Effectiveness of various language strategies for helping pet owners appreciate the value of preventive care

Charlotte H. McKay AVMA, Schaumburg, IL

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Nicole Nichols Maslansky + Partners, New York, NY

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Sandra L. Lefebvre AVMA, Schaumburg, IL

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE

To identify more effective language strategies for helping pet owners appreciate the value and importance of preventive veterinary care and encouraging more regular visits.

SAMPLE

15 pet owners representing a mix of demographic and other characteristics.

PROCEDURES

This qualitative study began with a communication and research audit, followed by interviews with subject matter experts, development of language stimuli (messages about the importance of veterinary care and encouraging pet owners to prioritize wellness visits), three 2-hour online focus group sessions with study participants (4 to 6/group) to test and discuss the language stimuli, and 1-hour one-on-one interviews with 5 of these participants to measure emotional responses to optimized stimuli.

RESULTS

Language stimuli testing showed that simply telling pet owners how veterinary care is valuable does not work. What did work was focusing on the pet owner’s relationship with their pet, tying preventive care into the animal’s overall health and happiness, and emphasizing a veterinarian’s experience versus their qualifications. Personalized recommendations were perceived as most valuable to owners. Addressing cost head-on, demonstrating understanding, empowering pet owners to ask questions, and providing payment options were identified as strategies that could help owners see they can afford routine care now.

CLINICAL RELEVANCE

Results suggested that by focusing on experience, relationships, and personalized care, veterinarians can address pet owners’ concerns while promoting the importance of preventive care, including regular checkups. Additional research is needed to evaluate the impact of this language on pet owner perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes in clinical settings.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE

To identify more effective language strategies for helping pet owners appreciate the value and importance of preventive veterinary care and encouraging more regular visits.

SAMPLE

15 pet owners representing a mix of demographic and other characteristics.

PROCEDURES

This qualitative study began with a communication and research audit, followed by interviews with subject matter experts, development of language stimuli (messages about the importance of veterinary care and encouraging pet owners to prioritize wellness visits), three 2-hour online focus group sessions with study participants (4 to 6/group) to test and discuss the language stimuli, and 1-hour one-on-one interviews with 5 of these participants to measure emotional responses to optimized stimuli.

RESULTS

Language stimuli testing showed that simply telling pet owners how veterinary care is valuable does not work. What did work was focusing on the pet owner’s relationship with their pet, tying preventive care into the animal’s overall health and happiness, and emphasizing a veterinarian’s experience versus their qualifications. Personalized recommendations were perceived as most valuable to owners. Addressing cost head-on, demonstrating understanding, empowering pet owners to ask questions, and providing payment options were identified as strategies that could help owners see they can afford routine care now.

CLINICAL RELEVANCE

Results suggested that by focusing on experience, relationships, and personalized care, veterinarians can address pet owners’ concerns while promoting the importance of preventive care, including regular checkups. Additional research is needed to evaluate the impact of this language on pet owner perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes in clinical settings.

Introduction

Preventive care is considered foundational to animal health and welfare.1,2 It is a veterinarian’s responsibility—and ethical imperative—to help owners appreciate the need for routine veterinary care, including regular checkups, to maintain their pets’ overall health and obviate or mitigate the risk of preventable infectious and noninfectious diseases.1,3,4 This, in turn, helps to protect other animals and, in the case of zoonoses, public health.3,4

Unfortunately, data suggest that messages about the importance and value of routine veterinary care are not getting through to many pet owners. Research conducted more than 2 decades ago revealed that pet owners associate veterinary care with vaccinations, and less so with routine checkups.5 In fact, 36% of survey respondents agreed that if it were not for vaccinations, they would not take their pet to the veterinarian, while 33% agreed they would only take their pet in if sick. These sentiments persist. In the AVMA’s 2021 Pet Ownership and Demographic Survey,6 24% of dog owners and 35% of cat owners reported last seeing a veterinarian ≥ 2 years ago. Top reasons for not seeing a veterinarian, such as “pet not sick or injured” (28%) and “pet did not need vaccines” (26%),6 as also observed before the COVID-19 pandemic,7 could be interpreted as reflecting low perceived need or value. Other findings indicate that perceived value is the most influential factor in client satisfaction, which impacts whether clients would switch practices6 and, thus, continuity of care.

