companion animals often have to act as a support for humans as much as they do for non-humans. An article in Topics in Companion Animal Care describes the phenomenon:
The health and well-being of companion animals and the beliefs and behavior of their human caregivers are intimately linked. Human caregivers are responsible for providing adequate shelter, nutrition, water, exercise, and preventative health and safety measures for their pets. Caregivers are also integral in adhering to necessary veterinary regimens and participating in decisions regarding treatment options and end-of-life care. The extent to which veterinarians can provide high-quality care to their patients hinges upon how effectively human caregivers understand and cooperate with recommendations for health maintenance and acute and chronic care.
The piece also notes that veterinarians are under unique stresses and strains in their practice (including “moral stress”), as they often have to deal with companion animal guardians who have less than ethical ways of dealing with their non-human friends. Issues such as “convenience euthanasia” (where humans will put down an animal because they have become inconvenient for their lifestyle) and the fact that many health decisions for companion animals boil down to financial concerns, all place a great deal of stress on vets, and may in turn put strain on the relationship between vets and companion animal owners/guardians.
How can psychology support this dynamic and ultimately help improve care for companion animals? First and foremost, there needs to be a recognition that, for the vast majority of companion animal health outcomes, “the owner must assume the responsibility for their initiation and continuation.” The authors note that this means that many strategies that are used in human physician / patient relationships can also prove useful for vets and companion animal owners. For preventative health, “research has shown that the way preventive information is framed can influence the effectiveness of a message.”
For example, when discussing heartworm medicine, it could be much more effective to say that “administering it will help to ensure the health of your pet,” rather than saying “not administering it will cause your pet to become ill.” Likewise, visual reminders on calendars have been “documented to be useful in promoting adherence to similar recommended monthly human health-related behaviors, such as breast self-examination in women,” and so encouraging clients to make use of calendar stickers provided with heartworm medication could “be a sound strategy for promoting their regular administration to their pets.” The article delves much deeper into the numerous other ways that vets need to be sensitive to the psychology of their human clients, from helping to guide decisions during particularly stressful illnesses, to showing compassion to those people looking after animals who have have chronic illnesses.
Ultimately, the article is a very realistic look at the way that the health and well-being of companion animals is often at the whim or mercy of humans, who have their own motivations, desires, and thought processes which can be confusing and contradictory. This publication, which is aimed at veterinarians, could also be useful for companion animal advocates who could use the suggestions and guidance about language to help with their advocacy. If a big part of the ‘fight’ for the well-being of companion animals involves interacting with humans, a deeper knowledge of human psychology would be of help.
Knowing that certain verbal and visual cues help humans to make better and more consistent decisions for their companion animals can be tremendously useful. “As companion animals are increasingly considered to be family members, the more the demands placed on veterinarians mirror those of their human physician counterparts. As such, a program of research devoted to understanding the psychological phenomena that underlie all aspects of practice, from adherence to preventative health measures, to understanding diagnoses, treatment decision making, coping, and end-of-life decision making, has the potential to benefit the field enormously.” Indeed, this knowledge would benefit not only the field of veterinary medicine, but companion animal advocacy as well.