Reducing Pet Owner-Related Stress

Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC, Reviving Veterinary Medicine, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

ArticleLast Updated March 20233 min read
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In the Literature

Spitznagel MB, Updegraff A, Twohig MP, Carlson MD, Fulkerson CM. Reducing occupational distress in veterinary medicine personnel with acceptance and commitment training: a pilot study. N Z Vet J. 2022;70(6):319-325. doi:10.1080/00480169.2021.1938270

The Research … 

Difficult interactions with pet owners are a common stressor among veterinary staff.1 Caregiver burden (ie, strain or load carried by a person who cares for an ill, disabled, or elderly family member) can be experienced by pet owners with sick companion animals and has been associated with distress among veterinary staff during burden transfer. The ways in which burden transfer occurs in clinician–pet owner relationships can be outlined using the acronym DANCE: daily hassles (eg, difficulty making decisions), affect (eg, demonstrating grief or sadness), nonadherence (eg, declining treatment recommendations), confrontations (eg, complaining or blaming), and excessive communications (eg, calling or emailing repeatedly).2  

This pilot study aimed to determine whether a training program based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) would reduce burden transfer, stress, and burnout scores among clinicians and veterinary staff in a companion animal practice setting. ACT is a form of psychotherapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies to encourage individuals to embrace (rather than avoid or struggle with) their thoughts and feelings and commit to taking action that aligns with their values.  

Participants were randomized to either complete (intervention group; n = 16) or not complete (control group; n = 18) educational ACT training. All participants attended a baseline session 1 month prior to the training sessions and a review session 1 month afterward, at which points pre- and postprogram data (ie, burden transfer inventory, perceived stress scale, Copenhagen Burnout Inventory) were obtained. In addition, the intervention group completed 2 monthly ACT training sessions that included homework to practice skills, starting 1 month after the baseline session. All individuals who completed the educational training rated the material as appropriate, and 93.3% rated the material as useful.  

Intervention group participants had lower postprogram burden transfer reaction scores compared with their preprogram scores and postprogram scores of control group participants, suggesting ACT framework education may help reduce reactivity of veterinary staff to challenging interactions with pet owners.

… The Takeaways

Key pearls to put into practice:

  • Veterinary staff reaction (ie, how much a person is bothered) to difficult interactions with pet owners is a more critical predictor of stress and burnout than the frequency of these interactions.

  • ACT framework relies on mindfulness and acceptance strategies that can change how individuals respond to stressful situations. Strategies include being present or conscious of internal and external experiences in the moment, as well as accepting or embracing thoughts, feelings, or urges as they occur. Additional concepts include observing inner struggles from an outside perspective, identifying values or areas of importance that guide subsequent actions, and behaving in a way that aligns with identified values.

  • Approaching challenging pet owner interactions with a committed awareness and acceptance of internal reactions, as well as taking action (eg, demonstrating compassion) that aligns with personal values, can help reduce burden transfer.