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Why don’t people believe vets any more?

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Pete the Vet

Why don’t people believe vets any more?

One of the contemporary trends  in society:that is difficult to understand is a widespread general distrust of authority: in the veterinary world, this translates most frustratingly as pet owners being sceptical about the advice and actions of vets. In contrast, there sometimes seems to be an enhanced and unjustified trust in alternative unqualified commentators who claim deep knowledge about pet nutrition, vaccines and other aspects of animal health.

There also seems to be a similar lack of trust in corporate entities (such as large pet food companies and “Big Pharma”)  and regulatory bodies (such as the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, or the USA equivalent, the Food and Drug Administration), as well as in the general institution of “conventional science”. Meanwhile, small, local companies producing food or other products get a thumbs up.

The knowledge deficit model is defunct

It’s hard to know how to tackle this area: science communication professionals like Pru Hobson-West (who spoke at London Vet Show) explains that vets tend to default to the “knowledge deficit model” i.e. we presume that pet owners just don’t know enough of the science on certain topics (like nutrition and vaccination). We think that if we bombard them with technical, proven, scientific information, they’ll change their mind. As Pru pointed out in her talk, the reality is that this model is defunct: trying to convince people with extra information doesn’t work. The problem is not an issue about lack of accurate facts; it’s the fact that people don’t trust authority.

We vets believe (in fact, we would say that we “know”) that science is accurate and truthful, that regulatory bodies are independent, science-based and trustworthy, and that large pet food companies are using the best-possible nutritional information to create high quality products.

However if you can imagine that you don’t trust these aspects of our society, if you can imagine that you believe that they may be corrupt, that they may be deliberately skewing facts for monetary gain, and they may not actually be on your side, then you will begin to understand why many members of the public have a negative view of “our world”.

So what can be done? It’s difficult.

Vets need to win people’s trust back

Vets and other science-based bodies naturally default to the “knowledge deficit model”. I’ve written about a good example of this in another blog post, where I explain that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued press releases with information about cannabidiol (CBD) products. These are full of useful, up to date, scientific facts. But will they convince owners of dogs with arthritis that they should not use the latest CBD oil product that they have heard about online? I don’t think so.

Vets, scientists, regulatory bodies, big pet food companies, Big Pharma and other “conventional” groups need to find a  new way of engaging with the pet owning public. I am not sure what this entails specifically, but it’s far more about winning trust than about imparting facts. We need to show people that we are caring humans, that we tell the truth, that we care, and that our agenda is to help them. 

There’s no easy way of doing this; there is no simple “fix it” formula. This is an emotional, intangible challenge, and we are scientists who prefer objective, tangible problems. But if we want to progress the cause of veterinary science amongst our customers, we need to find a way of doing this. 

If our clients don’t trust us beyond all doubt, nothing we can do will convince them to believe the facts that we tell them. 

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