The Other End of the Leash

Posted: Jan 18, 2018
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Talk to anyone in vet med about why they are in the field, and you are likely to get a response laced with misanthropy. Bring up the possibility of human medicine with a vet tech, and elicit a squirm of distaste or a gag response. Something along the lines of, “ugh, people are gross". While these statements are given half-jokingly, we do seem to value some amount of distance from other humans within our jobs. This distance, however, is pretty small. Every patient we treat is attached to a human- an attachment often made up of intense emotion.

I see great things in my job and in my coworkers every day, but I also see the tendency to direct stress and negative feelings toward the clients we serve. It 's easy to look at the dog covered in fleas and rebuke the owner, “How could anyone let this happen?” It's easy to blame the person who cannot afford to have an enterotomy performed on their dog with a linear foreign body. Maybe we default to these judgements as a way of maintaining that personal distance between ourselves and our clients. The things we don’t see from the treatment room are all the other stressors and financial strains in the lives of the pet owner. I was hit with this reality about a year ago when my dog fractured a canine tooth. $1,500 of dental extractions was certainly a dose of my own medicine (so to speak). I don’t need to get too far into the economic discrepancies we all face. Suffice it to say, animals can be very expensive.

Now, I am certainly not immune to the judgement and negative commentary that eeks into our working lives. Everyone needs an outlet to vent sometimes. A phone call about the dog that has vomiting and diarrhea after eating Chinese food for three days; the cat with crystaluria that blocked a week after going off his urinary diet - these can seem like a perfect outlets to go off. But venting can quickly turn into a culture of negativity - one that can be very hard to reverse.


We talk a lot about compassion fatigue and burn out, and while these are very real, the behaviors we choose can go a long way to keep them at bay. Empathy, compassion, patience; these ways of interacting with other people ultimately come back to affect how we feel. Overt optimism aside, it is not always easy to exhibit this kind of communication, but cynicism and misanthropy will bog you down, and burn you out.

We, in veterinary medicine, deal largely in fierce emotions and money - a combination that can bring out the worst in people. It helps to consider how little the normal lay person knows about medicine and science. The things that happen to their pets when they bring them in for an emergency often seem unnecessary and strange. The things we tell them on the phone when they describe their sick pet’s clinical signs can seem confusing and at times antagonistic. A lot of people need things spelled out for them very slowly, and that's okay.


None of these ideas are new. Professional development continues to move toward increasing emphasis on soft skills. As techs, we like to think about all the interesting technical skills we exhibit every day. But being an ace at placing IV catheters doesn’t mean much if you can’t maintain an empathetic connection.


This field comes with some hard truths. Most people don’t consider the financial risk of owning a pet until they are up against a bill for three days of hospitalization. Many clients will be scared and confused, which translates to anger and confrontation. Sometimes, understanding that they are being listened to is enough to diffuse the anger.