Several studies have examined communication between pet owners and veterinarians and how it impacts the owner-veterinarian relationship and/or compliance with veterinary recommendations. A 2006 pet-owner survey8 showed that owners who believed their veterinarian did a good job communicating and who felt they received enough pet-care information were more likely than others to feel a strong relationship with their veterinarian. In addition, dog owners with such strong relationships were significantly more likely to always follow the veterinarian’s recommendations (84%) than were those with weak relationships (48%). Confusion, uncertainty, and misunderstanding—and not so much cost—were identified as obstacles to clients following through.8

Later studies showed that pet owners may be more likely to adhere to or comply with veterinary recommendations when those recommendations are clear,9 a rationale is provided,8 and a relationship-centered care approach is used.9 Further, pet-owner satisfaction with veterinary consultations has been found to be correlated with the degree of shared decision-making,10 and pet owners look to veterinarians to support them in decision-making by providing information tailored to their current understanding of the subject.11 In addition, dog owners who viewed a “WISE COACH”-style (vs traditional) consultation, where the veterinarian serves as “an experienced, knowledgeable guide who educates and encourages clients, respecting their individuality while seeking the best outcome for the patient,” scored higher on their likelihood of following the veterinarians’ recommendations and returning to see the veterinarian.12

Building on this previous research, the purpose of the present qualitative study was to identify language strategies that were more effective than others for helping pet owners appreciate the value and importance of veterinary care and to encourage more regular visits. Our aim was to address 4 concerns that pet owners might have: why go to the veterinarian, when to go to the veterinarian, what you get from the veterinarian, and how to pay for veterinary services. Specifically, we sought to answer the following questions:

  • What is the most emotionally resonant value proposition (ie, feature intended to make a product or service attractive to customers) of preventive veterinary care that connects with pet owners?

  • What is the most convincing way to encourage pet owners to prioritize routine preventive care? And, critically, how do we effectively communicate to pet owners who have been irregular or inconsistent with veterinary visits in the past?

  • What is the best way to position the role of the veterinarian? And what language is effective to connect the dots between a relationship with a veterinarian and better, more personalized care?

  • What is the most resonant way to break down the cost barrier associated with veterinary care? How do we empower pet owners to have conversations with their veterinarian about the cost of care and to explore flexible treatment and payment options?

Materials and Methods

Study design

This qualitative study consisted of several phases: a communication and research audit, interviews with subject matter experts, development of language stimuli (messages), three 2-hour online focus group sessions with pet owners, and 1-hour one-on-one interviews with 5 pet owners selected from the focus groups. All study phases were designed and implemented by members of a language strategy firm (Maslansky + Partners), who specialized in and were highly experienced in language research strategies and focus group methodologies. Approval of the study protocol by an institutional review board was not deemed necessary given the nature of the study.

The communication and research audit consisted of a literature search to review all relevant research and messaging (eg, fact sheets, reports, and presentations) to date, and this information was used to inform the development of language stimuli for testing. The internal interviews were conducted via 45-minute phone call with each of 4 subject matter experts (1 registered veterinary technician and 3 veterinarians with leadership positions in organized veterinary medicine) to understand how veterinarians talk about the value and importance of veterinary medicine. Within these more focused conversations, an understanding emerged on the varying opinions about the value of care and why veterinary care should matter to pet owners.

From there, the language stimuli development process began. Given all the ideas raised in the audit and internal interviews, frames—or distinct ways to start conversations around the value of veterinary care—were developed to capture and test a diverse range of approaches. Each frame was then developed into a message of approximately 150 to 200 words, each with a unique rationale and lexicon to communicate this value. Then, three 2-hour online focus groups were conducted, with 4 to 6 participants each (15 pet owners total), to test and discuss the language stimuli. Finally, one-on-one interviews (60 minutes each) were conducted with 5 pet owners from the focus group sessions who were particularly articulate or had interesting insights into their relationships with the veterinary team. The purpose of these interviews was to gauge emotional responses to the optimized language stimuli. All focus groups and interviews were held in August 2020.

Study participants

All participants were owners of at least 1 dog and/or cat who had been recruited by a market research company (Schlesinger Group) to represent a mix of ages, genders, locations, socioeconomic statuses (minimum annual household income of $35,000 or more), educational backgrounds (high school diploma or greater), and political ideologies. All pet owners provided informed consent prior to participation. The incentive to participate was approximately $150/person.

Focus group structure

During the focus groups, an online platform was used that allowed the moderator (from Maslansky + Partners) to share a series of messages highlighting the importance of veterinary medicine and encouraging pet owners to prioritize wellness visits. Participants read and discussed the messages together, sharing feedback about the language in the messages they liked or disliked, and why, to identify language that could help pet owners appreciate the value and importance of preventive care and encourage more regular visits. The moderator was also able to pose poll questions (Supplementary Appendix S1) throughout the focus group.

