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If you’re anything like me, your vet is practically a member of your family. Over the years, you’ve built up a relationship, and you trust him or her completely with your dog’s health and well-being. But how open and honest is your vet being with you?
I started wondering about this the last time I had Janice and Leroy in for their shots. There was a woman in the waiting area complaining about the price of her cat’s shots, and suggesting to one of the vets that she could get a homeopathic remedy at her health food store that would do the same thing as the shots for far less cost. I could practically see the vet trying to bite her tongue. My reaction would have been to say something along the lines of, oh, I don’t know, maybe, “You’re an idiot.”
So, when my turn came, I asked my vet, “Steve, are there things you’d love to tell your clients, but you kind of hold back on?”
He figured we were in for a lengthy conversation, so he suggested I meet him for coffee after his shift. Did I ever get an earful! Not just about his own experiences, but those of other vets he knows. Here are the things your vet wants you to know. Some of them they’ll tell you outright. Others, they keep close and just live with.
Most veterinary clinics don’t just keep records on your dog – they keep information about you as well. If your file contains notes like “Nasty to staff,” “Refuses to muzzle aggressive dog,” or “Frequently cancels appointments,” you can reasonably assume that they’re not exactly going to go the extra mile for you. It doesn’t mean that they won’t treat your dog, or try to get you in if you should have an emergency, but it does mean that if there’s a wait time for non-emergency issues, and there’s a cancellation, you’ll probably be the last person to be offered the vacant slot. You probably also won’t be greeted warmly when you visit.
Many vets would far rather work on a good, honest Rottweiler or Pit Bull than a yappy little Shih-Tzu or Chihuahua. Vets find that they are far more likely to be bitten by a small dog than a large one.
“Honestly, doctor, I can’t be sure when he developed this huge, oozing sore on his neck that’s leaking pus all over the place – I only noticed it yesterday!” Right. Your vet would far rather you’d just be honest – “He’s had it for a little over a week, and I just hoped it would go away, but it didn’t, and now I’m really scared.”
If your dog is in the clinic for treatment, and you insist on sticking around to get him settled in, you are in the way. The vets and veterinary technicians have other animals that they need to treat, so when they gently tell you, “Just leave him with us and we’ll call you as soon as we know more,” go home. You’re not doing your dog any good, and you’re interfering with the smooth operation of the clinic.
“Doctor, I don’t know why he’s put on all this weight – I walk him every day, and I don’t give him treats.” Remember me telling you about Debbie and Chuck, in Step Away From the Dish, Doggie, You Are Way Too Fat? Debbie and her beagle, Chuck, are both overweight, but losing, because Debbie has been bringing Chuck to the dog park more often, and they’re both dieting. What your vet really wants to say is, “Look, both of you have a weight problem, and there’s no way that either of you are eating right and getting all the exercise you need.”
Your dog is at the clinic for medical treatment, along with a lot of other animals. The vets and other staff do not have time to snuggle your dog, make sure he gets as many blankets as the dog in the crate next to him, or sit with him following surgery. They do not have time to sing to him or read him a story. Their job is to make him better so that he can go home, and then you can do all that.
Your vet is not in the business of trying to gouge you for unnecessary tests and treatments. When you refuse diagnostic tests because you think they are too expensive, you can’t reasonably expect the vet to know what is wrong with your dog.
If you know that you shouldn’t give your dog grapes, but you ask the vet “How many can I give him before they’ll harm him?” that’s a stupid question. Why would anyone want to know how far they can go toward harming their dog before they end up actually harming him? Vets really hate this type of question.
All too often, people come in to have their dogs treated, and then they leave grumbling about the price instead of being grateful that their dog is better. My vet, Steve, has a bulletin board full of “thank you” cards from animal owners, and he treasures every one of them. Sometimes, too, clients make donations to the clinic to be used toward treatment for animals whose owners aren’t in the best financial shape. Any expression of thanks goes a long way in the often difficult life of a veterinarian.
Sometimes, people bring dogs into the veterinary clinic to be euthanized simply because they’re not properly house trained. Worse, sometimes it’s because they’re past the puppy stage and deemed not to be “cute” anymore. Needless to say, these aren’t the types of people who are going to stick around and hold the dog while it dies – they’re just going to drop it and go. Often, that dog is not euthanized. Instead, it goes home with a vet or technician, or a phone call is made to someone the vet knows who would be glad to take the dog.
