The Other End of the Leash

Posted: Jan 18, 2018
Views: 4064 - Comments: 15

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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.



Celine LeFevre's picture

I think another concept that's helped me understand, is that none of these owners would even go into a veterinary clinic or hospital unless they cared to some degree for their pet. So whether or not the pet is there for something that we may feel is negligent, they're taking action and the first steps to do something about it.

Patrick McAleer's picture

That's absolutely true, Celine. I think that simple fact is easy to forget when we see so many patients day in and day out, but keeping it in mind can go a long way!

Jamie Kanter's picture

Whether it was while I was working as a Zookeeper or as a Vet Tech it always bothered me when I herd a coworker say they "choose to work with animals because they dislike people". When in reality I feel like any career working alongside animals, means dealing with the general public.
Recently I've been attending DBT therapy with a friend of mine after work. The more I attend these courses with them I see the benefit it could have in our field when it comes to making hasty judgements about our clients and their pets. I'd love to see more practices use these skills within their clinics.

Patrick McAleer's picture

I agree! We could all benefit from acknowledging the psychological impact of our work. Kudos to you for having the presence of mind to seek out help through therapy.

Abbee Hopkins's picture

I really needed to read this today. Thank you for the great article!

Samantha Redning's picture

I think a lot of us forget that we had little to no knowledge of the same things at one point or another and the best thing we can offer is understanding and education.

Patrick McAleer's picture

That's a really good point, Samantha. It can make our job more meaningful when we think about these situations as educational opportunities, as well as benefiting our clients and their pets.

Felix Merino's picture

Thanks for the incredible article. It really put things into perspective for me.

Grady McCoy's picture

"Empathy, Compassion, Patience" I need these tattooed on the back on my hand! Thank you for this article; needed it today.

Tiera Curtis's picture

There is so much truth to this, it is easy to say you would never allow something to happen to your pet, when it isn't your pet. Empathy goes a long way just the same as compassion.