Interview structure

During the one-on-one interviews, the moderator used an online instant-response methodology to measure participants’ preferences for and emotional responses to certain messages and examples. Each participant was asked to watch the same 4 videos (ranging in length from 1 to about 1.25 minutes each) in which an actor spoke about the importance of preventive veterinary medicine. They were told to assume the actor was their veterinarian or veterinary technician, although this person was intentionally not acting or portraying any individual person or setting. Participants used their computer’s mouse to manipulate a slider tool (Perception Analyzer; Dialsmith) that recorded their emotional reactions, second-by-second, to the language used on a scale from 0 to 100 (starting at 50 for neutral).13 They were directed to move up the scale if they were motivated by the language and down the scale if not. This allowed the facilitator to measure individual reactions word-by-word, in real time. These observations were then used to probe the reasons for the reactions once the videos were finished.

Qualitative analysis

At the conclusion of the focus groups and interviews, the derived feedback and insights were used to create a language strategy. No statistical methods or tools were applied. Instead, members of Maslansky + Partners used the results from the qualitative sessions, the background research audit, and their own broader experience with effective messaging and language to build a set of recommendations, backed by participant verbatims and snapshots from the slider tool. This strategy included high-level insights and principles that generally explained pet owners’ mindsets about veterinary medicine, effective framing and structure for veterinarians’ conversations with pet owners, and tactical, word-by-word recommendations for what veterinarians can say—or should avoid—to connect with pet owners.

Results

Participants

The 15 pet owners who participated in the 3 focus groups were distributed such that 5 were included in the first focus group, 6 in the second focus group, and 4 in the third focus group. Participants ranged in age between 23 and 63 years (median age, 46 years). Nine (60%) participants self-identified as female. All participants were employed full-time. Four (27%) had a graduate or professional degree, 9 (60%) were college graduates, and 2 (13%) had some college experience. Household income was $50,000 to $74,999 for 6 (40%) participants, $75,000 to $99,999 for 4 (27%) participants, $100,000 to $149,999 for 3 (20%) participants, and ≥ $150,000 for 2 (13%) participants. Seven (47%) participants identified as Caucasian/white, 2 (13%) as Black/African American, 2 (13%) as Hispanic/Latino, and 4 (27%) as Asian/Pacific Islander. Political ideology was moderate for 6 (40%) participants, liberal for 5 (33%) participants, conservative for 3 (20%) participants, and unstated by 1 (7%) participant. Six (40%) participants were in the Northeast region of the United States, 4 (27%) in the South, 3 (20%) in the West, and 2 (13%) in the Midwest.

Participants owned between 1 and 4 pets. Eleven (73%) owned dogs, 6 (40%) owned cats, and 2 (13%) owned both cats and dogs. One participant owned another type of pet (not a horse, bird, rodent, or reptile) alongside their dog. The duration of current pet ownership ranged from 1 to 15 years. When it came to vaccine use, 7 (47%) participants said that their pet receives all recommended vaccines and medications, 6 (40%) said that their pet receives some, and 2 (13%) said that their pet receives none. As for the last time participants had visited the veterinarian, 6 (40%) indicated within the past year, and the remainder (9/15 [60%]) indicated within the past 2 years, within the past 3 years, or never.

Barriers to routine veterinary care

The general sentiment among participating pet owners was that they deeply value veterinary medicine. However, many visit the veterinarian infrequently because they believe that veterinary care is just for emergencies. If their pet appears healthy, they take care of their pet on their own or wait for small issues to pass, visiting the veterinarian only when a situation is something they are unable to handle at home.

Participants also believed that they could get support for their pet elsewhere, such as groomers, trainers, the internet, or pet-store staff. In many cases, they turn to these other resources because they’re looking for help with topics that aren’t squarely in the realm of medicine, such as diet, behavior, or food and product recommendations. For these kinds of topics, participants said they often believe it is not worth the price or scheduling inconvenience to involve a veterinarian, even if they know a veterinarian might be able to provide better advice.

A major barrier to regular veterinary visits was the perceived price and high cost of veterinary care. Even participants who most strongly advocated for veterinary care said they have had to make the hard decision to skip a visit because they did not believe they could afford the bill. Most also were unaware of the different options available to afford veterinary care or that their veterinarian is someone they can have these conversations with.

