As any self-respecting service worker well knows, there’s nothing worse than an angry customer. Our workplace is no different. It’s just that our customers come in a variety of species. Given the choice, though, I’ll take my chances with the ones wielding the teeth and claws over the ones wielding the checkbooks.

Irate clients are the stuff of any service industry. And just because we’re animal-loving doesn’t mean the occasional client’s entrance doesn’t provoke the staff to yell, "Incoming!" At which point everyone dives for cover while the angry person yells and screams and generally makes a nuisance of him- or herself.

Most of the time these are just angry rants aimed at no one and everyone. Because they’re always delivered at the front desk, the reception staff gets it 99 percent of the time. The issue is usually something simple like, "How could you not have my cat’s food in stock? If he gets blocked, then what am I going to do?" (All food is by special order only because we have little spare room to stock spare cans and bags.)

Or, "What do you mean I can’t get heartworm medication without an annual heartworm test? That’s a scam!" (All dogs must have annual heartworm checks before receiving this prescription medication; both because it’s the manufacturer’s safety recommendation and because safety is a big issue for us. No exceptions.)

There’s always one member on staff who handles these situations better than everyone else. This person easily weathers the brunt of the storm while the rest of us cower non-confrontationally on the sidelines (or stay hidden behind closed doors).

In our hospital this talented individual is the office manager. Most of the time she stands her ground and listens attentively while the person spews forth all the venom he or she has available. Once the client has successfully relieved himself of this burden, the office manager goes in for the kill (usually a thick layer of sugary rebuke only a mother of three children can muster): "Now let’s start over without all the anger and foul language so I can properly understand you."

Sometimes this does not work, as with the elderly gentleman who consistently berates our staff for tiny transgressions (usually the vet’s fault), like the timing of a phone call related to his pet’s routine bloodwork, or the (typically brief) period of time he was left on hold.

After the fourth or fifth time the guy barks at the staff, the office manager can be heard to mutter under her breath, "I don’t get paid enough to deal with this." When that happens (ideally before the staff has gotten all worked up) the vet has to step in and say, "Mr. Crankstaff, please recognize that these people are not here for you to yell at. If you have a dilemma, now or ever, please be polite when you speak with them."

Usually, the vet’s reproach is enough to silence the likes of the Mr. Crankstaffs. In fact, just the mere presence of the vet seems to elicit all kinds of sweetness and light from said individuals. They pull a Dr. Jekyll and next thing you know it’s all over. In fact, the change is often so dramatic the staff is made to look foolish. This is why after especially egregious rants we vets have had to resort to asking the offender to apologize directly to the person(s) they yelled at.

Now, I’m a naturally non-confrontational sort of person. And I’m not the owner of my practice, I’m just a lowly associate. So when the proverbial stool hits the fan, I’m the first one hiding behind a door somewhere — because I can. Nonetheless, if I hear a client tell a staff member to "f-off" (or utter some other such bile) I feel compelled to come forward and ask for an immediate remedy.

Twice I’ve even had to ask people to leave and never come back. While I don’t really have the authority to make that happen, it seems to have worked out well in both instances. We never saw them again.

It’s one thing if a client is emotionally overwrought over the death of an animal (or some truly important matter) and lashes out emotionally at the staff. Sometimes we just have to accept this kind of episode with compassion and dismiss our injured dignity. It’s quite another when someone’s bad day launches across the counter and tries to strangle our receptionist.

The real teeth and claws are an accepted hazard in the business of working with animals, but at least our patients have a good excuse: they’re animals.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: claws by invisible monster

Note: Today's post was originally published in January of 2007 on Dr. Khuly's former blog, Dolittler.