CVC highlight: How to break bad news to veterinary clients - Veterinary Medicine
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CVC highlight: How to break bad news to veterinary clients
More than any other specialty, oncology involves difficult discussions with clients. For smoother conversations under emotional circumstances, follow this advice.


How do you start?

Begin with a warning shot such as, "I have some difficult news to share with you about the results of Misty's blood test." But do not make this warning long, since anticipation of bad news builds up in a negative way. Always use the pet's name and correct sex.

Give the information in small sound bites, intermittently checking in for the client's understanding or thoughts. You can say things such as, "We've covered a lot of information so far. Can you tell me what your understanding of Misty's problem is?" or "Let me pause here and ask for questions you have for me at this point."

After the news has been delivered

After sharing the news, be prepared to respond to clients' emotions. They may be shocked or speechless—or very matter-of-fact and unconcerned. Don't be afraid to ask if a response seems different than you would expect. Saying something such as, "You seem very distraught about the pancreatitis—what experiences have you had with it in the past?" may bring to light the fact that another one of their pets died of pancreatitis. Try not to use "why" (e.g. "Why are you so upset?") because it can sound judgmental.

And don't feel the need to fill the silence. Clients need time to adjust and think; a respectful silence provides nonverbal support. You can also show empathy by normalizing reactions with statements such as, "Many people have difficulty making these decisions," or "It is so hard to hear information like this. Getting upset is OK." Giving a client time to adjust and asking for permission to provide more information will help the pet owner transfer from grieving over the diagnosis to taking an active role in making treatment choices and moving forward with medical care, which is your ultimate goal.

Laura D. Garrett, DVM, DACVIM (oncology), Cancer Care Clinic, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Listen in

To hear Dr. Garrett explain how understanding the stages of grief can prevent you from taking clients' reactions personally, scan the QR code above, or go to


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