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Difficulties experienced by veterinarians when communicating about emerging zoonotic risks with animal owners: the case of Hendra virus

By Diana H Mendez, Petra Büttner, Jenny Kelly, Madeleine Nowak, Rick Speare

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Communication skills are essential for veterinarians who need to discuss animal health related matters with their clients. When dealing with an emerging zoonosis, such as Hendra virus (HeV), veterinarians also have a legal responsibility to inform their clients about the associated risks to human health. Here we report on part of a mixed methods study that examined the preparedness of, and difficulties experienced by, veterinarians communicating about HeV-related risks with their clients.


Phase 1 was an exploratory, qualitative study that consisted of a series of face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with veterinary personnel from Queensland, Australia (2009–10) to identify the barriers to HeV management in equine practices. Phase 2a was a quantitative study that surveyed veterinarians from the same region (2011) and explored the veterinarians’ preparedness and willingness to communicate about HeV-related risks, and the reactions of their clients that they experienced. The second study included both multiple choice and open-ended questions.


The majority of the participants from Phase 2a (83.1%) declared they had access to a HeV management plan and over half (58.6%) had ready-to-use HeV information available for clients within their practice. Most (87%) reported “always or sometimes” informing clients about HeV-related risks when a horse appeared sick. When HeV was suspected, 58.1% of participants reported their clients were receptive to their safety directives and 24.9% of clients were either initially unreceptive, overwhelmed by fear, or in denial of the associated risks. The thematic analysis of the qualitative data from Phases 1 and 2a uncovered similar themes in relation to HeV-related communication issues experienced by veterinarians: “clients’ intent to adhere”; “adherence deemed redundant”; “misunderstanding or denial of risk”; “cost”; “rural culture”; “fear for reputation”. The theme of “emotional state of clients” was only identified during Phase 1.


Warning horse owners about health and safety issues that may affect them when present in a veterinary work environment is a legal requirement for veterinarians. However, emerging zoonoses are unpredictable events that may require a different communication approach. Future training programs addressing veterinary communication skills should take into account the particular issues inherent to managing an emerging zoonosis and emphasise the importance of maintaining human safety. Veterinary communication skills and approaches required when dealing with emerging zoonoses should be further investigated.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2016
Publication Title BMC Veterinary Research
Volume 56
Pages 12
DOI 10.1186/s12917-017-0970-2
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Horses
  3. Mammals
  4. open access
  5. Pets and companion animals
  6. risk
  7. Veterinarians
  8. Zoonoses
  1. open access