Approaches to addressing the barriers

To address the identified barriers to routine veterinary care, a variety of communications approaches were tested to understand the different ways to start conversations between veterinarians and pet owners, and their impact on owners’ perceptions. Some approaches to promoting regular veterinary care did more harm than good, such as sharing statistics, setting the veterinarian’s expertise apart from other people’s, and suggesting the client could be referred to more affordable providers, which participants said felt like their veterinarian was pushing them away or judging them (Table 1).

Table 1

Approaches to helping pet owners appreciate the value of regular veterinary visits that failed to resonate with focus group participants (n = 15).

Approach Tested language Reason the language failed to resonate
Sharing statistics to demonstrate a need. 17% of dog owners and 46% of cat owners don’t visit the vet even once a year. Statistics can have unintended consequences when making the case for preventive care, often reinforcing to pet owners that they’re not alone in infrequent visits.
1 in 200 dogs becomes infected with heartworm, which a routine injection can avoid.
Setting a veterinarian’s expertise apart from other sources. When it comes to your pet’s anatomy, behavior, nutrition, and welfare, there’s no one with . more education, expertise, or experience than a vet. The idea that only veterinarians are qualified to help is a turnoff. Owners feel this belittles other sources they trust.
Suggesting that veterinarians can make referrals to more affordable providers. Options can extend outside your primary veterinary practice.

Vets are almost always willing to refer you to a lower-cost clinic that may be a better fit.
Pet owners feel “pushed off”—like they’re not good enough. for the practice because they have concerns about cost.

— = Same reason as above.

These findings suggested that a fundamental shift is needed in how veterinarians communicate about veterinary care. Participants indicated that highlighting the value of veterinary care would be unlikely to change their behavior. The general perception was that veterinarians are often too focused on justifying why their role is valuable to people and pets. Participants said they knew this, and this knowledge has little impact on their behavior. Rather, there were other barriers to taking their pets to the veterinarian that were more important to address. What did help shift perceptions was making veterinary care personal. Pet owners were more willing to prioritize routine veterinary visits when a stronger veterinarian-client relationship was promoted.

Why go to the veterinarian

When it comes to convincing pet owners why veterinary medicine is important, participants felt that they are responsible for the pet’s care, so reminding them that it is their responsibility feels chastising. Instead, they preferred that the focus be on their relationship with their pets and appreciated more of an emotional appeal as an entry point into the conversation. This was because the connection they share with their pet is what drives their decisions as pet owners in the first place. The general opinion was that hearing their pet described as another member of the family feels positive and relatable (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Top reasons chosen by focus group participants (n = 15 dog and/or cat owners) for why it is important to make veterinary medicine a priority. Participants were asked to select 1 reason that best completes the sentence “It’s important to make veterinary medicine a priority because _____________.”

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 261, 8; 10.2460/javma.23.02.0060

In the same vein, participants appreciated when the value of veterinary care was tied to the overall health and happiness of their pets. They wanted their pet’s health and happiness above all and thought its tie-in to veterinary care showed that the veterinarian and pet owner are on the same team and share the same goals. After this was established, participants were open to considering veterinary care as the best way to achieve these goals. By highlighting the importance of veterinary visits to obtain vaccines, identify and treat preventable illnesses, and ask questions, participants felt hopeful that they could take even better care of their pets.

Participants pushed back on language that implied that veterinary care and human healthcare were the same and that’s why they should bring their pet to the veterinarian. They were also skeptical of statistics and “scare tactics” that made it sound like their pet was vulnerable to a range of diseases. Instead, language that reminded them that their pets are relying on them to be their advocate struck the right chord around the need for timely preventive care. Further, mentioning recognizable examples of avoidable conditions was perceived as being “more personal.” Examples of effective language (with key language in boldface) included the following:

  • Caring for a pet is like caring for another member of the family.

  • Veterinary care is one of the best ways to keep your pet healthy and happy for years to come.

  • Pets require checkups to get vaccines and prevent illness and so you can ask us about anything related to your pet’s health and welfare.

  • It’s important to remember pets can’t communicate about their own health.

  • Animals tend to hide illness, so it’s not always obvious if there is something wrong.

  • Taking these regular, preventive measures helps your pet avoid preventable illnesses like rabies, Lyme disease, and parasite infestations such as fleas, ticks, and worms.

