Did you know that you may well be your vet’s most valued possession? Without you your vet can’t help animals and most certainly can’t earn a living.

Our clientele is the lifeblood of our industry and the most important “item” that’s sold when practices change hands. All that equipment? Nah—most of it is already five years old and wiped off the books by now. But you? You and your pets might as well be gold.

So it stands to reason that when one vet ends up with another’s client things can get a little touchy. Even I, a vet of the non practice-owning persuasion, have been known to get offended when another vet oversteps their bounds and “steals” a client. In my case the issue isn’t money (an individual client represents little income to me compared to a practice owner’s claim)—it’s ethics.

In one example, a veterinarian (who provides a generalist service we do not) was referred a client from our hospital—for the purposes of receiving this specific service. Such an arrangement is not unusual. In performing said service, the owner pointed out a new problem with her dog and asked this vet’s opinion.

A thousand bucks’ worth of workup later (not the specific service I’d referred her for and something I could easily have done) the owner calls me for my opinion on the new matter (which, of course, I knew nothing about). The owner is concerned because her “new” vet is recommending surgery and this client is unsure about the surgery’s necessity.

At this point I get on the phone with the “new” vet and ask how a referral (which I generously provided her) for X service turned into Y service (a service within my purview as her general veterinarian). She countered that the owner had asked her personal opinion and therefore she could not refuse her: in essence, she argued, the client had “self-referred” for this particular problem.

I really could care less about my practice’s lost income--little of it goes into my pocket anyhow. The problem here is that in my opinion, this “new” vet has way overstepped her ethical bounds in dealing with “my” client, regardless of whether this “new” problem came up in her office or mine. In her shoes, I would have politely demurred, performed the service for which the dog was referred and sent the client directly back to home base.  

By jumping into the general care of a pet whose entire history is known to me, her regular vet, she left a confused client and an out-of-the-loop regular vet in her messy wake. “So who’s my vet now?” the client must have thought. Meanwhile, I had none of the new information to work with when the client called for my advice. The situation was needlessly confused—all because the “new” vet took it upon herself to take over in defiance of basic veterinary practice standards.

And, yes, perhaps professional pride plays into it, too: my client would by now have been referred to a surgeon—not to this “new” vet’s generalist hands. I want my patients treated a certain way and now I effectively had little control over this dog's care.

The whole situation had me fuming. And there was no way out of it. If I tried to steer my client away from her “new” vet in any way, I’d surely look like a client-grubbing sore loser in my client’s eyes. All I could do was present her with a list of alternatives.

In the end, I told the “new” vet in no uncertain terms that she could expect no more referrals from me. “Do you want me to send your client back? Is that it?” she queried in innocent tones. No, you can keep her if she’ll have you. Good luck.

It all sounds awfully petty, I’m sure. But vets get all kinds of crazy about these little things. Professional respect is everything in our business. So those who don’t play well with others? They tend to get ostracized like the “new” vet in my example is perhaps currently learning (I’ve since heard tell that she’s taken similar liberties with other vets’ patients). Thing is, she doesn't seem to care.

I imagine this kind if infighting occurs in many other industries, too. I’ve known hairdressers to come to fisticuffs over clients. I hear lawyers get nasty with one another over defections. And doctors still get miffed over second opinions—in this age of managed care you’d think they wouldn’t care.

But the truth is, defection by a client’s express intent is one thing (perfectly acceptable, if painful)—knowingly taking advantage of another vet’s good will (AKA, “theft”) is quite another.

I recently read an article in one of our trade publications discussing the ethics and inter-vet politics of client theft. It detailed a variety of scenarios in which vets had inappropriately “stolen” one another’s clients. The lively comments the issue received assured me that I was not alone in what I’d felt was my trivial, inter-vet stress. 

Now if every vet just played nicely with his or her fellow professionals, we’d never have the kind of nasty backbiting we see here. But, as in everything else in our communities, there will always be a those out there who believe speed limits are not for them, some who think insider trading laws needn’t apply in their case, and still others for whom society's needs couldn’t possibly amount to much when compared with their own.

Somehow, though, I can’t help feeling as if it’s always the good guys who lose out. After all, I never saw my “stolen” client ever again.