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Talking About OA with Your Clients Doesn’t Have to be Painful

A sick dog is lying on the carpet. Treatment of dogs at home

Mary Ann Vande Linde, DVM, Vande Linde & Associates, Brunswick, Georgia

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease diagnosed in humans and pets. What does this mean to a veterinary team? It means that a high percentage of pets and their owners have some familiarity with the discomfort and pain of joint disease. I’m sure we have all had clients tell us they have noticed a change in their pet’s activity, but they usually pass it off as normal for his/her age or suggest their pet is just “slowing down.” This belief does not mean that they don’t care; they just do not understand that what they are seeing may be due to pain. There are some simple communication tools your team can utilize to add value and increase a client’s understanding and acceptance that osteoarthritis (OA) is not normal, and their pet has options.

One of my mentors once told me “never tell a client what you can show them.” A client may see their pet hiding or not playing, and they will need assistance determining if their pet is painful or fearful. Using the Fear Free Strategies of Considerate Approach (CA) and Gentle Control (GC) allows the pet to be comfortable enough to exhibit OA signs in the client’s presence. With CA, a relaxing atmosphere can be created where the pet can have room to move and be observed. Adding pheromones to help keep them calm and non-slip surfaces both on and off the exam room table enables them to safely explore. In addition, with GC, veterinarians can examine the pet where he or she prefers and is most comfortable. Make sure to plan ahead by having materials easily accessible, and have assistance available in the room so the veterinarian can keep a gentle reassuring hand on the pet. Later during the physical exam, the doctor can communicate how their assessment relates to what the client sees their pet experiencing.

To be efficient and consistent communicators, teams need tools that open clients’ minds to possibilities.  The Zoetis Canine and Feline OA Screening Checklists can be a discussion starting point. These checklists have “cartoons” of cats and dogs doing common activities around the home that have been identified through research as top behaviors that can indicate OA pain.1,2

This visual checklist allows the client to see their pet’s behavior changes through the animations.  They can see how a healthy cat moves compared to a cat who has unhealthy changes from OA pain. With a checklist a client can tell the veterinarian what they see in comparison to the pictures, or they can review a video of what their pet is doing compared to the cartoon. By reviewing the checklist with a trained technician or veterinarian, the client can offer insight into how they view their pet’s mobility, behavior, and daily comfort. This checklist can be used prior to any exam with an email electric copy, or completed in the room by computer, phone, or as a printed hard copy. This could be a valuable addition to any biannual or annual checkup.

Age is not a disease. And we have tools, strategies and skills that make client discussion interactive, efficient and fun. Clients love to learn about their pets, they want a plan, and they want to feel confident they have made good decisions. Combining the tools of an interactive team checklist, Fear Free strategies of CA and GC and using open questions with active listening create productive discussions, save time, and produce healthier teams and pets. Go ahead talk about OA with these tools: it’s painless.


  1. Enomoto, M. (2020). Development of a checklist for the detection of degenerative joint disease-associated pain in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine And Surgery
  2. Wright, A. (2019). PVM1 Diagnosis and treatment rates of OA in dogs using a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) or Health Questionnaire for OA in general veterinary practice Value In Health22, S387
  3. Adams, C., & Kurtz, S. (2017). Skills for communicating in veterinary medicine. Oxford: Otmoor Publishing.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sponsored by our friends at Zoetis Petcare. NA-02335

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