When to go to the veterinarian

When it came to when owners should bring their pet to the veterinarian, most participants prioritized veterinary care both early and late in their pet’s life. Participants appreciated care when the pet is young for the opportunity to receive required or recommended vaccines. They appreciated care when pets enter their senior years for the opportunity to ensure the pet is comfortable and maintaining a good quality of life. However, during the pet’s midlife years, the value of veterinary care was less appreciated and veterinary visits became less regular. The general rationale was that owners believe their pet is healthy during midlife, and in the absence of any issues, they do not think a yearly or more frequent checkup is worth the price.

As for preferred wording, most participants (4/5) in the interview sessions chose “routine” and “regular,” versus “yearly” (1/5) or “frequent” (0/5), as the best way to promote regular veterinary visits. In the focus group sessions, “check-ups” (12/29 [41%] responses; participants were asked for their top 2 choices) was chosen over “wellness visits” (9/29 [31%] responses), “visits” (7/29 [24%] responses), and “appointments” (1/29 [4%] responses) for describing these visits.

To encourage regular checkups, different messaging approaches were used in attempts to convince participants when they should visit the veterinarian. To established pet owners, emphasizing “early” care felt like something they already knew. But for newer pet owners, the following language helped participants appreciate how they could establish good habits for their pets earlier:

  • A visit to the veterinarian is the best way to start your pet off on the right paw.

  • Check off the boxes for important procedures (eg, parasite control), vaccines, and recommendations (eg, training advice) early in your pet’s life.

  • Bringing your puppy or kitten in for regular checkups is the first step in building a strong relationship with your veterinarian.

Although participants also appreciated that they would not be judged if they had not visited the veterinarian in some time, they said they were turned off by language that made assumptions about their personal life, implying that the reason for the delay was because they had moved or had a child. The language identified as effective reassured participants that whether it had been a year or several since they last visited the veterinarian, it is never too late to make an appointment. It explained that veterinarians can get up to speed quickly on their pet’s health and get the animal caught up on required vaccinations. And, importantly, the reminder that veterinary care is important at every stage of their pet’s life, not just the beginning and end, underscored for participants the need for routine and regular visits. This was also perceived as an opportunity to reinforce that regular, routine checkups help owners, and their pets, build a strong relationship with their veterinarian. Examples of language to use include the following:

  • Whether you visited the veterinarian last month or last year, regular checkups at each stage of your pet’s life are important.

  • We can help you catch up on your pet’s healthcare needs.

  • Veterinary medicine plays an important role at each stage of your pet’s life.

  • Regular checkups allow us to build a strong relationship with you and your pet. Getting to know your pet now—while they’re healthy—is important because that familiarity will help us provide better care down the road if something were to go wrong.

What you get from the veterinarian

Participants believed there are many experts they can turn to for their pet’s care, such as groomers, trainers, or pet-store staff. To help pet owners appreciate the expertise that veterinarians can offer their pets, several approaches were tested, some of which backfired. For example, participants knew veterinarians go to veterinary school, and they weren’t inherently skeptical of a veterinarian’s credentials. However, when language emphasized educational background, participants started to wonder why, and did not agree that a veterinarian’s credentials reflect expertise. Emphasis on the science of veterinary care, and how veterinarians can provide science-based evidence for their recommendations and care, also led participants to wonder why science mattered so much to making the case for veterinary expertise.

The most effective way found to promote a veterinarian’s expertise was by highlighting the veterinarian’s experience. All participants agreed they care far more about the experience a veterinarian has than the number of years in school or academic degrees, saying it is experience that gives them “confidence” and “trust.” Learning or appreciating that a veterinarian has experience with a diversity of pets—in various shapes, sizes, and breeds—helps to set them apart.

Once a veterinarian’s experience has been established, what participants looked for was a strong “relationship.” This single word was perceived by participants as meaning that a veterinarian is trustworthy and straightforward, that the veterinarian will make a pet and pet owner comfortable, and that the veterinarian will go above and beyond to provide a personalized experience and personalized recommendations for the pet’s care. A “relationship” also signaled to participants that the veterinarian is available for anything they need, promoting the perception that the veterinarian is accessible. Examples of language to use include the following:

  • From vaccines and medications to nutrition and behavior, your veterinarian draws upon their experience to develop a care plan that’s personalized to your pet’s specific needs.

  • Our veterinarians see and care for hundreds of pets of all shapes, sizes, types, and breeds each year.

  • You can ask your veterinarian about anything related to your pet’s health and welfare.

  • Whether it’s over a quick phone call, email, or text message or in a routine checkup, you can always turn to your veterinarian.

  • Your veterinarian can provide personalized recommendations for anything related to your pet’s care—from vaccines and medications to nutrition and behavior.

