make Vet Answers my homepage

So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 5- By the people, for the people

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ Feb 28th 2019 - By Michael Weinhardt, Michael Weinhardt Photography
So Many Other Things The Reality Of Working In Veterinary Practice Part 5

Holding a mirror to the veterinary industry to show the realities you work with every day.

A photographic documentary that relates what working in a busy veterinary practice looks like - the highs, lows, challenges, day-to-day, unusual and extraordinary.

“If only vetting just consisted of treating sick animals. But it didn’t. There were so many other things.”

- James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk


Part 5: By The People For The People

There are many important truths to working in veterinary practice. Dealing with people is first among equals.

“You can’t not be about people,” says Brudine Practice Manager Bri Smith. “They are the entire basis of your business in the veterinary industry. It’s not the animals, it’s the people that own them.”

Simply acknowledging this is not enough. As Dr Deborah Williams says, “If you’re not people-oriented, you are not going to be successful. You can do vet science but you won’t make it as a clinician, a GP-type vet.”

Recent graduate, Dr Jessica Winsall thinks the extent to which vets must work with clients may surprise young people considering a veterinary career.

“A lot of young people don’t realise that dealing with clients and tough situations, like talking about money, or death, is the largest part of the job. The animals are the smallest part. People want to be vets because they love animals, and they don’t want to be doctors because they don’t want to deal with humans. Well, they’ve got to deal with humans a lot more than they realise.”

The simple aspects of animal care – making appointments, transporting pets, paying for services – are handled by people. A basic consultation relies on an owner relating their pet’s history as much as the vet’s a physical examination. Important decisions, including the life and death ones, are made by people, not pets.

Marilena Caputo has brought Coco to Brundine since he was an eleven-week-old puppy (in 2002).     The now sixteen-year-old is feeling a few effects of aging but seemed quite content to sniff around.    24 February 2018.

For the most part, clients at Brudine were simply there to get the care their pets needed, without fuss or bother. Some don’t talk much, others talk a lot, joking, querying and sharing anecdotes about their personal lives. Pleasant was how most consultations felt.

Of course, people are complex. Accepting and embracing the importance of dealing with people means the entire and eclectic range of people that visit practices; a microcosm of society. Each owner is the unique sum of their personality, ethics, financial situation, emotions and life circumstances, and some combinations of these, while not common, can significantly increase the enjoyment and the challenge.

Leading the charge are the seriously committed owners who, irrespective of cost, provide the best care possible for their pets. Notably, pet rescuers can spend years and tens of thousands of dollars on physical and mental rehabilitation. A by-product of their dedication is a highly attuned sense of their pet’s wellbeing and they will usually err on the side of seeing the vet.

“These clients are a veterinarian’s dream,” says Dr Fiona Starr. “They respect your opinion and are happy to seek it as soon as they notice something is amiss, rather than wait or consult Dr Google, when the issue could be quite serious by that stage.”

Shona and Michael with Violet, the greyhound they adopted from a rescue group. They spent two years rehabilitating Violet mentally and physically. It's a commitment level that seems to be shared by the majority of pet rescuers who visited Brundine. 28 February 2018.

At the other end of the spectrum are the owners who do nothing, or who do their own treatment. Dr Gwen Shirlow recalled the case of an owner who diagnosed their cat’s bladder infection as constipation and treated it by inserting a chopstick into its rectum to clear the blockage.

The most well-intentioned owners, though, can be challenged by not knowing what they don’t know. For example, most will know that grass seeds cling to fur, but how many know grass seeds are like slow bullets, able to pierce skin, tunnel through tissue and puncture organs?

In some cases, owners can present ethical dilemmas for vets. One raised by several staff at Brudine was being asked to euthanise healthy or relatively healthy animals. For example, one Brudine client wanted their dog euthanised because they were sick of it running away.

And, just like life in general, we all can’t get along with everyone.

Dr Arianne Lowe describes how this impacted her at the start of her career: “I’m really social and just enjoy people. When I became a vet, I thought, ‘I want to get on with my clients,’ and I wanted everyone to be my friend. Then I discovered I couldn’t. I wish somebody had told me before I started that I actually shouldn’t care too much about what people thought.”

