Pet Selection Counseling: Happy Beginnings Create Happy Endings!
By Monique Feyrecilde BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior), Teaching Animals, Auburn WA
In veterinary medicine, we work to help pets every day. And every day, we probably see examples of ideal human-pet connections as well as situations where the human-animal bond is strained because of a less than ideal pet-family match. Offering pet selection counseling to clients and the community is a great way to help create happy families, educate the public, and bond clients to your practice for a lifetime. It can also be a welcome source of revenue for hospitals.
Pet selection counseling can be provided by veterinary paraprofessionals and by veterinarians. The key is to have a reasonable number of questions to ask, and a deep knowledge about the needs of different species and breeds. You can then use your knowledge combined with information from the client to help guide their choices. By exploring pet ownership through research and consultation prior to acquiring the pet, families can assess their expectations and with your expert guidance welcome a treasured new family member to the home that’s a terrific fit!
Build Your Knowledge
Many veterinary professionals are already experts about a variety of species and breeds. Take the time to evaluate what you know about husbandry, grooming, time commitments and financial commitments about a wide selection of companion animals before offering pet selection counseling. The more knowledge you have about different pets, the more value there will be in your recommendation. Schooling, first-hand experience, reading, watching videos, webinars, online learning, and more are all great ways to build your knowledge about the needs of pets before you begin.
Learning About Families
A survey or questionnaire is an easy way to get started better understanding a family. Many online models exist of varying detail and quality. Before relying on an online tool, take the quiz yourself several times. Start by being “yourself” when you answer the questions, then role play and answer the questions as a few people in your life you know well. Parents, siblings, friends, and clients. Pretend to be that person, and look at the results. Do you agree? Do the results make sense? Personally vet any tool you recommend for clients. Often making your own survey is helpful. I build my survey questions around assessing the resources of the family (time, knowledge, financial) so I have the information I need to provide the family with likely good matches.
What animals are the family naturally drawn to? What about these animals attracts the client? What would “deal-breakers” be for a given family? Ask the client to give you a picture of their dream-pet to start the conversation. Then you can get into more detail, keeping those initial preferences in mind.
Time & Money
How much time does the family have available to devote to a pet? Social interactions and attention, training, grooming, exercise, and veterinary care all take time. Training, grooming, vetting, feeding, walking, boarding for vacations, and more all require varying degrees of financial commitment depending upon the needs of the individual pet. Larger pets will require more food, higher energy pets will require more exercise, and young pets will require more supervision and training while senior pets may come with higher veterinary costs.
Does the family have experience owning a certain type of pet? Is this a dog person looking for a first kitten? A young adult thinking of adding a dog to the family for the first time on their own? A young professional who spends long hours away from home so is considering a reptile or pair of rodents? There’s always a “first time” with a new pet species – avoid discouraging families from trying something new, but assure they receive education about what to expect when exploring a pet relationship with a new species to them. With regard to training, some breeds require a larger amount of training to have their basic needs met. If a client has a Bengal, Belgian Malinois, or Blue and Gold Macaw in their sights, they will need plenty of time to devote to training and either the existing experience to train these pets, and/or good professional support to accomplish the task.
Size and Conformation
Some families are drawn to extremely large or tiny pets. They may crave a 200lb mastiff or a 3lb Maltese. Families should be encouraged to consider what may happen in the future and build contingency plans. If there is an evacuation or a large dog is injured on a walk, how will the family carry or transport the large dog? If older adults are considering that tiny Maltese, how will it be protected from being stepped upon and are there grandchildren who will need to learn to be gentle with this delicate dog? Does the family want a dachshund or corgi, but live in a 5-story house with many flights of stairs? Help families envision environmental and emergency considerations for their future pet as well as day-to-day activities.
Grooming, Health, and Allergies
Almost every pet requires some level of grooming. Families should be asked what kind of grooming needs they are ready for. Daily brushing, weekly brushing, monthly bathing, or trips to a professional groomer every 2-6 weeks may be needed. Every pet with nails needs nail care. Dogs and cats should have weekly nail trims (most clients don’t realize this)! Small breed dogs will require more dental care. Labradors and breeds prone to atopy will require more frequent ear and skin maintenance. Brachycephalic dogs will often have big dental bills and may need airway corrective surgery to be able to breathe freely and have a reasonable tolerance to exercise. Northern breed dogs may not be comfortable living in Florida, while an Italian Greyhound in Alaska will need quite the wardrobe to be comfortable.
If the family has allergies to animals, make sure to discuss that many breeds may be advertised as “hypoallergenic” but there’s no guarantee this will be true. Also, non-shedding dog breeds require frequent combing and brushing as well as professional grooming regularly to keep their coats and skin healthy and comfortable. Hairless dogs and cats still shed skin cells and saliva to which some people are allergic. Dogs and cats can be allergic to one another!
Who’s Who in the Family?
Does the family have small children? Then a sturdy pet expected to enjoy the company of little ones is a good choice. What interests does the family have? Dog sports like agility mean an athletic dog breed may be a good choice. Therapy dog work would guide a different choice. An expectation of a calm lap cat would make a kitten Bengal or Siamese a less ideal option. Ask families to list all the expectations and lifestyle activities they would like to explore with their new pet over the next 15 years, and help them prioritize these wants to align with good options for a pet selection.
More Than Dogs & Cats
The human-animal bond extends beyond cats and dogs! If the client is interested in or best-suited to species outside your wheelhouse: be honest. Then, connect them with a qualified professional to continue the quest.
Giving the Recommendation
After you’ve taken the time to review the questionnaire and discuss it with the family, make a written recommendation of 5-10 options you think are good ones. Include a few bullets about pros and cons of how this pet might fit for their family, and a list of crucial to do’s for this pet. The recommendation should be brief and easy-to-read.
For examples of pet selection questionnaires and a sample recommendation report, feel free to email the author directly.