If there’s one class of client that gives us pause more than any other it’s the human physician (and his or her spouse/partner). This may sound profoundly unfair (and is certainly not a hard and fast rule) yet many vets agree they are among the most difficult group of clients to handle.

While I was in vet school, our professors drilled us on issues we should specifically explore should our animal patients have an on-the-side, at-home clinician making medical decisions for their pets in our stead. It was, even then, a well-recognized phenomenon.

Human doctors, feeling themselves capable of (at least) being able to treat simple diarrhea, limping, or basic infections, have a reputation for giving inappropriate drugs or administering human-oriented treatments based on off-the-mark diagnoses. Most of the time these actions are benign or merely wasteful (of time and medication) but on more than one occasion (in my personal experience) led directly to an animal’s death. 

Tragic Anecdote #1: A cat’s lethargy led the physician-owner to assume his cat had a fever. Baby Tylenol twice daily for three days led to an irreversible blood disorder. She died less than 24 hours after her owner brought her in for her fever of unknown origin (her temperature was actually less than 96).

Tragic Anecdote #2: An ill-informed physician gave Advil for several days before realizing that, though his dog’s limp was better, neither her diarrhea nor her appetite had improved. His wife then called the hospital to see what could be done for the diarrhea. We advised her to bring the dog in for examination immediately (five days is a long time to have diarrhea). She demurred. (After all it’s just a little loose stool. I think I’ll give her the bland diet you always suggest.)

After the dog collapsed on a short walk, the physician finally brought her in—DOA. After he blamed us for making her diarrhea worse (because his wife had given Pepto-Bismol—not our suggestion) he demanded a post-mortem. It wasn’t too hard to conclude she had died of blood loss subsequent to a gastric perforation (her Advil-induced ulcer had finally eaten through the entire wall of her stomach, blood vessels and all). To the physician’s chagrin, his wife confessed to the at-home medication on the spot.

Anecdote #3: This one’s not so tragic but it led to the firing of a client. A client complains she shouldn’t have to pay for my veterinary services since those things I showed her in the X-ray of her dog’s bladder can’t possibly be stones. (How do you figure?) Her boyfriend is a radiologist and he informed her that we had to be mistaken (and that she should refuse to pay her bill) because bladder stones are not visible on X-rays. (We called them bladder stones in vet school. Dump him now, sweetie. He’s a loser!)

Remember the maxim: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So beware. Dogs are not cats. And neither is human—though sometimes it might appear otherwise.

On the other side, veterinarians seem far less likely to diagnose and treat themselves. To be sure, some of us do (I`ve heard stories that would curl your toes). But I believe vets have a greater appreciation for the Byzantine nature of interspecies differences. What constitutes a powerhouse drug for a cat might just as easily kill a dog. This is what we are taught from day one: never assume that any species shares a physiological trait with another.

Beyond the treatment and diagnosis thing, doctors (vets included) can be pains in the backside in almost any environment. Some of us display a deep sense of entitlement for having achieved a degree, status and title others haven’t. But lets agree on one thing: we should stick to the species we were assigned when we received our licenses—unless we’re willing to go back to school and slog it out all over again.