Excellence in Animal Care: It’s Much More than the Technical Skills
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2009

Mark Stetter, DVM, DACZM

Disney’s Animal Programs, Bay Lake, FL, USA


As zoological practitioners, we have spent the majority of our professional education and “on the job” training, learning details about animals and improving our medical and surgical technical skills. While this foundation of technical proficiency is paramount, the nontechnical skills are equally important. The science and technology industry has commonly lumped all the nontechnical skills into a bucket referred to as soft skills.1,2,6,7 These soft skills generally include communication, listening, relationship building, and conflict resolution.2

As veterinarians we are always interested in improving our level of care. If a new medical or surgical technique became available for a commonly encountered disease, we would be lining up to learn more about it. Yet, when this skill is not uniquely technical, but still important and routinely needed, we have a tendency to pay it less attention. Research in human medicine has shown “that gaps in non-clinical skills are just as important as lack of medical knowledge.”2 Malpractice suits and complaints to state medical boards often do not stem from poor technical competency, but from issues around non-clinical skills.2,8 Human health care systems have shown that individuals or practices with poor soft skills not only directly affect patient care, but also indirectly reduce the level of care by eroding morale and causing a higher rate of turnover.2,8

Listening, verbal communication, and relationship building are overlapping skill sets that, when done well, are associated with a high degree of success and elevated patient care.3 A surgeon’s overall success is only partly technical in nature.4 The surgeon must carefully listen to the client’s symptoms and concerns before he or she can determine the best course of action. For the recommendations to be accepted there must be a level of trust and a positive relationship with the client. Lastly, he or she must have the appropriate communication skills to influence the client on the next course of action. As zoological clinicians we may have the knowledge and skills to make a diagnosis, but will fall short of an effective treatment, if we do not have a trusting relationship or cannot effectively communicate the importance of our treatment plan.

Many veterinarians may consider the soft skills as more innate personality traits, rather than learned skills.2 Research in human medical and veterinary schools has shown that these skills already exist, but often need to be improved and enhanced.1,8 Just as postgraduate continuing education can offer lectures and workshops which enhance our technical skills and knowledge, we must also include development of our soft skills in our continued professional growth.2 In medical teaching facilities the most effective teaching of soft skills is through experiential exercises.1,5,6,8 One of these exercises is by role playing in a safe, supportive environment.1,5,6,8 This allows the clinician or student the ability to experience various situations and learn before being placed in more difficult real situations.1,5,6

In our zoological institutions, reviewing and critically evaluating complicated group situations or incidents of interpersonal conflict can offer important learning opportunities and ultimately improve animal welfare. Questions we might want to ask ourselves could include examples like this:

  • How would I or we approach this situation differently next time?
  • What could I or we do to improve our communication?
  • Do I or we have a good relationship with our key partners? If not, how can it be improved?
  • Is there a high level of trust within the team and/or with our partners? Are there things we can do to improve trust?

Animal welfare at zoological institutions is directly influenced by the level of teamwork we provide. These teams are not just the hospital employees but cross all lines of animal management. Good animal care is directly associated with our technical and nontechnical skills. Outstanding animal care integrates good soft skills and ensures it is the best it can be. Animal welfare is the responsibility of the team, working together and committed to shared principles.

Literature Cited

1.  Bergh, A.M., C.W. Van Staden, P.M. Joubert, C. Kruger, G.E. Pickworth, L.L. Roos, W.J. Schurink, R.R. DuPreez, S.V. Grey, and B.G. Lindeque. 2006. Medical students’ perceptions of their development of ‘soft skills’. Part II: the development of ‘soft skills’ through ‘guiding and growing.’ South African Family Practice. 48(8):15a–15d.

2.  Bourgeois-Law, G. 2007. The “soft” side of continuing medical education. The Canadian Journal of Continuing Medical Education. 1–2.

3.  Hare, D. 2003. Good communication skills key to success. The Canadian Veterinary Journal. 44(8):621–622.

4.  Hutul, O.A., R.O. Carpenter, J.L. Tarpley, and K.D. Lomis. 2006. Missed opportunities: a descriptive assessment of teaching and attitudes regarding communication skills in a surgical residency. Current Surgery. 63(6):401–409.

5.  Kahler, S.C. 2004. Catching up with communication. JAVMA. Online.

6.  Lewis, R.E. and J.S. Klausner. 2003. Nontechnical competencies underlying career success as a physician. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 222(12):1690–1696.

7.  Russell, R.L. 1994. Preparing veterinary students with the interactive skills to effectively work with patients and staff. J Vet Med Educ. 21:40–43.

8.  Shaw, J.R. 2006. Four core communication skills of highly effective practitioners. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. 36(2):385–396.


Speaker Information
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Mark Stetter, DVM, DACZM
Disney's Animal Programs
Bay Lake, FL

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