Vet Talk

My Veterinary Support Group: Clients Helping Clients

Margie, it's Dr. Johnson. I have another one. Time to talk?

January 4, 2016 (published)

So many veterinary diseases take pet owners by storm and leave them feeling disoriented -- and sometimes distrustful of the diagnosis and the doctor behind it. Misdiagnoses do happen, but for a pet owner to agree to a diagnostic or treatment plan they have to, at the very least, believe that the doctor has some semblance of knowledge about the disease at hand and isn’t just making things up.

I can think of no more mysterious disease than IMHA  , which has led to more raised eyebrows and thought bubbles of “pretty sure the vet just made that disease up” than any other. The speed of onset and the fact that it’s not cancer, trauma, or infection (that unholy trinity of illness), but rather an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself (!) only serve to compound the uncertainty and fear surrounding the diagnosis. This void of comfort can really unseat the relationship between pet owner and veterinarian, leaving the patient out in the cold.

Our article on IMHA now has enough commenters to create its own little support group.

It’s disorienting to get a serious diagnosis, such as IMHA, out of the blue. You often feel like you’re the only one who’s ever been in this position, battling the unknown all alone. Just read the litany of heartbreaking comments on the VetzInsight IMHA piece. I’m pretty grizzled from 20 years of ER work and often joke that I have a heart roughly the shape, color, and size of a raisin (maybe a prune on a good day), but these stories still get to me and I’m often in tears right along with the people sharing them.

Getting a scary and serious diagnosis is a sad place to be, and I’ve seen many, many pet owners in this situation. I wanted to do something to help, so I started gathering them up in little groups and getting them to talk to one another.

I once kept a list of good clients who had pets with various diseases and who would serve as a support group for my other clients who were struggling with similar situations. It started with IMHA, but I eventually had support groups for:

I never got around to forming a little circle of eczema survivors, but it was next on my list.

I didn’t pick only people who had good outcomes. For some of the diseases on that list, the odds of a good outcome hovered around the 50% mark. I didn’t want only tales of my medical fancy footwork; I wanted people who had been through it, and who could talk to the scared, the skeptical, and the dubious. Some of my motivation was selfish, to be sure. I was hand-picking these people, so like a politician who picks only cabinet ministers who agree with his position, I did stack the deck with folks who shared certain characteristics with me.

But regardless of the lineup, I often heard back from clients that their discussion partner was a massive help in understanding and working through a difficult diagnosis. And more than one recipient of the discussion groups later turned around, "pay it forward" style, and offered to talk to future clients of mine who could use some help.

It might sound like a bit of work, but I had a little list of clients, ordered by diagnosis, in (warning: low-tech 90s retro reference ahead) a little Rolodex on my desk. When I made the latest diagnosis of IMHA, I just flipped to the I section, and there it was: Margie D., 7-year-old Portuguese water dog, IMHA, Sept 1997: (916) ***-4566 in the block capitals I always write in. (I skipped school the day it taught cursive.)

Hi Margie? It’s Doctor Johnson. I have another one. Time to talk?

There’d be a sigh, a beat, and, almost inevitably, a "Sure, happy to. I hate this disease" comment.

Doctors have only limited time with patients and pet owners. Veterinary practices are busy places, and the rush to see and help as many patients as you can, as well as the realities of keeping the lights on and the staff and creditors paid, means we often can’t spend the time talking, helping, and holding hands like we wish we could. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help.

We can leverage staff to help educate and comfort pet owners, but having owners hear it from someone outside the circle of the hospital―hearing it from another pet owner helps dispel the medical mystery and myth of infallibility. And it adds a human dimension to the long, lonely night of serious illness.


Joan R Roholt
April 27, 2020

My cat, 10-year-old Pepper - black, a,bit Siamese has been sick (alot of vomiting.  A vet trip showed - from blood work -  something going on with her kidneys.  Weve tried Science Diet dry, wet - with and without gravy, all of which make her sick.  She over grooms, is,clingy, and,bites me alot now.  Yesterday, we got some Cat Calming Chews, but she attacked me again today.  Please help me convince my son that it would be more humane to euthanize her.  Thanks!!!

Christy Robinson
February 22, 2017

My dog, Libby who is 5, is in the vet hospital right now with this disease. She was struck noticeably ill Saturday and was diagnosed on Sunday. Her PVC yesterday was 13. 13! She received the second blood transfusion and today she is at 23. This disease is so devastating and difficult to manage. I'm $8,000 in right now after 5 days. We set up a gofundme, but I just need to know how I will emotionally and financially handle this. This little dog means the world to me and I can't imagine my world without her in it.

Mary Yeakey
January 24, 2016

The cluster of diseases in the general neighborhood of IMHA are very difficult for most of us owners to understand.  Now that I've had experience with both thrombocytopenia and IMHA, I can appreciate that similarities are not alike, and that educated owners can often save lives.  I am so grateful to my vet for taking the time to not only treat my dogs, but to educate me.  Educated owners can indeed help other owners to save their dogs' lives. My latest "hobby horse" is squamous cell carcinoma of the toe in large black dogs.  Oh yes, I've experienced that too...  My concern is that most vets upon seeing this presented think it's a simple torn toenail, and forget to factor in the size and color of the dog.  UC-Davis has discovered the locus of this genetic abnormality, and is working on a test for it.  Those of us who have black standard poodles, standard schnauzers, black labs especially need to be up to date on this condition.  As with all cancers, time is of the essence!

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