How to pay for veterinary services

Responses suggested that cost is the “elephant in the room” during veterinary consultations, and addressing cost head-on is critical. Overall, participants’ first association with veterinary care was money, and generally, they did not budget for it. Many participants said they have had to make hard choices about when they can and cannot afford veterinary care. Therefore, demonstrating empathy—and making clear these hard choices do not mean a pet owner is any less “loving”—was suggested to go a long way.

Even though cost of care was identified as an important topic to address early on in the relationship-building process, many participants said that they had not had conversations with veterinarians about cost of care. For some, it was because they were embarrassed. But for most, it was because they did not know that their veterinarian could answer questions about cost of care. For this reason, they appreciated a scenario in which the veterinarian understands their financial situation and provides different-cost options for care.

Participants generally believed that when pet owners can ask about the cost of care, this also communicates that the veterinarian and pet owner will work together to determine best options—options that do not have to be cost prohibitive. The terms “options” and “flexible care and treatment options” scored highly in the tested language, perceived as indicating that veterinary care is not a one-size-fits-all proposition and that affordable options are available to fit within their budget. Such language also helped participants appreciate that they could ensure their pets get the care they need now, further promoting regular, routine visits. Once “options” were on the table, connecting the options to routine care helped participants appreciate that they could afford preventive care on a regular basis, understanding that budgeting is not just for emergencies, but also for preventive care.

Although participants wanted “options,” they did not want to be referred to a different, “affordable veterinarian” or “lower cost clinic” because that would make them feel judged by the implication that they could not afford care (Figure 2). Examples of language to use include the following:

  • Feel free to ask me any questions about the cost of care.

  • Veterinary care can be expensive, and it’s often a reason for even the most loving of pet owners having to make difficult decisions around what they can and can’t afford.

  • We can work with you to develop flexible care and treatment options for your budget.

  • There may be more than 1 treatment, medication, or procedure that could be effective and provide a good result.

  • We can help you with payment options and other financial tools to afford veterinary care.

  • Everyone at our practice is committed to finding an option that works for you.

  • Asking about the options available to you can help ensure your pet is getting the routine care they need—which often ends up saving money in the long run.

  • Pet health insurance is 1 option that can help defray the cost of veterinary care—both for routine checkups and for emergencies.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Top statements perceived as most resonant when it comes to exploring affordable care options. Participants were asked to select 2 statements from a list of options.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 261, 8; 10.2460/javma.23.02.0060

Discussion

The present study revealed certain language that veterinarians can use—or should avoid—to help pet owners appreciate the value of routine veterinary care. Our findings are important because they challenge what veterinarians may presume to be effective, such as comparing veterinary care to human healthcare, citing statistics, using scare tactics, emphasizing a veterinarian’s academic credentials (instead of their expertise) or the scientific basis of recommendations, and suggesting referral to a lower-cost veterinary clinic.

Participating pet owners fundamentally cared about their pet’s health and did see the value of veterinary care, but many had not visited the veterinarian in the past few years—suggesting a disconnect somewhere. They generally thought of the veterinarian as for emergencies only and obtained a lot of support for their pets from nonveterinarian sources. They also were money conscious. Similar characteristics have been reported for other pet owner populations.3,4

Results of language stimuli testing suggested that simply telling pet owners how veterinary care is valuable does not work. What does work is making veterinary care personal. The general path to achieving this began with focusing on the owner’s relationship with their pet and the animal’s overall health, then introducing preventive care as the best way to get there. Conveying the veterinarian’s experience, rather than education or qualifications, helped to build trust. Strategies that resonated with study participants included helping pet owners connect regular checkups with opportunities to build a relationship with their veterinarian, which would allow the veterinarian to provide personalized recommendations for their pets and facilitate discussions around cost of services. Personalized recommendations also helped differentiate veterinarians from other sources that provide generic support. This appreciation of a personalized or tailored approach is supported by other research.11,14

When it came to cost, addressing the topic head-on, demonstrating understanding, empowering pet owners to ask questions, and providing payment options were strategies that helped owners see they could afford routine care now. Such conversations appear to be uncommon, as suggested by results of a Canadian study.15 Our findings about the cost of care are supported by other studies. For example, Janke et al11 found that simply by providing options, veterinarians can help alleviate clients’ concerns about financial motivations behind recommendations. Coe et al14 found that pet owners expect veterinarians to talk about costs up front and that owners in such conversations are focused on what their money translates to in terms of their pet’s health and well-being. Further, Lue et al8 found that cat owners may be less willing to pay for recommended care if they do not clearly understand the need and benefit. On the other hand, when veterinarians provide thorough explanations and recommendations to pet owners concerning the benefits of treatment options for their pets, owners are more likely to believe that veterinarians sell them only the things their pets need.8 Additional research is warranted into language strategies that resonate most with pet owners when it comes to discussions about cost.

