Ask the Right Questions

We all know the feeling when a client leaves out an important piece of information about their pet. It’s frustrating, right? Katelyn Collie, RVT and Training Specialist, reviews tips for asking better questions for better answers.

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We’ve all had the thought after working with a client-- why didn’t you mention this earlier? Why am I just hearing about this now? This would have been nice to know an hour ago…

While it may be easy to blame the client, it’s important to remember you have control over these conversations. As medical professionals, we have a lot of medical knowledge. And, it’s likely that the client you are talking to has very little to no medical knowledge about their animal. It’s surprising how often I still hear, “my dog can’t be that sick, his nose is still wet.” Asking the right questions is the best way to ensure that you are getting all of the information you need, when you need it.


1. In non-emergency situations, avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Instead, ask open ended questions.

When you’re asking about a pet owner about their concerns, questions that have “yes” or “no” answer may miss a lot of critical information. Often times, pet owners may not realize that there are other symptoms their pet is experiencing. It’s up to you to put all of the pieces together, and ask questions that prompt more thought and conversation.


For example, a conversation with “yes” or “no” answer might look something like this:

Staff: “Have you noticed blood in your pet’s urine?”

Client: “No”

Staff: “Have you switched diets for your pet recently?”

Client: “No, it’s the same food he’s been on.”


But, if you were asking the right questions, you could learn a lot more about what the pet is experiencing!


Staff: “What is your pet’s current bathroom behavior? Would you describe it as normal?”

Client: “I’ve noticed he has been urinating more, and sometimes having accidents outside the litter box. That’s not normal for him- he hasn’t had accidents in years. I haven’t seen any blood, but his urine was pretty dark in color.”

Staff: “What kind of food does your pet eat? Would he have access to other types of food?”

Client: “He eats a dried kibble that he has been on for years. It’s the one you sell in the lobby in the blue bag.  Now that you mention it, my roommate did get another cat that has a really special diet. She feeds him unique treats, and I could see him getting into those.”

By asking questions that prompt the owner to think about the bigger picture, you can get a lot more information about a pet’s behavior, symptoms, and overall wellbeing. Hopefully with this information, you and your team can make a better diagnosis and treatment.


2. End your conversation with a phrase such as, “Is there anything else you would like to share with me?”

Ending your conversation with an open ended question allows the client the opportunity to include any other piece of information. It may go on a tangent and you may end up talking about something completely unrelated, but you could also pick up something useful! Remember, most pet owners don’t have a fraction of the medical knowledge and experience you do- so they may not know when two things could be related. This is also an opportunity for the client to say that they may need to pick up more food, flea medicine, or schedule a follow-up appointment for more routine procedures.


3. Train your staff to know what to listen for.

Here at DoveLewis we see a lot of emergencies. Trying to understand a client’s interpretation of what a pet is experiencing can be challenging, so we have identified “trigger” words. Trigger words are essentially words or short phrases that mean we potentially have an emergency on our hands. Anytime a staff member hears a client use a “trigger” word, our protocol is to recommend the pet comes in immediately to be seen by a doctor ASAP. If a “trigger” word is used, we also have identified a few quick follow up questions so we can quickly get the information that we need. There are many trigger words that can be incorporated, but training your team to pay special attention to these words may help control the conversation.


Example of a conversation with trigger words (in red):

Client: “My cat all of sudden started dragging its hind legs.”

Staff: “Is your cat able to use their legs at all or are they completely non-functional?”

Client: “I came home this evening and he was screaming and his legs are non-functional.

From this information, we can gather that this is an emergency situation and possibly Saddle Thrombus.


Example of a conversation with trigger words (in red):

Client: “My dog is trying to vomit.

Staff: “Does he seem nauseous? Or is he retching but nothing is coming up?”

Client: “He ate trash earlier and now his tummy looks bloated and he’s retching but nothings coming up.”

From this information, we can gather that this is an emergency situation and possibly bloat/GDV.


Throughout any conversation, always consider that every client is different. You will likely have clients that over share, and under share. It’s also important to remember that our patients cannot speak for themselves and it’s up to us to be their voices. Never feel like you a bothering or pestering a client by asking too many questions. We cannot do our jobs correctly without correct information.

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Comments's picture

Yes, and we can't do our jobs when we are bing rushed and have to have all information in 5 minutes. It is just impossible and some Vets need to understand that