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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Attachment Score

One of the most challenging aspects of being a veterinarian is the different levels of attachment our clients feel toward their pets, and to a lesser degree, the varied income levels of the clients. To many, the pet is an important member of the family, and anything that can be done should be done to keep the pet healthy. This level of attachment is independent of family income -we see "financially-challenged" people frequently forgo their own needs to pay for their beloved pet. Conversely, there are well-to-do people who feel that even basic care for a pet is too expensive. Of course, there are infinite variations on these attitudes and income levels. I certainly am not implying that wealthy people care less about their pets! What I am saying is that the amount of money spent on a sick pet is often not a function of the owners' income!

Unfortunately, and to my own chagrin, I have a tendency to recommend the best medicine for pets whose owners I estimate are best able to afford it, and scale back my recommendations to people who I estimate to be lower-income. Shame on me! After 23 years of practice I should know better. It is humbling and embarrassing when I suggest to the owner of a sick pet that we should try some medication, and if that doesn't help, maybe we should take an Xray...and the person says, "Wouldn't it be better to take the Xray now? Why wait?" The truthful answer would be that I was trying to save her some money, which completely devalues what that pet means to her. I have to remind myself that I am doing my job best when I present all the best options, and let the client decide. Period.

If the depth of attachment felt toward our pets could be rated on a scale from 1 to 10, we aren't all "ones", and we aren't all "tens". It would be helpful if pet owners came in with little cards which say "I have a 'seven' relationship with my pet," or "I have a 'four' relationship with this pet." Although even if that were the case, it really shouldn't affect the way I do my job. I will say this: after I get to know a client, I can cater to their level of attachment and concern for the pet, at least in the verbage I use to communicate the pet's needs. Interestingly, many clients will have a "five" level of attachment to one pet, but a "ten" level of attachment to another. We really do have our favorites.

This blog was inspired by two conversations I had this week. One was with a college student who was concerned because I hadn't recommended testing her older dog for a parasite we had found in her new puppy (I was trying to save her money. Old habits are hard to break). The other conversation was with a fashionably dressed middle-aged lady who told me that testing her dog for parasites was a ridiculous waste of money (ie the dog is not that important). I guess they don't have to have a card with a number on it after all.

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