The present study had some limitations that need to be considered when interpreting the results. First, although a diverse sample of pet owners was sought, including variety in overall use of veterinary services, all participants were employed and had at least some college education, and all were dog and/or cat owners, leaving out other pet-owning groups. The sample also may not be representative of pet owners in all areas of the US, as demographics can vary by region. In addition, the sample was small (although still within the minimum threshold deemed to be reliable in gathering feedback and analyzing qualitative data16). Such characteristics may be presumed to limit the generalizability of our findings; however, our results are consistent with other reported findings, as previously already mentioned, supporting their validity. Second, the study lacked formal statistical analysis (eg, thematic analysis of transcribed feedback), which could have improved scientific rigor. Third, the study focused on pet owners but did not interview veterinarians or veterinary technicians except in the stakeholder interviews, before the focus group sessions. What remains to be determined is whether the identified language strategies actually affect clients’ perceptions and behavior as well as patient outcomes in clinical settings. It could be useful to incorporate such strategies into existing veterinarian-client communication guides, such as WISE-COACH12 or veterinary-adapted versions of the Calgary-Cambridge Guide.17

Regardless of any limitations, we believe the study findings offer important insights, with specific language and strategies that can be used to help clients appreciate the value of veterinary care and encourage more regular visits. Although the scenarios evaluated in the present study implicitly pertained to veterinarians or veterinary technicians, we believe the derived strategies could help the entire veterinary team to develop stronger, more rewarding relationships with clients and increase appreciation and delivery of preventive care for pets. This, in turn, could lead to better outcomes for veterinary patients.

Supplementary Materials

Supplementary materials are posted online at the journal website: avmajournals.avma.org

Acknowledgments

Funded by the AVMA, CareCredit, and Pets Best Pet Health Insurance.

The authors declare that there were no conflicts of interest.

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    Volk JO, Felsted KE, Thomas JG, Siren CW. Executive summary of the Bayer veterinary care usage study. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011;238(10):1275-1282. doi:10.2460/javma.238.10.1275

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    AVMA Economics Division. AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. AVMA; 2022:9-10.

  • 7.

    AVMA Economics Division. 2017-2018 AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. AVMA; 2018;104-124.

  • 8.

    Lue TW, Pantenburg DP, Crawford PM. Impact of the owner-pet and client-veterinarian bond on the care that pets receive. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2008;232(4):531-540. doi:10.2460/javma.232.4.531

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • 9.

    Kanji N, Coe JB, Adams CL, Shaw JR. Effect of veterinarian-client-patient interactions on client adherence to dentistry and surgery recommendations in companion-animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012;240(4):427-436. doi:10.2460/javma.2400.4.427

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Ito Y, Ishikawa H, Suzuki A, Kato M. The relationship between evaluation of shared decision-making by pet owners and veterinarians and satisfaction with veterinary consultations. BMC Vet Res. 2022;18(1):296. doi:10.1186/s12917-022-03401-6

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11.

    Janke N, Coe JB, Bernardo TM, Dewey CE, Stone EA. Pet owners’ and veterinarians’ perceptions of information exchange and clinical decision-making in companion animal practice. PLoS One. 2021;16(2):e0245632. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0245632

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 12.

    Clark JJ, Linder CM. Evaluation of a novel communication and consultation skills model (WISE COACH) on dog owner perceptions of veterinarians and projected spending on veterinary care. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2021;260(2):257-268. doi:10.2460/javma.21.02.0096

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 13.

    Marcus GE, Neuman WR, Mackuen MB. Measuring emotional response: comparing alternative approaches to measurement. Political Sci Res Methods. 2017;5(4):733-754. doi:10.1017/psrm.2015.65

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 14.

    Coe JB, Adams CL, Bonnett BN. A focus group study of veterinarians’ and pet owners’ perceptions of the monetary aspects of veterinary care. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2007;231(10):1510-1518. doi:10.2460/javma.231.10.1510

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 15.

    Groves CNH, Janke N, Stroyev A, Tayce JD, Coe JB. Discussion of cost continues to be uncommon in companion animal veterinary practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2022;260(14):1844-1852. doi:10.2460/javma.22.06.0268

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 16.

