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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

All in a Day's Work

Last week was particularly rough for me. I considered the typical events known to depress my work-related morale, and realized we didn’t lose any patients, the hours I worked weren’t any longer than usual, and the cases I saw weren’t particularly difficult to manage. It seemed my bitter mood resulted from a few repetitive encounters with phrases I’ve deemed unworthy of saying to a veterinary oncologist (if you wish to keep them smiling and feeling good about their jobs).

Here are the top three I encountered last week, in no particular order:

  1. “I don’t know how you do what you do for a living. It must be so depressing.”

    Yes — I get it. I work with animals diagnosed with cancer. It’s true, my days are not filled with rainbows, confetti, or smiling unicorns, but I would venture to guess that neither are those of 99.9% of the working population of the world.

    Those of us who dedicate our lives towards diagnosing and treating cancer in animals know how serious our jobs are. We never deny mortality but we also do not dwell on the negatives. Our goals are to help our patients live longer lives, with minimal impact on their quality of life.

    I became a veterinarian because I love animals and want to help them. I became a veterinary oncologist because managing cancer cases stimulates and intrigues my mind. I’m not here to torture animals, or make them sick, and I certainly respect their well being far more than I’m given credit for.

    Even if my arguments do not seem clear, I would urge you to not use words like “depressing,” “horrible,” or “sad” to describe my chosen career. My best friend works in retail, and the stories she tells me about her daily interactions with people seem alarmingly more miserable than what I encounter in even a given month of work.

    What to say instead: “I’ve never heard of that profession — can you tell me a little more about what you do?”

  2. “Thanks for all of that wonderful information about cancer. I’m going to talk things over with our breeder/rescue organization to hear their opinion.”

    I know this will likely spark a great deal of controversy, but if your breeder/rescue organization/shelter manager/etc. did not graduate from veterinary school and does not possess a license to practice veterinary medicine, it is completely illegal for them to give medical advice. The goal of breeding pets is to maintain or produce specific desirable qualities and characteristics within the offspring. However, this does not mean your breeder knows more about the anatomy and physiology of your pet than a veterinarian.

    It’s frustrating to hear an owner say their breeder said it isn’t a good idea to pursue surgery/radiation therapy/chemotherapy for their particular breed of dog because “they don’t tolerate it well,” or because “they know the treatment will be too hard” on that particular breed.

    Perhaps the worst scenario occurs when a breeder suggests the diagnosis is incorrect because “they have never had a problem with cancer in their lines before.” Likewise, those who work in rescue organizations, though dedicated to their breed of choice, do not possess the medical knowledge or specialization to make decisions regarding the healthcare of animals.

    I always encourage owners to discuss their pets’ diagnosis with their breeders or rescue organizations. I feel respectable breeders would want to know about any adverse health issues related to their puppies/kittens and would understand we never place the blame on them for the outcome of a particular animal. It’s completely inappropriate, however, for owners to discuss treatment recommendations with non-medically trained individuals who prey upon the emotional aspects of a diagnosis of cancer.

    What to say instead: “Do you think my breeder would want to know about Fluffy’s diagnosis? Would you be willing to talk to him/her about what’s going on with him/her?”

  3. At the conclusion of an hour plus long consultation: “This is all great information. Would you mind calling my husband/wife/mom/dad/etc. now to go over everything once more?”

    During a consult, I discuss a tremendous amount of information. I recognize that the breadth and depth of the material presented can be overwhelming, and I know the pets I’m working with are integral parts of large families, and multiple individuals will want to have input into their care.

    I also recognize it is difficult for every family member to make time in their schedule to come to a consult. However, based on how my appointments are arranged, it is impossible for me to go over every piece of information covered during an initial consult twice in the same day, back to back.

    What to say instead: “Would it be OK if we put my husband/wife/mom/dad on speakerphone during this appointment so they can listen in?” or, “Would it be OK if my husband/wife/mom/dad read through the summary you’ve provided and give you a call if they have any additional questions?”

It feels good to vent these frustrations in written form, and it’s a bit cathartic to recognize the irritating things that obstruct the flow of my day. In the end, I know my work is not depressing, I respect breeders very much, and I immensely appreciate the families surrounding my patients and all the care they provide to their pets.

I also can’t help but feel very grateful that I don’t work in retail, as I’ve heard that’s where the real “animals” are.


Dr. Joanne Intile

Image: Benoit Daoust / via Shutterstock

Comments  5

Leave Comment
  • Smile
    05/15/2013 09:51pm

    I have to admit that your reference to retail made me smile. I couldn't survive a job where I had to deal with the public.

    However, I once said something similarly dumb to a veterinary internist. "It must be wonderful working with animals," I said. He smiled slowly, shook his head and replied, "My job is 10% animals and 90% people." I have no doubt that's true.

    As for being a little depressed or grumpy when nothing has really changed, blame it on Mother Nature. It's my understanding that when the temperature varies 25 to 30 degrees within a 24 hour period, as our bodies strive to maintain 98.6, the outside temperature throws our chemical balance off.

