As vets we #1 help animals and we help people in the doing of #1. Well that’s how many vets see it.
However, the reality of vet work is that the human is actually the main focus of the vet-client dynamic, helping the human is what we do – helping the animal is #2. We help humans honour and love the animal they have chosen (or if a cat it has chosen them 😉 ) to invest in for the wellbeing of themself and their family. The animal is a thing they choose to accompany them in life, the human has made the choice to feed, house and care for this selected animal and for the most part they do it to the best of their ability.
As vets we see a range of ‘the best of their ability’ in how people look after their animals, we see a huge diversity in the ways – physically, emotionally and financially that people use to show love and care for their animal. What we may or may not recognise is that along with the ability to care for their pets showing up as a huge range of styles and formats that people look after themselves, their kids and their families in the same range of ways – and likewise they are doing it to the best of their abilities (again for the most part).
Do they look after their pets in a way that you do? No, not often. Do they look after themselves in a way that you do? Sometimes…. Do you agree with how they look after their pets? Hmm sometimes. Is it easy to accept how some people look after their pets? No definitely not and at this time it is really hard not to judge someone for their differences and what you might perceive as a lack in their care. Is it frustrating and sad that sometimes our ability to serve a client and their pet to the level we would like to? Certainly, it is. Sometimes it totally sucks. However, is providing care and having the ability to pay for it the same thing? Do those who are more wealthy necessarily look after themselves, their pets and their loved ones better than others?
And what does this have to do with empathy? According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” and plays an important role in our society’s ability to function, promoting a “sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals.” Empathy is integral to how our neural networks are set up to interact with the neural networks of others in order to both perceive and understand their emotions and to differentiate them from our own, which makes it possible for humans to live with one another without constantly fighting or feeling “taken over by someone else”. So in the vet clinic setting we can understand the feelings of another person without being affected or taken over by the feelings of that person. Sounds handy when dealing with some of those harder cases hey?
Photo Source: https://www.psychalive.org/
So back to feeling empathy for our humans – does the incapacity to pay for gold standard services mean that person does not have a gold standard love and need for their pet? No, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA) says that “Less income doesn’t mean less love”. There’s no correlation between income and desire/commitment to provide necessary care for pets (ASPCA®). So if you were tempted to make assumptions and judge – then now is exactly the time to let go of the judging.
If you are a parent then I believe you will easily know what I mean when I change the term from pets to children. Is it shocking what some people think is normal and ok for their children? … Yes. Is it also amazing what some parents go through in self-sacrifice and circumstances in order to protect and provide for their kids. Yes. The same is true for pet-parents. Love and care has nothing to do with income or ability to pay.
So putting it all together – we need to be careful of judging people, and empathy is the key. It is key for our clients to feel listened to and understood and also our own mental health to understand but not take on the feelings of others “or feel taken over by someone else” in that consult room. Psychology Today explains it is often easier to have empathy for someone who is like us but it is possible to learn empathy for those who are different from us. This kind of understanding, can cross bridges and promote positive social behavior.
Not feeling it? All human beings are not created equal when it comes to the capacity for empathy, according to scientists. Some of our brains are wired to be more sensitive to others’ feelings and perspectives than others. In addition to variations in our personal dispositions, the culture we are raised in has an impact on our ability to feel empathy for others. The science of empathy is a hot topic (Sullivan, 2017). Well thankfully – there is mounting evidence to say that empathy can be taught – so you can learn it (Barth, 2018)
If you need more proof of why you would want to learn it – Sullivan states that empathetic doctors tended to have patients who followed treatment recommendations and showed better treatment outcomes.
So with empathy in place it is a Win:Win:Win!!!
A win for the vets mental health, a win for the client being understood and a win for the patients getting better treatment outcomes. This is why it is good to work on empathy.
Dr Emma Davis BVSc Veterinary Career and Business Coach