How Motivational Counseling Enhances Pet Owner Compliance and Patient Outcomes

Due to time constraints and continual training, some veterinarians communicate in a hierarchical manner that's quick to drive agendas and propose solutions—and minimally elicit a client's opinions or values. Some veterinarians may also assume that the pet owner's values match their own, which, unfortunately, is not always the case. The problem with this consultation style is that it often fails to meet the client's psychological needs and inspire both confidence and compliance.

A 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine may point to a better approach that's already finding applications in human medicine: motivational counseling. This relationship-centered and evidence-based communication strategy promises to pay similar dividends in veterinary medicine. Here's how.

What Is Motivational Counseling?

Motivational counseling is a client-centered counseling style that aims to elicit behavior change by helping veterinary clients see the value in preventive care, a common obstacle to positive health outcomes. In human medicine, motivational counseling focuses on improving a patient's internal motivation, be it for personal hygiene, weight loss, or substance abuse. The goal is to elicit self-motivating statements and behavioral change from the client.

  Wondering how to talk with clients about preventive care? Learn how to start the conversation in our e-book, "5 Tips for Talking with Clients about Preventive Care"

Motivational counseling rests on five main principles:

  1. Express empathy through reflective listening.
  2. Identify discrepancies between the client's goals and values and their current behavior with their pet.
  3. Avoid arguments and direct confrontation, as this shuts down communication.
  4. Roll with the client's resistance rather than directly opposing it.
  5. Support the client's self-efficacy and optimism about treatment.

Motivational Counseling Uses in Veterinary Medicine

This kind of motivational counseling could be helpful for raising pet owner compliance rates and deepening relationships in veterinary medicine, too, by changing pet owners' own ambivalence about treatment and stopping self-sabotaging habits.

A successful motivational counseling approach requires both collaboration with the client and an empathetic, direct communication style from the veterinarian. This means the veterinarian talks less and the client talks more, while also shifting the focus on achieving goals rather than wallowing in obstacles. It also makes effective use of the human-animal bond to connect with pet owners.

Motivational counseling shows promise for the veterinary consultation space, as evidence points to better outcomes with patient- and client-centered approaches compared with traditional advice-giving, especially when lifestyle change is involved.

Unfortunately, there have been no controlled studies of motivational counseling in veterinary medicine, so further research is needed to determine the long-term efficacy and viability of this approach in the veterinary space. But, that shouldn't stop veterinary practices from incorporating motivational counseling now, as there's every reason to believe the results can be positive.

Applying Motivational Counseling in Veterinary Medicine

Motivational counseling can support veterinary medicine in several key ways, including the following:

  • Share the agenda. After greeting the client, ask them this: "How would you like to spend our time?" If the pet owner answers with specific problems, ask, "What else?" until the client stops. If there are too many concerns, discuss priorities with the client. What should be addressed today, and what can be scheduled at a later appointment? This approach allows you and the client to decide together where to focus and determine what's important. The client also feels heard, and that fact alone can help resolve many issues.
  • Raise issues. If you want to add an item to the agenda, say, "I have a concern to add to our conversation. Would that be OK?" Asking permission gives them a sense of control, prepares them for what you will share, and encourages them to accept more.
  • Express empathy. When you raise a sensitive issue, such as obesity—which, in many cases, the client shares—you could say, "I can see how challenging this is. You understand how your dog's health is related to their weight, and you want your dog to be healthy. Would it be OK if we talk about some ways we can work on this together?" That approach both defuses client anxieties and instills a sense of agency, control, and empowerment.
  • Build on what you hear. Rather than make assumptions about what type of support the client will find most helpful, ask permission to explore the topic further and then listen for what has worked in the past. Then, utilize reflective listening to recap the information and show that they have been heard. Next inquire, "Would it be OK if we talked about... ?" Once you get permission, state information clearly and in small chunks, using pictures as necessary. Focusing on one or two key messages and emphasizing options can help, too.
  • Guide toward a specific plan. When the client seems ready, help them create an action plan. Ideally, this plan would follow the SMART model, which crafts goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timed. For example, if the goal is weight loss, establish a measurable and achievable number in a defined time frame—say, 10 pounds in six months—and explain to the client why that should be the plan.

Collaboration for Motivation

By modifying your communication to a more collaborative style, you can make these conversations easier, shorter, less stressful, and more likely free of psychological reactance from clients. This improved relationship with the client then leads to better outcomes for the pets they love. It's a win-win.

Sarah Wooten

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known influencer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has over 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space since 2015, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. She is also a co-creator of the wildly popular card game ‘Vets Against Insanity’. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado or diving with sharks in the Caribbean. Go big...or go home. To learn more, visit The views and opinions in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Vetiverse or IDEXX.

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