I used to believe that all veterinarians loved animals. Why else would they choose a profession that doesn’t pay well and requires them to treat a variety of nervous, injured, and sick animals all day long-some of whom are downright dangerous?
Veterinarians, like teachers or lawyers or plumbers, enter the field for all kinds of reasons. One of their parents may be a vet and they feel compelled to continue in the family tradition. They may have developed an interest in caring for animals as children. Maybe they started out in their career with a great love for animals but burned out along the way. A vet’s feelings for animals may range anywhere from neutrality to affection to hostility.
A friend of mine used to work as a PETA undercover investigator. Taking what she thought would be a pleasant break from this emotionally wrenching work, she obtained temporary employment as a veterinary assistant and soon discovered that her employer was yelling at his patients and slapping them around to get them to cooperate. She secretly taped what he did to animals, and these videos and her testimony, along with that of other employees and clients, succeeded in getting this vet convicted on several counts of animal abuse. Unusual case, you think? Not at all. Abusive vets exist, and it’s not always easy to tell who they are.
Although times are changing and alternative, humane methods of studying animals are used more and more, some veterinary schools still require students to practice surgery and learn physiology using live animals-usually unwanted dogs and cats purchased from animal shelters. These are the same kinds of animals who will become their patients in a few years’ time. These unfortunate creatures endure pain, mutilation, and finally death when they’re no longer useful. This kind of training can result in desensitizing many veterinarians to the welfare of the animals in their care.
A veterinarian I once worked with told me that suicide is an occupational hazard in his profession. This is not hard to comprehend, considering the typical problems a vet encounters in his practice. He needs the skill and intuitiveness to figure out what’s wrong with an animal who, unlike a human, can’t explain his symptoms and is often nervous and uncooperative. He must deal with the animal’s caretaker, who may be frustrated, angry, or depressed about her pet’s condition. The animal may get sicker despite treatment, and the vet will have to admit defeat and inform the caretaker that her beloved pet is beyond help and should be euthanized to prevent further suffering. Or there may be no effective treatment to offer at all. The caretaker may be unwilling or unable to pay for treatment even if it will restore her pet’s health, and she may ask the vet to put him down. Or she may drop off her sick pet for treatment and never return to pick him up. Maintaining psychological equilibrium in the face of such daily challenges is not easy, and the more sensitive and caring vets-the best vets, really-sometimes can’t handle the pressure.
A particularly burned out and thankfully now retired vet I knew was asked by a couple who were going on a trip to euthanize their two cats because they just couldn’t be bothered with finding a kennel for them while they were gone. They told him that they would just obtain replacement cats when they returned. Incredibly, this vet catered to their cruel whim and euthanized the perfectly healthy cats.
Veterinarians may get sloppy and make stupid mistakes. Their surgeries and procedures may be done poorly. I worked for a vet who performed a routine dental cleaning on a cat. A month later, the cat’s caretaker returned, complaining to his partner that her cat had terrible halitosis. This vet discovered several rotted teeth that the first vet had failed to remove. As a result, the middle-aged cat again had to be put under anesthesia-always a risky proposition-to rectify the carelessness of his colleague.
As well, a vet can fail to make a relatively easy diagnosis. Some years ago one of my dogs developed a swelling over one eye that my vet opted to treat with corticosteroids, even though she wasn’t sure what was causing it. Despite the treatment, her condition worsened, and in a panic I brought her to another clinic for a second opinion. One of the vets quickly and correctly diagnosed a bacterial abscess, drained it, and prescribed antibiotics. Corticosteroids are dangerous drugs with side effects that are not only useless, but contraindicated for an abscess. After two weeks on antibiotics my dog was back to normal. I never returned to the first vet.
Veterinary medicine is not a highly lucrative career unless you specialize or push procedures and products. Many general practice vets, in an effort to boost their income, promote needless procedures such as cat declawing to their clients, or they prescribe expensive drugs that may not be in the best interests of the patient. They may sell overpriced cat and dog food and various ointments, medications, and accessories to make extra money. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to make a profit, if the welfare of animals is sacrificed, everybody loses.
What can you do to protect your pet from a bad vet? If you have doubts about a diagnosis or treatment, get a second opinion, and do not hesitate to change vets if you’re not comfortable with the practitioner you have. I recently changed my vet clinic after a decade because I lost trust in my old vet. Check your vet’s credentials; make sure she’s qualified to practice. Call your local humane society or state veterinary board for recommendations, or ask your friends and associates about their experiences with veterinarians. Patronize a multi-vet practice, where partners routinely confer with each other over difficult cases.
Be proactive and learn the basics of pet care. Knowledge is power. If your vet insists on yearly vaccinations (most veterinarians are switching to a three-year booster schedule because too many vaccinations are risky), question her judgment. If she prescribes drugs you suspect are inappropriate, ask for an explanation.
Being a good vet requires a combination of toughness, sensitivity, integrity, intelligence, and compassion. If you suspect that your veterinarian is lacking any of these essential qualities, don’t hesitate to look for an animal-friendly practitioner who is more sympathetic to your pet’s particular needs.
BEWARE BAD VETERINARIANS!