In a perfect world, veterinarians, clients, and animals would stroll hand-in-hand-in-paw/hoof/claw down a golden path until the animal, after many years of loving companionship, was escorted across the rainbow bridge by a troop of blue fairy penguins
Sometimes perfection takes a left turn.
Occasionally a spring unwinds in the clockwork of the Veterinary-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR). The gyre widens, and the end is nigh.
This tearing asunder of a perfectly good VCPR stems from the fact that of the V, the C, and the P, two of those relationship participants belong to the species homo sapiens, Latin for “sometimes can’t get along worth a darn.”
Most people are familiar with the concept of “seeking a second opinion,” which is often code for “I don’t like the way my veterinarian communicates,” or occasionally “My veterinarian’s handling upset Fluffykins.” Whatever the reason, it isn’t uncommon for an owner to decide to ask to have their animal’s records transferred elsewhere.
However, a darker secret lurks in the heart of men...and in clinic front offices everywhere.
Sometimes when the moon is full, when the planets mis-align, or just when things go very much awry, the record transfer goes the other way. The animal owner may one day receive an envelope containing a stack of medical records and a letter worded something like this:
Dear Ms. I-Can’t-Believe-You-Said-That-to-My-Technician,
I am sorry that we are unable to provide services for Pookie in the manner that you desire. While Pookie is a lovely heffalump, we here at We Love Your Animals But We're Still a Business Animal Hospital feel that Pookie’s needs and yours would be best met by another hospital.
We have enclosed Pookie’s records along with a list of local veterinary practices.
Wishing the best to both you and Pookie in the future,
Dr. I’m Sorry But Showing Up Drunk an Hour Late to Your Appointment Doesn’t Fit With Our Clinic Philosophy
In veterinary practice-ese, this process is known as firing the client.
How does the VCPR go wonky? What ghastly deeds could provoke a mild-mannered veterinarian to fire a client? After all, vets handle bites, scratches, kicks, and miscellaneous tramplings as a matter of routine.
There may be 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover but as far as I know, there is no official list of reasons to fire a veterinary client. However, there are some universal circumstances that increase the likelihood of a manila envelope in the mail.
1. Abusing the staff – This is a biggie. The front desk personnel, kennel assistants, and technicians make the veterinary machine work. Without them, the whole mechanism jams up. These people work very hard for not nearly enough money, and they are often the first folks the panicky, stressed out pet owner encounters. Unfortunately, that circumstance makes veterinary staff easy targets for all of that frightened, angry, frustrated energy. F-bombs, shouting, slammed doors, or (yes, I’ve heard of this happening) thrown chairs or pieces of equipment do not meet most practice’s standards. No shirt, no shoes, no self-control, no service.
2. Abusing animals or family members – This may seem like a “duh”, but just in case it isn’t clear, if a client yells at, hits, shoves, or is otherwise aggressive to an animal, partner, child, parent, or fairy godmother, veterinarians assume they will be next on the list. Veterinarians often refuse to treat aggressive animals. We may also refuse to provide service for aggressive humans. Aggression brings me to…
3. The animal is dangerous – Possession of a dangerous dog, bull, horse, or wallaby, especially if the owner does not commit to the recommended steps for mitigating this danger such as proper training, behavioral work, and agreeing to necessary restraint or sedation may be grounds for firing. Veterinarians are a picky lot. We like our hands, feet, faces, jugular veins, and staff in the appropriate configurations. Yes, our patients can be unpredictable, and yes, our jobs can be risky, but there is no point in guaranteeing the danger by seeing a patient whose aggression is predictable.
4. The client finds it funny or trivial that the animal is dangerous – You have to have a pretty decent sense of humor to go into veterinary medicine. Well, humor isn’t mandatory, but it helps, and the poop jokes alone are priceless. However, most veterinarians lose their whimsy when someone snickers at safety. Laughing when the dog bites, the horse kicks, or the bee stings quickly dents the VCPR. Similarly, mocking the person going head to head with the fire-breather or land-shark does not facilitate a healthy relationship. Safety recommendations aren’t made to pad the bill or impugn your pet’s honor. They are made to keep everyone – human and animal -- safe.
5. Lack of compliance – Veterinary care is a partnership between the veterinarian, client, and patient. For treatment to succeed, all parties need to work toward the same goal. For medication to work properly, it must be properly given to the animal. If the veterinarian says that a recheck is necessary, the patient does, in fact, need to be rechecked. If cage or stall confinement is recommended, turning the animal out on 40 acres demonstrates a lack of compliance. If the client doesn’t play with the team, the veterinarian cannot treat the patient effectively.
6. Failure to pay –Veterinary medicine is a business. Those pesky vet bills enable the clinic to keep the lights on, the trucks running, the staff paid, the supplies ordered, and, if everyone is lucky, the veterinarians fed. Leaving without paying, reneging on a payment plan, or bouncing checks, all produce a decent chance of subsequent client firing. The grocery store will not continue to offer you service if you walk out with milk and eggs without handing over the green stuff (or the equivalent in gigabytes). Veterinarians are similarly persnickety.
7. Threatening lawsuits or reputation destruction – If someone has threatened a lawsuit, a board complaint or even posted a nastygram online, it would be reasonable to assume this person was unhappy and does not wish to continue patronizing said business. Oddly, more than one veterinarian has experienced the Twilight Zone-esque phenomenon whereby a client calls to say that he/she will be contacting an attorney, and oh, by the way, when can Fluffy come in for vaccinations?
8. Abusing time – Veterinarians don’t like abuse of people or animals, and we also aren’t fond of those who mistreat Father Time. Scheduling an animal-centric day is much like trying to conduct an orchestra composed of toddlers armed with fireworks. Animals are not protocol or efficiency oriented. The only thing standing between the average veterinary day and one of Dante’s deeper circles of hell is the punctuality of the non-human animals. Chronic lateness, last-minute cancelling, failure to show for appointments, calling frantically for an “emergency” and then not showing up as expected with said emergency, or routinely appearing without an appointment are all behaviors that do not require too many strikes for an offender to be called OUT. Stuff happens – cars break, animals break, teenagers break – we get it. But, there is a vast gulf between the unforeseen incident and a complete failure to plan. Hint: if you suspect that your unforeseen incident demerits are racking up, I have it on good authority that they can sometimes be expunged with baked goods or chocolate.
Life happens and homo sapiens is a messy, emotional species. Yet, we are also a compelling species. Lest you be hurt, turned off, or mildly panicked by this article, be assured your veterinarian has no desire to fire you or Fluffy the Heffalump. He or she would far rather walk off into that brilliant sunset with you both – hand in hand in…what do heffalumps have anyway?
March 30, 2017
M. Fitzgerald, RVT
September 23, 2013
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.