Heartworm prevention: Clients can’t comply if they don’t know they should

While we may feel like we’ve talked about heartworm disease over and over again, we must keep educating clients about how to protect their pet

Canine heartworm is a devastating disease, but it is also preventable. So why are so many dog owners choosing to leave their pets unprotected? If you think clients are making a conscious choice against using a heartworm preventative, think again. They’re also not tired of hearing about the disease. In fact, when asked, many of them say they do not even remember discussing it with their veterinarian at their last appointment.

Lack of compliance isn’t the only factor leading to the spread of canine heartworm disease; however, it is a consideration veterinarians and their staff can mitigate. And new research seems to support that.

In a 2018 non-user study,1 dog owners shared their knowledge of heartworm disease and the action they take to prevent it. The results were surprising. The number one takeaway is that dog owners aren’t giving preventatives consistently because they often don’t know they should. Or they think they are providing heartworm protection when they are only fighting against external parasites. This means the number of dogs unprotected against the disease is higher than many believe.

The results also revealed owners fall into four distinct categories based on usage.2 Three of those categories are no surprise to veterinarians:

  • 25 per cent are consistent users—dogs receive eight to 12 doses of prevention in a year;3
  • 18 per cent are inconsistent users—dogs receive one to eight doses per year; and
  • 30 per cent are active non-users—dogs whose owners are actively choosing not to provide heartworm prevention.

However, 27 per cent of respondents fall into a fourth group you may have likely never considered. The study refers to them as confused non-users. These are well-meaning pet owners who think they are giving their dog heartworm prevention, but are, in fact, only providing flea and/or tick protection. This segment of pets has no heartworm protection at all.

From your clients’ perspectives, 70 per cent think they are using heartworm preventative. Unfortunately, the number to remember—the one we as a profession really need to fix—is that only one out of four dogs receives heartworm preventative consistently.

So how can we positively increase the number of dogs getting heartworm prevention when they should?

Remember, clients want your advice

The study showed respondents believe veterinarians are vital to pet care and the products they use. Specifically, it found:

  • 82 per cent rely on you to determine what to purchase;
  • 81 per cent of clients are likely to seek your recommendation or approval;
  • 76 per cent will give their pet whatever you recommend; and
  • 68 per cent say their veterinarian’s recommendation is a very important factor in their purchase decision.
An autopsied heart shows the devastating consequence of not administering a heartworm preventative to dogs.
An autopsied heart shows the devastating consequence of not administering a heartworm preventative to dogs.

That’s great news, but clients, unfortunately, often don’t retain the information they’re given. In fact, it’s not the case the confused pet owners received bad information during a visit to their veterinarian—it’s just that they simply forgot what they heard. Or they got confused and consulted Dr. Google or a friend who provided bad information.

Think about it from this perspective: visiting a clinic is stressful. For one, the pet might be anxious and not acting as it normally would. Secondly, if there is a medical issue, clients are trying to remember the details and symptoms they want to share with the veterinarian. This is a less-than-ideal situation for adult learning or retention of the information you and your staff present. It could also be they are saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to a medication because they need time to process information. If the appointment was for a health problem, fixing that issue often takes priority over other recommendations, in the client’s eyes.

No information, no preventative

Too often, we don’t start a heartworm conversation because we think the client already understands the disease. Moreover, when the pet owner has declined a monthly preventative in the past, we assume they will say no again. More often, we think they are tired of hearing about heartworm disease when really, we are the ones who are tired of talking about it.

Active non-users reported statistically fewer discussions with their veterinary team about heartworm prevention and received fewer brand-specific recommendations than user groups did.

As such, it is vital we take time to understand—from the owner’s perspective—why they aren’t using a preventative or why they don’t use one every month. We need to take active listening to a new level. It is so easy to listen to respond, rather than listening to understand. That understanding is key to determining the perceptions and barriers you must overcome.

There should be no blame directed toward either party for this breakdown in communication. These are complex conversations held with time constraints under often complicated circumstances. Instead, veterinarians must embrace the belief that high-quality and frequent communication are critical to stopping the spread of this disease.

DISCUSSION CHECKLIST
Here are some areas of focus that have been shown to get consumers to agree to a heartworm-prevention plan:

  • The prevalence of heartworm disease in your area and places where people vacation with their dogs
  • How heartworm disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and the times of year dogs are at risk
  • Describe how to protect a dog from the inside with a monthly preventative and from the outside with a topical parasiticide that kills and repels mosquitoes
  • Why you need a prescription for a heartworm preventative and why they aren’t sold over-the-counter at pet supply stores
  • Why dogs need an annual heartworm test
  • Why preventatives must be used year-round and not just during summer months
  • Why dogs need multiple medications to combat the two parasites that are part of the heartworm cycle.
  • If a dog becomes infected, how the disease will cause pain, suffering, and reduced quality of life
  • What are the treatment options, effects, and costs if a dog must be treated
    for the disease
  • Discuss the cost and effectiveness of treatment versus prevention
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