Vet Talk

A Lot Can Happen in a Year: Musings on the VCPR

Treating a pet without a valid VCPR can land a veterinarian in a hot kettle with the licensing board

Published: April 16, 2021
Zoe and Magnus got Halloween costumes for the first time last fall. Photo by Jean Corp.

I'm at my parents' house for the first time in over a year (thanks, COVID pandemic). The view from the deck is the same, mostly, but the neighbor cut down a bunch of trees. The house is the same, mostly, but there is a new couch, a new rug downstairs, and I keep forgetting where the plates live. My parents are the same, mostly, but Mom's let her hair grow long for the first time since the 70s, and Dad has taken up beekeeping. The dogs are the same, mostly, except they got Halloween costumes for the first time, and the senior poodle has two new lumps, some weird crusty eye thing, and breath that could stun a warthog. (Don't worry; she's on her way to the vet for her annual check-up as we speak.)

It turns out a lot can happen in a year, even when nothing much seems to change from day to day.

This started me thinking about an ungainly acronym and what it means to the parties represented by each letter. The VCPR is unpronounceable shorthand for Veterinary-Client-Patient-Relationship. This easy-to-transpose string of letters is the reason your veterinarian doesn't just refill medications without seeing your pet at least annually. It's the reason we have to see your cat with the eye problem to treat it, not just the dog you brought in three years ago for the swollen eyelid from a bee sting. It's the reason we need an appointment to meet you and Fido together even if Fido's previous owner brought him in a couple of months ago.

From a legal and licensing standpoint, the VCPR must be kept current (usually within a year for most states) to ensure that your veterinarian is able to properly care for your pet. Treating a pet without a valid VCPR can land a veterinarian in a hot kettle of slimy, week-old pease porridge with the licensing board and for good reason.

What are those good reasons, you ask? After all, you'd like to refill your cat's allergy medications and get on with your day without convincing Fluffy that a ride in the carrier to the pet hospital is just like kitty Disneyland.

I get that. I am the queen of putting off errands and can't-I-just-do-this-online.

But let's use my parents' poodle as an example. Zoe is 10 years old and a bit arthritic. She has been to the vet for wellness and other visits just about every year of her life.

My parents moved from California to Washington a few years ago. One of the first things I suggested to them after their move was to take the poodles in for exams to establish a relationship with their new veterinarian right away. This was emotionally rough for all of us; their prior veterinarian had been the family vet for over 30 years and was my mentor when I was applying to vet school. But as fabulous as Dr. Longterm Family Vet is, since veterinary licenses are conferred by the state, most veterinarians wouldn't be able to continue care for the poodles across state lines.

But let's say Zoe has a history of ear infections (she doesn't really). And let's say, having newly arrived in Washington, she started pawing at her ears (she didn't, but we're pretending). Which of the following would be appropriate approaches for my parents to have used to get her relief?

  1. Call Dr. Longterm Family Vet and ask for a prescription for the ear drops she had before.
  2. Call Dr. NewVet Office and explain Zoe's history and say they just need the same drops as in the past because they know what's wrong.
  3. Call Dr. NewVet Office and schedule an appointment for an examination for Zoe.

Please tell me your answer was 3.

What's wrong with 1 and 2, you ask?

Scenario 1 ignores the possibility that something other than a run-of-the-mill ear infection is causing Zoe's behavior. What if she has a foreign object such as a grass awn or a tick in her ear canal? What if her eardrum has ruptured due to irritation and infection and the drops she had before when her eardrum was seen to be intact could damage her inner ear? What if it isn't her ear bothering her at all but rather an alien, mind-control leech stuck to the back of her head?

Scenario 2 incorporates all the problems of Scenario 1 and adds a hefty wallop of unfairness to Dr. NewVet. It's asking them to put their license on the line for a guessing game started by total strangers.

Scenario 3 gives Zoe the best possible hope of curing her ear/alien problem AND establishes a rapport between my family and Dr. NewVet.

Now say that Zoe starts getting crusty eyes a few months after the ear/alien leech issue is solved. Why can't my parents just ask for some drops since Zoe has just seen Dr. NewVet? The answer here is still #3, though this time, it's not that they don't have a relationship with Dr. NewVet. Rather, we are looking at an entirely different ZoeProblem. Maybe she just has a bit of allergies. Maybe she's got a scrape on her cornea. Maybe she's developing glaucoma or dry eye. Each of these things can cause the ooeygooeycrusties, but each one requires a different treatment. No way to know what's right without….


Turning back to the present and to real Zoe-Land, a lot HAS changed in a year. While she's still in good overall health, her veterinarian confirmed that the warthog-stopping breath means dentistry time and they needed to run bloodwork to make sure Zoe the Senior Poodle is in good enough health not to need extra diagnostics or treatments before undergoing anesthesia. Dr. NoLongerTotallyNewVet also suspects the two lumps are cysts but needs to remove them to be sure.

Zoe's all set for her dentistry and de-lumping appointments, I feel good that my parents have established a valid VCPR with Dr. NoLongerTotallyNewVet, and Dad is awaiting a new shipment of bees sometime in the next few weeks. I'm still not used to my mom wearing hair clips, though.

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