I had a conversation with a client recently that started me down the road thinking about communication. She brought her dog in because he was “not eating and having diarrhea”. With any inappetent pet, I always offer a little canned A/d in the room to test what the owner is seeing or perceiving. Though it doesn’t assuage all of my concerns, I feel better if they at least eat the A/d. This dog scarfed the A/d down without hesitation. So I started asking the owner if they had enticed with other food items to get him to eat. I was told “no”. I thought this was odd (since most owners will go into some kind of frenzied Bob Fosse at the Golden Corral Buffet dance number if Pookums doesn't eat) and went on to ask if, when they put the dog food down, does he just walk away from it, does he sniff it or show any interest? I was told “no”. Another off-kilter answer which, with a follow-up question, I was told “the dog food isn‘t down” - this said with a rather incredulous expression. Further questioning deteriorated and confused me and I will ease your pain now. What the owner meant when she said that “he’s not eating” was that she had not offered him food. Since he had diarrhea, she felt it best to take food away, which I told her was a good idea. I don’t think she ever realized that if you tell a vet that a pet isn’t eating, we assume that to be a clinical problem, not a problem of access to food. I have never had a client phrase something this way in twenty-one years.
I had a conversation with a client where I tried to find out if it was due for vaccines. She replied she went to another clinic when it had some skin problem. This really wasn’t an answer to the vaccine question, so I asked it again. She said, “Yes, they do vaccines there.” Which was an odd way to phrase an answer, I thought. “Did they give vaccines to your dog while you were there?” I futilely tried again. “They do vaccines there.” Back and forth it went, until I went through an inch of non-chronological paperwork and discovered that, no, the dog was not up-to-date on vaccines and needed pretty much everything. Apparently, she just wanted to let me know that if she had wanted to get vaccines at this other clinic, she could have done so, because they “do vaccines there”.
Our veterinary magazines love nothing better than to put the entire onus on our shoulders for proper communication, ignoring the fact that there is another person involved in any conversation. If not the client's spouse, aunt, sister, child, etc. also. The magazines insist that as long as we spend hours with a client, repeating things over and over again, using common words so as not to threaten or demean a person’s fragile psychology, and speak in a soft, NPR voice of mutual care and respect, we will be able to perfectly communicate all the time. As Ira Glass would say, "Yeah, right." Even when speaking the same language, as in the examples above, communication is specious at best.