    Guest G, Namey E, McKenna K. How many focus groups are enough? Building an evidence base for nonprobability sample sizes. Field Methods. 2017;29(1):3-22. doi:10.1177/1525822X16639015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 17.

    Kurtz SM, Silverman JD. The Calgary-Cambridge Referenced Observation Guides: an aid to defining the curriculum and organizing the teaching in communication training programmes. Med Educ. 1996;30(2):83-89. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.1996.tb00724.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Supplementary Materials

  • Figure 1

    Top reasons chosen by focus group participants (n = 15 dog and/or cat owners) for why it is important to make veterinary medicine a priority. Participants were asked to select 1 reason that best completes the sentence “It’s important to make veterinary medicine a priority because _____________.”

  • Figure 2

    Top statements perceived as most resonant when it comes to exploring affordable care options. Participants were asked to select 2 statements from a list of options.

  • 1.

    AVMA. Principles of veterinary medical ethics of the AVMA. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/principles-veterinary-medical-ethics-avma

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    American Animal Hospital Association-AVMA Preventive Healthcare Guidelines Task Force. Development of new canine and feline preventive healthcare guidelines designed to improve pet health. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2011;47(5):306-311. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-4007

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Ellis J, Marziani E, Aziz C, et al. 2022 AAHA canine vaccination guidelines. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2022;58(5):213-230. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-Canine-Vaccination-Guidelines

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  • 4.

    Stone AE, Brummet GO, Carozza EM, et al. 2020 AAHA/AAFP feline vaccination guidelines. J Feline Med Surg. 2020;22(9):813-830. doi:10.1177/1098612X20941784

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Volk JO, Felsted KE, Thomas JG, Siren CW. Executive summary of the Bayer veterinary care usage study. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011;238(10):1275-1282. doi:10.2460/javma.238.10.1275

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    AVMA Economics Division. AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. AVMA; 2022:9-10.

  • 7.

    AVMA Economics Division. 2017-2018 AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. AVMA; 2018;104-124.

  • 8.

    Lue TW, Pantenburg DP, Crawford PM. Impact of the owner-pet and client-veterinarian bond on the care that pets receive. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2008;232(4):531-540. doi:10.2460/javma.232.4.531

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Kanji N, Coe JB, Adams CL, Shaw JR. Effect of veterinarian-client-patient interactions on client adherence to dentistry and surgery recommendations in companion-animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012;240(4):427-436. doi:10.2460/javma.2400.4.427

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Ito Y, Ishikawa H, Suzuki A, Kato M. The relationship between evaluation of shared decision-making by pet owners and veterinarians and satisfaction with veterinary consultations. BMC Vet Res. 2022;18(1):296. doi:10.1186/s12917-022-03401-6

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11.

    Janke N, Coe JB, Bernardo TM, Dewey CE, Stone EA. Pet owners’ and veterinarians’ perceptions of information exchange and clinical decision-making in companion animal practice. PLoS One. 2021;16(2):e0245632. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0245632

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 12.

    Clark JJ, Linder CM. Evaluation of a novel communication and consultation skills model (WISE COACH) on dog owner perceptions of veterinarians and projected spending on veterinary care. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2021;260(2):257-268. doi:10.2460/javma.21.02.0096

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 13.

    Marcus GE, Neuman WR, Mackuen MB. Measuring emotional response: comparing alternative approaches to measurement. Political Sci Res Methods. 2017;5(4):733-754. doi:10.1017/psrm.2015.65

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 14.

    Coe JB, Adams CL, Bonnett BN. A focus group study of veterinarians’ and pet owners’ perceptions of the monetary aspects of veterinary care. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2007;231(10):1510-1518. doi:10.2460/javma.231.10.1510

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 15.

    Groves CNH, Janke N, Stroyev A, Tayce JD, Coe JB. Discussion of cost continues to be uncommon in companion animal veterinary practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2022;260(14):1844-1852. doi:10.2460/javma.22.06.0268

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 16.

    Guest G, Namey E, McKenna K. How many focus groups are enough? Building an evidence base for nonprobability sample sizes. Field Methods. 2017;29(1):3-22. doi:10.1177/1525822X16639015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 17.

    Kurtz SM, Silverman JD. The Calgary-Cambridge Referenced Observation Guides: an aid to defining the curriculum and organizing the teaching in communication training programmes. Med Educ. 1996;30(2):83-89. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.1996.tb00724.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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