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Pet Owner Care in a Bond-Centered Practice:
Providing Effective Emotional Support

Carolyn Butler United States

Introduction

Most Americans view their pets as family members. In fact, studies show that more than 70 percent of pet owners think of their pets as children.(1) The deep connection with companion animals may be, in part, due to the fact that there are more single, divorced, childless, widowed, and elderly people living alone than ever before in the history of Western society. Many people in today’s society move frequently, often choosing to live hundreds of miles away from family and friends. Thus, pets have become the constant presence in their lives, assuming the roles traditionally reserved for other humans (confidante, mentor, child, parent, brother, sister, or best friend).

Bond-Centered Practice

The human-animal bond has become a popular way of referring to the relationships and attachments people form with the animals in their lives. This human-animal bond is the primary reason most people seek medical care for their animals.  When human-animal attachments form there are emotional consequences for people. To properly respond to these emotions, veterinarians are encouraged to embrace the philosophy of “Bond-Centered Practice.”(2)

According to the Argus Institute at Colorado State University, a Bond-Centered Practice supports and responds to the emotional needs created by the human-animal bond.(3) The staff at Argus suggest that due to the integral role veterinarians play in promoting the formation of strong, “family status” bonds between pets and pet owners, veterinarians have a moral and ethical responsibility to respond to the human emotional needs created by these significant relationships. According to the Argus Institute, pet owning families have the following needs when interfacing with their veteriniarians:

 A need for trust.

 Personalized and focused attention.

 Information.

 Acknowledgement of the human-animal bond.

 Confidence in the veterinary team’s ability to identify and respond to sensitive issues.

 Validation of intuition, observations, and perceptions regarding their pet’s health.

 Communication skills that sooth anxiety and fear.

 A feeling of partnership during decision-making and treatment procedures.

 Direct and honest communication.

 Access to veterinarian/approachable and available staff.

 Referrals to specialists and related experts.

 Commitment to identify and work through differences.

 Skilled support during crises, pet loss, and emotionally vulnerable times.

 Empathy.

Thus, in a Bond-Centered Practice, providing services that help pet owners solve animal behavior problems becomes as important as diagnosing diabetes. Making informed referrals to responsible boarding kennels becomes as important as providing overnight medical care. And establishing family-present euthanasia protocols that provide comfort to families when their pets die becomes as important as performing emergency surgeries to try to save their pets’ lives. In a Bond-Centered Practice, the unique relationships between people and their companion animals are recognized as significant and are always acknowledged, validated, and respected.

In a Bond-Centered Practice, both sides of the bond receive expert attention. A Bond-Centered Practice invests the energy, capital, training, and resources into the delivery of high quality support programs and protocols designed to meet key emotional needs of pet owners. For example, they offer “new” specialty services like animal behavior assessment, management, and referral programs, end-of-life planning and preparation, home-based palliative care for terminally ill animals, skilled facilitation of family-present euthanasia, pet loss and grief support, and ancillary family support services that assist pet owners during emotionally charged times like decision-making, and conflict resolution.

A Bond-Centered Practice is one in which the veterinary care is extended beyond the medical treatment of animals to also meet the non-medical, emotional needs of people. This is accomplished by providing both quality medicine and a high standard of client care. This requires a thoughtful, systematic approach to client care, as well as ongoing self and staff care.  The following list specifically identifies how Bond-Centered veterinary teams can meet the emotional needs of pet owning families.

In a Bond-Centered Practice the veterinary team:

1. Demonstrates respect for the human-animal bond across the life span of the relationship.

2. Works from an all-encompassing perspective of care, viewing entire families as clients.

3. Uses interpersonal support skills to provide pro-active, preventive case management, particularly during crises and emotional situations.

4. Creates a clinic culture that is emotion-friendly.

5. Commits to making trust and loyalty, behavior wellness, and pet loss and grief as much of a priority as the delivery of high quality medicine.

6. Offers comprehensive patient and client care through a well-designed referral network.

7. Implements policies and plans that enhance self-awareness, self-esteem and client/staff well being.

8. Commits to annual continuing education and training for key staff in interdisciplinary, non-medical subject matter.

9. Takes a leadership role in promoting the concept of Bond-Centered Practice and its importance to the field.

10. Systematically elicits feedback from pet owners and staff; listens and incorporates suggestions.

In short, the goals of a Bond-Centered Practice are to create three kinds of support processes and/or programs: 1) those that are preventative and preparatory in nature; 2) those that create effective intervention plans and protocols during crises and highly emotional times; and 3) those that create a continuum of care with resources that are as varied as possible to ensure complete case follow-through. These processes and programs are instituted throughout the life span of companion animals, but are especially needed when the bond is threatened by an animal’s undesirable behavior, illness or injury, or altered by disappearance, or death.

Conclusion

A Bond-Centered Practice is more than a place, it is a perspective. This perspective views the “family-pet-bond” as a partnership which has the potential to deepen and. When partnerships are strong they become a powerful force that binds people and animals for life. This force is often described as attachment, companionship, and even love. In a Bond-Centered Practice, the force is recognized as the human-animal bond.

Bond-Centered Practice represents the future of veterinary medicine. In fact, the mega-study recently published in JAVMA (July 15, 1999) states that “veterinarians who understand the bond apparently will be more successful in private practice than those who do not.”(4) Therefore, it is important for veterinarians to realize that the effectiveness of a Bond-Centered Practice does not lie in the simple proliferation of specialized non-medical programs, protocols, tools, and services. Rather it lies in the daily work of medically competent and emotionally supportive veterinarians and their well-trained teams. Repeated interactions between clients and consistently sensitive veterinarians infuse the basic principles of Bond-Centered Practice into the mainstream of veterinary medicine itself. In turn, the enriched quality of the “family-pet-veterinarian-bond” improves the image of veterinary medicine overall. Thus, the willingness of contemporary practitioners to meet the emotional needs of pet-owning families will have a significant impact on the direction and future growth of veterinary medicine.

References

1.  The 1995 AAHA Report: A study of the Companion Animal Veterinary Services Market. AAHA, Lakewood, CO. 1995.

2.  Lagoni L, Butler C and Hetts S.: The Human-Animal Bond and Grief.  W.B. Saunders Company, 1994.

3.  Lagoni, et al.: Bond-Centered Practice News: Veterinary Newsletter of the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine, Spring, 2001. (In press).

4.  Brown, JP and Silverman, JD. The Current and Future Market for Veterinarians and Veterinary Medical Services in the United States, JAVMA, July 15, 1999, 215: 161-183.

The term ‘Bond-Centered Practice” was created by Laurel Lagoni, M.S., Carolyn Butler M.S., and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., in their text The Human-Animal Bond and Grief (W.B.Saunders, 1994). The concept has been expanded and further developed by the Argus Institute at Colorado State University.


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