Published on December 6, 2021 in Health and Communication Newer post   Older post

The relationships between you and your vet, your dog and your vet, and your dog and you are some of the most important relationships in your dog’s life. Learning how to navigate that relationship triangle starts with recognizing that there is one! Your dog has a relationship with you. And, your dog has a relationship with your vet and his/her staff that is independent of you.

Yet, it is your job to advocate for and protect your dog, and choose wisely for him/her. In being this advocate, you’ve got to listen to both your dog and your vet. This week we’re going to explore all sides of this all-important relationship triangle: the Dog-Owner-Veterinarian Relationship triangle.

If you see or feel something, say something

No one knows better than you when your dog is sick. If she’s just “off” and you can’t describe how, listen to your gut. Take him/her to the vet. If the vet can’t find anything wrong on a basic work up, ask for additional tests or recommendations.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I noticed that Gunny just wasn’t himself. He was eating, drinking, pooping, and walking. But there was a listlessness to all those activities. I took him to the vet with no more than that information. The vet knew what I didn’t: there was an epidemic of tick borne babesiosis raging in Hong Kong. She knew that those were the outward signs of anemia, and that the cause of the anemia was likely a very dangerous bacteria transmitted by ticks. We were able to do the needed blood tests and treat him in time – the vet had lost many dogs to babesiosis – and Gunny slowly recovered from the acute symptoms. Had I waited a couple of weeks, he might have died.

When Bacchus, Gunny’s brother, starting occasionally pooping in the basement but otherwise seemed fine, I finally took him to the vet for a full work up based on nothing more than that. Gunny had been very ill, upsetting to all of us; we had construction going on outside; and I could come up with reasons why my 9-year old, perfectly potty-trained dog was pooping in the basement. But something just felt off. I asked the internist to do a full work up from nose to tail. Everything checked out fine except he found a tiny growth on his prostate which he figured was probably benign but took some cells anyway. Turns out it was prostate cancer. Bacchus could feel that tumor and was trying to poop it out. I learned that when his tumor was growing and was causing him distress he started pooping inside, so I would increase his pain meds and the symptoms would go away for a while. I not only extended his life with early diagnosis, but I was able to provide better quality of life by acting on my observation and intuition.

Listen to your gut. Listen to your heart. And find a vet who will listen to you.

Choose a good vet who is right for you and your dog

In my experience, pretty much all vets are incredibly nice animal lovers. They are well-intentioned. But that doesn’t make them all good vets or the right vet for you. It’s not just about their education and experience; it’s about how well they listen to you and your dog and respect your input, financial limitations, and ideas about treatment. A great vet has both skills.

One size doesn’t fit all. A vet who is perfect for someone else may not be right for you. Definitely ask your friends and neighbors who their vet is – but also ask them why they like the vet. Maybe what they like is something you don’t like or value. For example, a vet office that allows drop offs would be super important to someone whose schedule doesn’t allow them time for visits. For me, that isn’t important because to the extent possible, I want to stay with my dog for a visit.

Maybe a particular vet is known for providing low-cost care – that’s great if it is good, effective care, and all options are explained. Treating things cheaply but not fixing the problem isn’t a great proposition for anyone, however. For example, you can treat a urinary tract infection with different antibiotics; you can use a common inexpensive one and it might work fine. But if you want to be sure you are effectively treating an infection, the urine needs to be cultured in a lab and you need to treat it with an antibiotic that you know will kill the infection – even then, there are risks to some antibiotics (and medications in general) and other pros and cons that you need to understand. Sometimes less money means less effective care, sometimes it doesn’t.

Finally, please remember that especially now, vets are overwhelmed. When COVID hit, veterinary facilities became short-staffed, and visits take longer because there is a whole procedure of getting your dog into the clinic without you, talking to you after examination, and then getting your dog back out to you. COVID times have put a strain on everyone.

Be courteous. Be respectful. Say please and thank you.

And simultaneously, do not accept inferior care. Have the conversations you need to have. Be patient when there isn’t an emergency. Have respect for their time (and hopefully vice versa), be concise where you can, and be prepared with your questions so that to the extent possible, you can deal with everything in one conversation.

Respect your dog’s opinion about his vet and about medical treatment

Do you know someone who is terrified to go to the dentist? Or to have blood drawn? Who would literally rather die than go to a hospital? Those aren’t always reasonable fears, but they are real fears and have to be respected and managed. If your dog is terrified of the vet’s office, you can’t just ignore it and tell them not to worry or to get over it. You have to accomodate it. How? Here’s a few ideas.