    Maybe that's far from the truth, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it (in the Spring and Fall anyway).

  • On the other hand....
    05/17/2013 12:44pm

    ...perhaps it would be of use to consider the customer's side of the coin - and to keep the word "customer" (which in your case may mean "potentially bereaved pet owner") in mind before you grump too much.

    Your first complaint ("...it must be so depressing") makes perfect sense, and yes it would be nice if people didn't do things like that to other people. Still, we the public no doubt have that as our first thought. It's that "C" word again; it scares and disturbs us. I heard it with reference to myself a few weeks ago, and for a while after that - until they told me it was fully curable - I wasn't exactly at ease with conversation about the term. The same would be true if you were to hit me with that word with reference to my pets. I'm sorry you're annoyed with our insensitivities. Perhaps at a better time we'll think before we bleat out idiocies. But just now, give us a break.

    Item Two: In practical terms you're saying that we've asked for a medically inappropriate second opinion. Fine. But the simple fact is that we are entitled to any second opinion, from whatever source and of whatever actual medical value, that we choose. Maybe what you hear is just an euphemism for "we need to check our bank balance" but we're too embarrassed to say it that way. Maybe we just want our "groomer" (who just happens to be our dog's best friend) to hold our hands and commiserate. But with all respect to your professional and 'legal' concerns, that's our business. We'll do it if we need it.

    And as to the time you have available to discuss things with us: Step One is for you to make it clear in advance that your services include one, and only one, in-depth consult. Tell us to bring everybody the first time, because there ain't gonna be no second one. If you have been absolutely up front about this, and if we still insist on bringing Aunt Minnie to hear it all over again, then tell us to go find another doctor. But the one thing you do NOT do, not with me anyway, EVER, is tell me I'm taking up too much of your valuable time because I'm all upset that Fluffy may be dying and/or bankrupting me. If this is too much to ask, then say so clearly and I'll go somewhere else.

    Summary: Thanks for sharing your professional concerns. I will take them to heart. And by the same token, please turn the coin over and think about the customer side of things. Some of us are undoubtedly twits, but mostly we're just fuddled and upset. Please allow us that privilege.

  • What people say
    05/19/2013 04:35am

    I believe as a medical professional we need to not concern ourselves or judge what the people we deal with are saying and especially not taking it personal. I am a hospice nurse and people tell me all the time "I couldn't do your job" or they couldn't handle doing my job. I take this as a compliment and as appreciation for what I do, but I certainly do not get upset about it.
    When people get a cancer diagnosis, they have many emotions, fear, anger, denial to name a few, the last thing they need to worry about is how their doctor, vet or nurse feel about them and what they say or do. It's not about us it's about them. The focus needs to be on how the medical professional can help them through this difficult time. Personally, I do not waste my time even thinking about how anything they do or say makes me feel, it's not about me.
    #2 it may be more convenient for the medical professional if the person/s they are dealing with simply accept what they say and goes along with it, but they have every right to talk things over with whoever they wish to talk with. How would you know if the person/s they are talking to haven't had a pet with the same or similar diagnosis or if they have a medical background or are simply good friends? After all, it's not you who has to live with the decisions after the pet dies, it's the pet's owners who need to feel they did all they could and if that means they solicit input from their support system why do you even have to bring up that it is illegel to give medical advice for somebody who isn't a vet? If it gives them peace of mind and their pet is not suffering as a result, what difference does it make? This is so common on e-mail groups and Facebook that somebody asks for input about their pet's medical care, to amputate or not, to do chemo or not, radiation or not, when is it time to let them go. It helps tremendously to talk to others about it hear their reasons for what they have done or what they think they would do in a similar situation and why.
    #3 instead of getting upset with people who may not understand your time constraints, it would be better to advise them ahead of time that if there are others involved who will need to be kept informed, to consider making an appointment at a time when they can all come together or can participate via speaker phone.

  • 05/20/2013 01:15pm

    Bless your heart,
    I am not a vet or a nurse but have years ago worked in the ER admitting.
    I have 3 mini dachshunds who are my babies, I have lost some over the years, and I can tell you it was very hard..
    When it comes time in life to make important choices,either yourself or your pet child this is something that we all need to discuss with another, get 2nd opinions ..
    When we're scared that our little four leg babies are very sick we're not thinking about, "should I say this or should I not say that".
    We have so many thoughts running thru our minds, "what to do? And so on,,thank you for putting it all down so well..
    Bless you and you have a good day :)
    Think about this! Anytime you can make someone feel better or make them smile you gonna have a good day. :)

  • Understand
    05/19/2013 06:35pm

    I work in an animal shelter and hear very similar statements from well-meaning people. "I couldn't do what you do, I love animals too much." This is very hurtful because it implies we are insensitive and uncaring people. I also don't understand why some people have no respect for others' time. Any profession that involves caring for animals in some way feels like there is never enough time. It's a fine line providing good customer service and having enough time to help everyone who asks for it.

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