DIY pet care: Why pet owners turn to the internet—and how you can win them back

Marty Becker, DVM

Dr. Marty Becker, known as "America's Veterinarian," is the founder of Fear Free, which works to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them. He was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years and is currently a member of the Board of Directors for American Humane, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent. Dr. Becker recently cofounded VetScoop and has written 23 books that have sold almost 8 million copies. He practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Back when I was in my 30s, the age my kids are now, it was very difficult to get information to solve problems. Looking in the owner's manual was Plan A. If that didn't work, a trip to the public library was Plan B. If I break out an owner's manual today, my kids just laugh at me. Their first stop for information? YouTube.

There's no question that millennials and Gen Z look to the internet, mostly social media and influencers, as their go-to source. This includes when they need pet health info. As much as it drives me crazy (Kim Kardashian a pet expert—really?), that's just the way it is.

That's one reason I cofounded VetScoop, a diverse group of veterinary correspondents who write blogs, host podcasts, and participate in media activities: to re-establish the veterinarian as the most trusted source of information about pet health and well-being.

Vet versus internet

Recent events have only solidified the primacy of the internet. The pandemic showed us you can purchase almost anything online and have it delivered to your doorstep. Some of my friends literally did not leave their house for a year, proving that you can bring the world to your home if you want to.

But there's something the internet cannot deliver via the "Add to cart" button. It can't scratch a pet in its favorite place. It won't ask about the origin of a pet's name. It can't get a dog's tail wagging or a cat's motor rumbling. It can't provide any of that mysterious alchemy of joy that gets conjured up in the exam room by those of us who practice the art of veterinary medicine.

As veterinarians, we are incredibly lucky to have an inexhaustible, irrefutable source of energy for the work we do: the human-animal bond. After all, there's only one greatest pet in the world, and every family has it. It's our job to celebrate, protect and nurture that bond by creating warmth and trust when our clients and patients come to see us.

Make in-person great again

But too often that doesn't happen. In fact, by the end of many veterinary visits, the pet is terrified by the whole experience and the owner feels like they've hurt their pet by trying to help it. That's the worst feeling in the world. If pet parents believe going to the vet traumatizes their pet (and it does; the pet literally thinks it's going to die), they're just not going to do it. They'll wait to see if the problem gets better or—you guessed it—go online to find a DIY solution to try at home.

Of course, nobody gets into veterinary medicine to make life worse for animals. That's where Fear Free practice comes in. There are many ways to practice Fear Free veterinary medicine, but at its most basic, you have your patients come in hungry and give them treats throughout the visit. As I like to say, you put the "treat" in "treatment." As a result, the pet warms to you and starts to love you. And you get to love the pet back. God, that feels good!

Before Fear Free, including at North Idaho Animal Hospital where I've practiced for 20 years, most dog owners had to drag their pet into the clinic. When the visit was over, the dog would drag them out again at cartoon speed, their feet not touching the ground until they reached the vehicle. With Fear Free, the dog drags the owner into the clinic like a sled dog delivering provisions to an outpost in Alaska. Then the owner has to drag the dog out because it doesn't want to leave the magical land of delicious treats.

Fear Free is great for cats too. At North Idaho Animal Hospital, 85 percent of feline patients that aren't sick or injured will take a treat. Of course, you have to break out the good stuff, like warmed-up baby shrimp. Once that cat figures out what's in your fingers, it will likely gobble it up and its FAS (fear-anxiety-stress) score will go down as a result.

Bottom line? Fear Free practice makes pet parents much more likely to look to you rather than the internet (or a Kardashian) for information and solutions. Visiting you doesn't feel like they're hurting their pet by trying to help it, and your status as conjurer of pet well-being shoots up to godlike levels.

The web: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

All of that said, though, let's be real. Most people are going to consult Dr. Google before they visit the veterinarian. Don't be hostile about it. Instead, wrap it into your discussion.

I might approach the subject with a client by saying something like this: "There are things in life that are certain, like death, taxes and missionaries coming to your door. Another is that pet moms and dads look online before they come to the veterinary hospital. Chances are you've done it, so tell me what you've found, and I'll tell you what I'm seeing. Then together we'll come up with an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan."

There's an old saying, "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." These clients do internet research because they care and are concerned about their pets. Involving them in this way helps them feel part of the process, and your patient is much more likely to get the care it needs.

Understanding younger pet owners

The fact is, I admire the hell out of millennials and Generation Z. They don't want to live in the suburbs, so they've brought vibrancy and life to downtowns that used to be downright rotted out. They run food trucks and yoga studios and tattoo shops and all kinds of unconventional businesses. They're amazing.

They also love their pets. Many of them are delaying marriage and waiting to have kids, so their pets are their kids—and they'll do anything for them. They're receptive to enhancing both the physical and emotional well-being of their pets, making sure they're panting-tired and mentally engaged every day. They're some of my favorite clients.

But here's the thing: You cannot preach to this generation. Back when I was first in practice, even though I was in my 20s, I had a veterinary pulpit and my congregation listened to me. I preached the commandments of pet care, telling clients exactly what to do and not to do.

Try that now and it's like the shields go up on the Starship Enterprise. Young people today do not want to be lectured. They openly take advice from several sources: friends, coworkers, people at the dog park, their dog walker, their groomer, their trainer and fellow customers at the pet-friendly brew pub. You're just one voice of many.

With that in mind, we have to change our communication style. When I talk to these young pet owners, I acknowledge all those other voices, but I do let them know that the veterinarian is a voice that matters. In fact, we're the only ones with the education, training and experience to help them weed through conflicting information.

When we get it right, the feeling is palpable. They can see our genuine love and concern for the pet as it takes treats out of our hand. They can feel our rapport with them when we respect the other voices in their tribe and their hours of online research. They know it when we sprinkle the pixie dust right there in the exam room, even if they can't describe exactly what's going on—and they know they can't get that in a box from Amazon.

Leave a comment