  1. Talk to your vet about how to ease your dog’s anxiety. Whenever possible, stay with your dog during the visit. Blood draws, basic physical exams, and sometimes obtaining urine and feces can be done in the exam room (or a short walk outside) with you present. (It’s not possible to be with your dog during an xray, certain procedures that require sterile surroundings, or when anesthesia is being administered.) Here, communication and advocating politely for your dog are key. Some dogs may not mind “going to the back” but some really do. So, keep them with you when you can.
  2. Talk to your vet about what he/she can do to make a vet visit pleasant for your dog. Sure, you can give them treats before they go in, while they’re there, and immediately after. But teaching them what to expect and how to cooperate in their care is a fairly new concept and one that can make a huge difference. I encourage you to check out Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear Free website for tips on how to keep your dog at ease in a variety of situations, including at the vet. The site also includes a list of certified vet clinics and individuals who have completed Fear Free training and are certified. There are no guarantees, of course, but having a vet who is willing to work hard to ease your dog’s and your fears is the first step.
  3. You have a big role to play in easing your dog’s fear. Talk to your dog. Tell them what is going to happen, how long they’re going to be at the vet, whether they will have to stay for a while. You’d be amazed at what they are able to understand, how much a simple calming voice may achieve. And it is a no-cost no downside action you can take. Tricking them into the car, lying to them about where they’re going, and not acknowledging their fear is not going to make the visit go better and damages your relationship of trust with your dog. You can take the initiative to teach your dog how to cooperate in his/her care not just at the vet office, but in basic grooming and husbandry tasks. This can reduce the stress felt by you as well as your pets.
  4. Finally, when you are making choices about treatment for chronic or potentially fatal conditions, keep in mind how your dog feels about the vet’s office (or travelling to or from) when deciding on the right course of treatment. If your dog doesn’t mind being touched or spending the day at the vet, perhaps he/she would do fine with going for chemotherapy every few days or weeks if it could buy years of life. However, if your dog shakes with fear at the mere sight of the vet’s office, despite your efforts to make him comfortable, that has to be a key factor in deciding what treatment options are a better fit for them. And remember you can always change your mind. I opted for chemotherapy for my dog Bacchus and after a few sessions, saw him shake with fear at having to go. I stopped treatment and he died a few weeks later. But I did the right thing by not making him do something that was terrifying to him just to try to extend his life when, in his particular situation, I could not save it.

Respect your vet and advocate for your dog

Unless you went to vet school, you don’t know all that your vet knows about medicine. And no matter how smart your vet is, he/she doesn’t know as much as you do about your dog. Finding the balance between respect for what your vet knows and advocating for what’s best for your dog at a particular moment in time can be difficult, but it is incredibly important.

I’m the number one advocate for learning what you can about your dog’s health, knowing the health basics, and educating yourself. However, Google is never going to tell you more than your vet can since he/she not only has medical education, but knows your dog’s history, is laying hands on your dog, and probably has years of experience. Thus, having trust in your vet is key. You don’t have to love your vet, but if you don’t trust and respect him/her, you need to find a new one.

If a diagnosis isn’t clear, or there is a need for special knowledge or access to advanced diagnostics and care, then your dog might need to see a specialist. If your vet suggests that you see one, do it if you can. Even if not being recommended, you can still ask about a specialist if you are concerned that your dog isn’t improving or you’re still searching for a diagnosis or need reassurance that your veterinarian is on the correct path for your dog. While specialists can be expensive, in my experience, you get to the answer and a solution faster so that in the end, you don’t spend more money than you would’ve while shooting in the dark for a while. Having a primary vet that welcomes the input of a specialist and doesn’t resist it is, in my opinion, the sign of a vet who is confident, open to other opinions, and has the best interest of your dog at heart. We don’t expect our primary doctors to be our dermatologist, psychiatrist, surgeon, and ophthalmologist. Why would you expect that of your primary vet? Specialists have extra training and experience, thus often have additional information and options to offer.

Almost any diagnosis comes with options: watchful waiting, further testing, or treatment of one kind of another. Sometimes, sadly, there just isn’t anything that can be done aside from palliative care. When treatment is required, there are almost always choices to make. Ten people in the same situation will likely choose ten different options. What you do or don’t do depends on a myriad of things – your personal philosophy about medical intervention (whether, when, holistic, traditional, advanced, etc), your dog’s tolerance for medical treatment, your own risk tolerance for costs, time, and the chance of success. There is no right answer for what to do for everyone facing a particular diagnosis; there is rarely even one right answer for a particular dog. It is up to us, as their guardians, to thread the needle in the way that is right for them and for you – you’re in it together.

Finally, many treatment options can be expensive. Advanced vet care like chemotherapy or radiation is even more expensive. But the added cost doesn’t guarantee you a positive outcome. So please, don’t accuse your vet of recommending a particular course of action because they’re greedy. I have dealt with dozens of vets and fired many, but I have never been in a situation where I thought the vet was recommending something solely to make money. I’m sure it can happen, but it’s not common. Vets want a good outcome, too. It’s just not always possible.

Keep the lines of communication open with both your dog and your vet. Be respectful. Give useful input to your vet (take notes of conversations, keep notes of your dog’s symptoms, do what you’re asked to do at home). In this all-important relationship triangle, the best outcomes are the result of your thoughtful engagement with your dog and your vet. They’re both counting on you.

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