Is this ethical? Probably not. Is it morally right? You bet it is.
Often, veterinary clinics employ students on work practice, and as part of their training, they will allow them to practice catheterization or injections on your dog, whether or not he even needs such treatment.
If you do not want this done, make sure that you let your vet know. However, it is not harmful to the dog, and newly-graduated students, or those on work placement, need to learn somewhere. You would actually be doing a kindness to their future patients if you permit them to do it.
This is a huge issue. Before I started taking my animals to Dr. Steve, I asked a lot of questions. In fact, I might have gone a little bit overboard, demanding to see his diploma and a transcript of marks from his university, and asking for, oh, I don’t know, maybe 40 or so references. But here’s the thing – veterinarians who are considered to be unqualified for programs in the United States because of poor grades frequently go to schools in the Caribbean. These are “for profit” schools. If you can pay the tuition, you’re in. And as long as the money holds out, you’ll probably graduate.
Never be afraid to ask your vet about his or her qualifications. Your dog’s well-being depends on it.
This is something your vet really doesn’t want you to know, but many are in it for the well-being of animals first and monetary gain second. Of course they’d rather that you not know, because if word got out, they’d be deluged with requests from pet owners who have little money. I can tell you, though, that I followed Steve from one clinic to another. He saved a dog that was hit by a car, and whose owner couldn’t pay. Clinic management didn’t like that, so Steve found another clinic, and he took more clients than just me along with him.
People who feel that they can no longer care for their animals, whether due to cost, changes in life circumstances, or other reasons, often feel that dropping them off at a “no kill” shelter is the best solution. The problem with this is that “no kill shelter” often means nothing more than “no animals are killed at the shelter.” Sure, the shelter doesn’t kill animals. But a lot of times, those that are considered to be unadoptable are taken to a veterinary clinic to be put down. Your clinic could be dealing with up to a hundred animals a day (usually cats, but often dogs as well) that are delivered to them by so-called “no kill” shelters. This is traumatic for the vets and other staff, and has even led to cases of PTSD in the clinic workers who have to participate.
So, you spent thousands of dollars and got yourself a Chorkie. Or a Malti-poo, or a teacup Doxie. Your vet isn’t going to tell you that you got taken, but you did. You bought something that people couldn’t give away not all that long ago – an undesirable mixed breed. The mixes are bad enough, and the teacup varieties are even worse.
I talked about this in Why You Should Walk Away from Teacup Dogs. Your vet does not want to work on this type of dog. As Steve puts it, “You’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak. With the mixes, you’re not breeding out any of the bad traits. And when people start “teacupping,” they’re just breeding animals with multiple defects and organs that are so small we can’t treat them effectively.”
Sure, your vet is going to be nice to you when you bring in that little animal that should never have been born, but after you leave the clinic, he’s probably going to turn to the rest of the staff and say, “That poor little dog.”
The fact is any vet can represent himself or herself as an expert in animal behavior, but it’s not often really the case. I trust Steve on behavior issues, because he has an affinity for dogs that I find almost supernatural. But that’s Steve – it’s not most vets. The thing is not much is taught in veterinary school about animal behavior. The curriculum focuses far more on medical issues, and behavior takes a back seat. So if you’re concerned about issues like house training or aggression, you’re far better off to consult a trainer or a breeder than you are to rely on your vet’s advice.
It’s not your vet’s job to lecture you, so if you bring a dog in on a retractable leash, you probably won’t be scolded. That said, many vets end up treating dogs because the leash mechanism pops open, and the dog runs into traffic.
You’re far better off with a good, solid nylon leash like the Petsafe Leash, available from Amazon. It’s less expensive than most retractable leashes, and far more effective when it comes to securing your dog. The list price is $11.19, but Amazon has it for just $7.99. This is the only leash I’d ever consider using on Janice and Leroy. I find that the royal blue color looks great against their brindle boxer markings, but you can also get it in raspberry, bright red, apple green, deep purple, or classic black.
Can you believe that there are people out there who actually think there are checks and balances in place to keep people from euthanizing good dogs? Some misguided people honestly believe that if they take their dog to the vet to be euthanized, and then walk away, the vet will haul out a set of standards, and start marking off reasons to euthanize or not. Then these people go off on vacation, thinking that the dog they just dumped will still live, because the vet will be prohibited by law from putting the dog to sleep.
