Vet Talk


Veterinarians are human; sometimes they complain.

August 20, 2012 (published) | August 20, 2012 (revised)

Come here. Closer. I’m going to tell you a secret. This may come as a shock. Are you sitting down? Yes, I know, I just asked you to move closer. Grab onto something if you can’t sit – No! Not me! Hands to yourself. Now listen, here’s the secret:

Your veterinarian is human

Did you catch that? I had to whisper. Here, let’s try it again.

Your veterinarian is human.

There, did it work that time? Hope so. Now, here’s a corollary secret. Don’t tell anyone you heard it from me.

Sometimes veterinarians complain.

Yep. Just like everyone else – even your doctor (they’re human, too. Well, most of them…), veterinarians gripe. If you get enough of us together in the room, well… we bitch.

Now here’s the thing. You won’t often hear veterinarians complain (much) about the long hours, or the physical labor, or about the dirt/blood/hair/vomit/feces/fetal fluids/pus. Those things are part of the job. We don’t generally gripe (a ton) about relatively low wages, years spent in school, or the mind-numbing monotony of that seven millionth flea allergy dermatitis, or the never-ending line of heifers needing Brucellosis vaccination.  Most of us knew the score (more or less) salary/monotony-wise before ever entering our 8 to 12 years of school.  And for every mundane or repetitive case, the veterinary day has plenty (maybe a surplus) of challenging, exciting, or downright terrifying cases.

So what do we complain about? Well… you…Ok, not you. I know you, you’d never do any of the things that make an otherwise calm professional want to rip her hair from the roots or bang her head against the wall. You work with your veterinarian to provide appropriate and prompt care for your pets. But, let’s say, hypothetically of course, that there was a mythical animal owner who did or said some of these things.

“I can’t believe you won’t treat Fluffy for free. Don’t you care about animals at all?”

Ok, let’s clear this one up here and now. Veterinarians care about animals. Period. Now as with any profession, some have more dedication to the oath than others, some have more empathy than others, but to imply that a veterinarian ‘doesn’t care about animals’ is just short of insane. Why?  Practicality.  There are a ton of careers that pay better, have better hours, a lower likelihood of severe injury/death/poop-flinging, and that require a lot fewer years of education. No one in his or her right mind would choose veterinary medicine without some degree of compassion and love for animals.

So, why won’t Dr. A treat Fluffy for free? Why won’t he waive that after-hours fee?  Why won’t he discount the exam/surgery/bloodwork/radiographs/drugs? There are several answers to these questions, so let’s look at them one at a time.

Short answer: Money. This is how I earn my living. The grocery store won’t let me take home dinner for free. My bank won’t waive my mortgage. The car dealer still wants loan payments. The pharmaceutical companies expect to be paid full price for the medications I dispense for Fluffy.  Student loan companies don’t accept promises and smiles. You get the picture.

Longer answer: Time. I’ve heard it said that the only thing veterinarians actually have available to sell is time – time in the form of knowledge, training, diagnostic skills, surgical skills, research, continuing education, time away from family, meals, and sleep. In the end, all most of us have is our time and our bodies. Since there are legal and ethical issues inherent in selling one’s body – though, in large animal medicine, it does at least feel as though your body is on lease – time is pretty much all that can be sold.

I’ve called my regular vet and three other practices and none of them could get me an appointment so you need to see Fluffy right now!

I suspect that this one comes up more frequently in large animal medicine than in small animal as we lack the luxury of pointing people in the direction of the emergency clinic. But, may I point out – gently, of course – that if you want a veterinarian to drop everything to see your pet, maybe you shouldn’t mention that they are your last resort. Just sayin’…

My trainer/groomer/Google/breeder/theguyatthepetstore/newspaper-carrier said that my pet has ____ and that you need to ______.

Ok, call me crazy, but I like to break out that diploma, dust it off and make a diagnosis now and then. Oddly, according to the Veterinary Practice Act, diagnosis of medical conditions in animals is something that only veterinarians are allowed to do.  Not your trainer, groomer, breeder, feedstore clerk, or even Dr. Google. That kid that delivers the newspaper is pretty sharp, though.

I took him to the chiropractor, laser technician, physical therapist, acupuncturist, and put him on Magic Supplement X for 3 months, but he’s still not better so I thought I’d see if there’s anything you can do.

See above on that whole pesky diagnosis thing. There are some great sayings in veterinary medicine about treatment in the absence of a diagnosis, but basically, it’s sort of like going out into the forest in the middle of a moonless night and firing your shotgun in the direction of whatever noises are out there. You might get lucky and hit something, or you might miss, and it is entirely possible that you could hit your own cow instead of a bear.

The part of this sort of statement that makes veterinarians ever-so-slightly crazy is not so much the implication that we’re the last resort (we’re grownups; we can handle that), but the fact that we know the effect the delay will have on our ability to resolve your animal’s condition. The body is a dynamic system, and pathologies have a tendency to become more complicated and messy the longer they are left to their own devices. No, of course you don’t have to rush in for every bump, scratch, or sniffle. I sometimes tell my kids to tough it out, too.  But once you’ve decided that there really is a problem, why not give your vet the first crack at solving it?

So, now you know the secret: your veterinarian is human. But I’m betting you are too, so you two should get along just fine.

1 Comment

Dana Griffith, DVM 
November 7, 2012

Great article!  I wonder sometimes whether people realize what they are really saying in times of stress, or not.  The point about time is particularly poignant.  I'm asked all the time, and do, work for free ALL THE TIME.  I shouldn't, but I do.  Does your lawyer or architect put in time for free, or charge you for every phone call?  Do they spend 45 minutes talking to you about your pet, when they already spent 45 minutes with your spouse yesterday having the same conversation?  I've never understood why we are regarded differently than other professionals when we are their equals as far as knowledge, skill, compassion (well, maybe not laywers) training, etc.

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