How to Enhance Veterinary Preventive Care With Assertive Communication

As a veterinary professional, you know pets' most important health care needs. However, communicating your preventive care recommendations in a way that pet owners understand and appreciate can be challenging. Sometimes, your communication style may be an obstacle to effective pet owner communication.

When you present a confident veterinary recommendation for preventive care with assertive language, you convey the importance of annual screenings and their role in lifelong pet health, making compliance more likely. Passive language, on the other hand, can erode your intentions, turning your professional recommendations into mere suggestions.

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Let's take a look at how passive and assertive language can shape your preventive care message and influence client compliance.

Assertive vs. Passive Pet Owner Communication

Everyone has a preferred communication style, and most take either an assertive or passive approach.

  • Assertive communicators equally value everyone's needs and communicate without judgment or excessive emotion. Any direct speech is targeted and clear without being confrontational.
  • Passive communicators generally focus on others' needs, downplaying or completely dismissing their own. Passive communicators are self-deprecating, apologetic, and often concerned about how they are perceived, especially if they speak their minds.

Of course, these styles are not mutually exclusive, and most people hover somewhere in between, shifting back and forth as the situation dictates. Nevertheless, in veterinary medicine, adopting a more assertive demeanor can help achieve the outcomes you want.

Recognizing Passive Communication with Pet Owners

Does your team have a passive communication style? You might recognize the following passive communication tendencies:

  • Leaning on filler words: Saying "um," "er," and "ah" to bridge your sentences, or feeling the need to fill the silence while an owner considers their pet's options.
  • Overusing modifiers and soft verbs: "Could," "just," "maybe," "a little," perhaps," and "basically" are unnecessary modifiers that weaken your message. Furthermore, soft verbs—such as "I feel," "I think," and "I hope"—convey little confidence.
  • Making excuses or apologizing: You devalue your professional expertise when you are overly apologetic. "I know this is expensive" or "I'm sorry we didn't mention cost when you scheduled the appointment" are some common examples.
  • Using overly accommodating language: You want to encourage clients to take your recommendations, so avoid offering easy outs with phrases like, "If you don't want to do this now, we could probably wait three months," or "It's not absolutely necessary so it's probably OK."

Passive phrasing and behavior like this can undermine an otherwise thoughtful and well-intentioned recommendation. For example, rather than steering your client toward an obvious and beneficial choice for their pet, such as blood work and routine screening, you give the pet owner the opportunity to decline your services, question, or concern. This means you have ineffectively conveyed the importance of preventive care, and the pet owner may not understand that their decision could ultimately impact their pet's quality of life and longevity.

Recognizing Assertive Communication with Pet Owners

Does your communication style accurately convey your preventive care beliefs? A direct communication style includes:

  • Positive body language: Maintain confident but non-threatening eye contact.
  • Relaxed and steady speech: Project authenticity and honesty with unhurried and measured words.
  • Shared emotions: Convey honest feelings and strong convictions with statements such as, "I am convinced," "I know," or "I am concerned."
  • Active listening: Give the client time to consider your recommendations and listen to their reply. Ask follow-up questions to understand their concerns or clarify any misunderstandings.

Clear communication projects confidence while conveying your expertise and authority. Pet owners should respond to this candor positively and more readily accept your recommendations, believing they truly are in the best interest of their pets. It should also show how collaborating with pet owners leads to better veterinary patient outcomes.

Bringing Assertive Language to Your Veterinary Practice

The following two scenarios demonstrate the power of assertive communication. Take a look at the example scripts and note the language choices.

  • Annual blood work on a healthy adult dog: "Sydney looks great for a four-year-old Labrador, Ms. Jones. I can tell by your relationship that she's a beloved family member. While she still acts like a puppy, her organ and endocrine functions may be changing, which could ultimately lead to a life-altering disease. By starting to analyze her annual blood work while she is relatively young, we can determine Sydney's baseline, monitor each organ function value as she ages, and identify abnormalities months or years before she begins showing disease signs. This will allow us to treat her before a disease advances, and with less-invasive methods. Big dogs age more quickly than smaller breeds, so I strongly advise you to begin annual blood work now."
  • Annual screening tests: "I know Louie has had a long streak of negative fecal tests, so I can understand why you believe this diagnostic may seem unnecessary. However, although you have monitored his health closely, Louie may still have come in contact with microscopic parasites—some of which can cause him, as well as you and your family, serious harm. Yearly fecal testing is critical to ensure Louie stays healthy and maintains his winning record."

Positive Language, Better Outcomes

By communicating in a professional, direct, and positive manner, you and your team can help improve client compliance and patient outcomes significantly. Take time to assess your communication style and recognize passive language; then, replace it with assertive communication and combine other great techniques for speaking to clients. Give it a try—the results may speak for themselves.

Angela Beal

Angela Beal is a veterinarian in Columbus, Ohio who loves using her writing to help veterinarians live more fulfilling lives by helping make practice life more efficient and less stressful. Angela has a background in private practice and academia, and since 2020, she has worked full-time with Rumpus Writing and Editing, a veterinary-specific writing and editing company. Rumpus’ clients include veterinary practices and industry partners, including marketing companies, national corporations, consultants, and several international businesses. Learn more at 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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