There is no such checklist. Your dog is your property, yours to keep alive or kill at your whim. If you ask a vet to euthanize your dog, that is likely exactly what will happen, unless you end up with a vet like the ones I described above, who will fly in the face of what’s legal, lie to you, and then try to place your dog or take it home themselves.
If you’re a regular reader here, I’d assume that you’d never even consider killing your dog so you could go away on vacation. But people do it, and vets do it, and there is nothing – nothing – in the law that says it can’t be done. Some call it “convenience euthanasia.” I call it murder.
Often, clients will come to their vet, and insist on foregoing vaccinations. “Why,” they ask, “Should I get him the parvo vaccination and the distemper vaccination? He’s never around other dogs.”
In this scenario, the vet will most likely point out that distemper is airborne, so the dog could be miles away from any other dog and still get sick. Parvo can be picked up on the sidewalk, tracked into your home on your shoes, and live in your home for up to six months. Your vet will point this out, but will not come right out and tell you “You must vaccinate.”
I suspect that many veterinarians would love to be able to say “I’m not letting your dog leave the clinic until he’s had all his shots,” but of course they can’t make you have your dog vaccinated. Personally, I’ve never questioned Steve on anything that he thought was necessary for Janice and Leroy. After all, he went to vet college – I didn’t.
The last thing your vet is ever going to tell you, if you bring in a dog that is dying, is that you should have gotten him treatment long ago. And yet dogs do die for lack of timely treatment. We don’t want to believe that there is anything seriously wrong, and sometimes we delay treatment because we just want to wish things away. If your dog is limping, you don’t want to believe it’s bone cancer – it’s probably just because he fell and twisted his leg, and it will get better! That growth isn’t a tumor, it’s just a fatty lump. Rectal bleeding? Well, maybe you should scale back on the high-fiber treats; they’re probably just irritating him.
We can build up huge cases of denial when it comes to our dogs. Then it’s too late. Your vet won’t tell you that you blew it – he’ll probably just sit on the floor and cry with you while you have your dog put to sleep. Then he’ll go home at the end of the day and cry some more.
You know, it really is true that you get what you pay for. The cost of veterinary treatment for a dog is high, and some clinics will try to cut costs by giving half-doses of vaccines. This is illegal, but it happens. It’s a particular problem in corporate-owned veterinary clinics, where vets are paid monthly bonuses depending on how much income they generate for the clinic.
I know Steve would never work for a clinic like that. He’s in a nice family practice where all the vets genuinely care about the animals they treat, and that’s the best type of clinic you can take your dog to. If you’re thinking along the lines of a franchise clinic, I’d advise against it. Profit is the main goal, and they’ll do whatever they can to improve the bottom line. Find a good vet at a good private clinic.
Would you even think of asking your family doctor how much he or she makes? You don’t need to know what your vet makes either, but this question is often asked by clients, usually in a confrontational manner. “Fifty bucks for a shot? Seventy dollars just for the use of the examining room? How much do you make, anyway?”
Steve tells me that he enjoys a pretty decent lifestyle, but he’s not rich. His kids have enough to eat, and they get to play sports and take music lessons, and he’s able to keep a couple of horses in addition to the collection of dogs and cats that he’s taken home from the clinic when people left them to be put to sleep. He won’t be able to retire anytime soon, though.
What do you say to your family doctor? “How’s your 401(k)”? Or do you say, “Thanks, Doc. I feel a lot better now”? Treat your vet the same way.
Every single day your vet doesn’t say things that he or she desperately wants to say. Much of the time it’s because people aren’t doing the best they could for their dog. Other times, it’s just because people are being rude, or stupid. Vets are people like everyone else – they have feelings, and strong opinions on proper animal care. There’s a lot your vet would like to say, but doesn’t.
I really got a lot out of that coffee date with Dr. Steve. I had no idea how often veterinarians want to tell us things, but they hold back out of professional ethics, common courtesy, or more compassion than most of us are capable of. I think I’ve come to a better understanding of some of the issues vets face every day. Personally, I couldn’t bear having to deal with people who often don’t give their animals the care and love that they deserve. If you have a vet like Steve, appreciate him or her the way they deserve, and maybe offer a heartfelt “Thank you” from time to time.