Clear Communication: Translating Veterinary Jargon for Pet Owners

Written by Angela Beal, DVM
veterinary software

Are you unknowingly confusing or intimidating your clients with veterinary terminology? While it can be easy to feel like some medical jargon is commonplace in modern culture, peppering your conversations or written instructions with complex terms can hinder your client relationships, limit clients’ education and understanding of various pet health conditions, and negatively impact patient care.

Knowing how to translate veterinary jargon for pet owners is a skill that requires careful attention, as veterinary professionals must break down large ideas without oversimplifying them. Here are a few ways to make veterinary conversations more accessible and familiar to your clients.

Define and break down complex ideas and terms

Clear communication doesn’t mean eliminating veterinary jargon from your client conversations—only that you use it more judiciously and provide simple and concise definitions for each unfamiliar word or name. While it’s necessary to utilize proper terminology for diagnoses, testing, and medications, avoid unnecessary complexity and potentially alienating your client by using everyday language to explain everything else. Consider keeping a list of veterinary terms used during your conversation, especially if you’re relaying a diagnosis or complex treatment plan. Share the list with the client or use it to gather additional resources that will be emailed after the appointment.

Make it make sense using analogies and metaphors

Analogies and metaphors are powerful tools for helping clients relate to and understand their pet’s condition and how to provide appropriate care. Comparing complex concepts to ordinary experiences gives clarity and shape to otherwise nebulous or intangible ideas, allowing clients to enter the conversation at a level that is comfortable and familiar to them. This may include likening flea and tick preventives to an invisible armor or shield or asking owners to imagine their pet’s joints as hinges that have become squeaky or stiff with time and use, and describing a joint supplement as the lubricating oil that restores smooth motion.

Create connection and clarity with stories

Storytelling helps humanize otherwise dry and clinical information and may help your clients retain important facts or insights about their pet’s health by creating emotional connections. Fortunately, if spinning yarns doesn’t come naturally to you, personal experiences, narratives, and anecdotes are equally effective—as long as they are relayed in a way that invites curiosity and understanding. If you find this level of openness difficult, try sitting down with your client, assuming a relaxed posture (i.e., arms at ease, feet on the floor), and talking to your client like you would a friend. Changing your physical position can help ease the tension or formality in your words as it does in your body, while also making you more approachable and accessible to the client.

Use visual aids to illustrate talking points

Approximately 65% of the population are visual learners, meaning that no matter how well you break down complex veterinary concepts, you may still be failing to engage more than half your target audience. Visual aids—including basic drawings or sketches—can help this group of pet owners grasp information about body processes or procedures. At the same time, diagrams and charts can build comfort with concepts such as body condition scoring, diagnostic test results, or the heartworm life cycle. Easy ways to incorporate visual aids include keeping a dry-erase board and marker in each exam room, keeping links to common resources on each practice device for easy viewing and sharing, and emailing diagnostic test results from your veterinary software so the client can follow along during your call.

Show and tell: Build confidence with simulated care tasks

Demonstrations and simulations help you put words into action and can increase client empowerment and compliance. Instead of providing clients with written discharge instructions, take a few minutes to conduct an in-person demonstration. While you likely already do this for tasks such as subcutaneous fluid therapy and diabetic monitoring, this hands-on training can be an effective way to improve veterinary client communication and reinforce or clarify spoken instructions for many other pet care tasks. To prevent unnecessary stress for both clients and patients, use stuffed animals or training models as stand-ins.

Ensure comprehension with check-ins

Clients won’t always tell you when they don’t understand something you’ve said, but their nonverbal behavior can provide clues that your conversation has gone off the rails. Observe your client’s body language for signs that suggest confusion or uncertainty such as restlessness, avoiding eye contact, or unusual facial expressions. Take these indications as a cue to pause, check in (e.g., “Does that make sense? Does this resonate with you?”), and invite them to ask questions. Ensure solid understanding by asking the client to repeat the information back in their own words. By creating an interactive dialogue, clients may be more likely to reach out with follow-up questions after the appointment.

Veterinary teams use specialized terminology to convey complex concepts and microscopic nuance, but employing these terms in client conversations can leave pet owners—and their pet’s welfare—lost in translation. Ensure you’re saying all the right things by prioritizing clarity, brevity, and relatability in all your client communications.