Pet owners love their companions but don’t always do what’s best for the health and well-being of the animals that share their lives and homes. With a little understanding of behavioural economics, veterinary surgeons can use ‘nudge theory’ to change the behaviour of pet owners, keepers and breeders to the benefit of pets from lizards to llamas.
In a perfect world, everyone would act in a way that benefits not just themselves, but also their wider community, their environment and the animals entrusted to their care. But in the real world, real people are driven by their emotions, personal preferences, past experiences and present needs.
In short, people do what benefits them here and now, rather what might be much more beneficial in the longer term; just about everyone says they care about climate change, but practically no-one walks to the shops on a cold, wet night if there’s a car on the drive.
‘Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’
Developed from the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, ‘nudge theory’ first appeared in the 2008 best seller, ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.
Nudge theory is about understanding how people think, make decisions and behave; then identifying and modifying unhelpful influences while strengthening helpful influences toward good decisions and more beneficial behaviour.
Wealden Council successfully employed nudge theory in 2104. Using the strap-line: ‘Bag it and bin it, most people in this area do’, the combined ‘nudges’ that: permitting dogs to foul pavements was ‘not normal behaviour’, together with more conveniently placed waste-bins and the prospect of fines, produced a 66% reduction in dog fouling.
Missed appointments and the failure of owners to follow advice and programmes of medication
For the veterinary practice, missed appointments and the failure of owners to follow advice and programmes of medication is costly, frustrating and degrades outcomes. The application of nudge theory means understanding why pet owners do – or don’t do, what they should and nudging them toward more appropriate decisions and behaviours.
Positive nudges might include publicising good owner-behaviour as normal, and making good behaviour easier. Timely presentation of a pet for vaccination, provision of requested veterinary samples for veterinary laboratory diagnostics, adherence to set diets, exercise regimes, medication or parasite treatments might attract instant rewards. Negative nudges might be to show poor owner-behaviour abnormal, requiring more effort and with the potential of financial or other valued loss.
With a positive response to the vet’s positive nudges, pet owners will learn that loving their dog, cat, lizard or llama and loving themselves as a genuinely caring companion reaps positive rewards for their pet’s, their community’s and their own well-being.