There is a difference between not getting along and personal dislike being expressed towards vets. For Dr Louise Grey, this is the hardest part of being a vet. “They are not judging the quality of my work; they just don’t like me as a person. That’s the one thing that I’ll come home and think about at night.”

The most rare and most concerning are the angry, abusive and threatening clients.

Grey was once called a “fucking bitch” when she asked a client at another practice to put their large dog on a lead while in reception.

Grey says, “We see people in very emotionally charged situations and I don’t mind people swearing but I don’t like being sworn at. I don’t like being told that I’m a bitch, which has happened a few times.”

Dr Charlie Webb has received a sustained series of death threats from a former client that also target his partner and their pets. To be fair, another vet at the practice pointed out death threats were an “extreme aberration” but, equally, Webb is not the first vet in the industry in this situation.

Fortunately, the majority of clients range from being pleasant and friendly to deeply grateful. As Nurse Julie Marten says, “Customers here are generally really nice, lovely people.”

Dr Fiona Starr palpates Annabelle who was brought in by her owner, Linda Parchi (right), and Linda's neighbour, Chris Foley. Annabelle had been anorexic for three days, was vomiting froth and had blood in her diarrhoea. She could possibly have been suffering a pancreatic episode, as she was prone to pancreatitis, She stayed in hospital overnight on fluids, was prescribed metronidazole and amoxycillin and fully recovered. 19 March 2018. 

Dealing all with that range of people, though, means possessing a few important skills.

“You have to be a good communicator,” says Starr, and many other staff at Brudine and not having them can have a range of impacts, including possible career impacts. Starr strongly believes that “most cases going to the [veterinary] board are probably due to a breakdown in communication.”

Starr considers understanding and empathy as important as communication: “In most instances, a client’s perception of how well their pet was treated often boils down to how in-tune the vet is in understanding their needs, rather than the treatment itself.”

Starr also says, “Some vets are more capable of reading their clients and their needs. And some clients are more open to discussing their emotions and needs than others. A vet doesn’t have to be adept at understanding the emotional element, but this understanding impacts on the perceived quality of care, in my opinion.”

Dr Grace Butler with her namesake puppy. Ellie Green (with stethoscope) had wanted a puppy for two and a half years. Her parents, Dannielle and Al Green, bought her Belle several weeks earlier but, tragically, had to be euthanised shortly afterwards due to coccidiosis. 21 February 2018. 

Not everyone has a natural ability to empathise with others but that should not be considered a hindrance. There are plenty of options to develop techniques, including MindTools, an online career skills website, provides several resources on the topic.

An important factor in providing empathy is balancing how much is given and with how much is received. As Dr Arianne Lowe says, “You can’t care every fifteen minutes, for ten hours a day.”

Lowe’s approach is to “put up a wall and try and put empathy through that wall to the clients to support them, but to not receive it back because it eats you away; it’s toxic and it’s something that really gets to vets.”

There is little doubt that client relationships take work but Head Nurse Stephanie Robertson considers it a positive with respect to her personal development.

“I was a shy kid and I didn’t like the whole ‘people thing’ to begin with. But it’s grown on me and is one of the things I like most now, talking with clients and being able to help them sort out their problems with their pets.”

Despite the challenges, most staff found satisfaction in working with their clients. For Dr Karen Viggers, it’s the main feature of her veterinary life.

“I love helping people, developing friendships and relationships with them over years, getting to know their animals and their families and shepherding them through difficult times. I like the diagnostic challenge – an interesting case is great – but the highlight is the relationships with people and animals.”

Daisie is returned to her owner, Daniella Cecere, after being de-sexed earlier in the day. 6 April 2018.

Click here to visit the 'So Many Other Things..' Blog Category to read more in the series


Coco Caputo

“I’ve been seeing Coco for years [since October 2002, at 11 weeks of age]; I remember giving it it’s puppy vaccinations.”

— Dr Karen Viggers

About Michael - in his words...


I make long-form photographic essays that are faithful to my subjects and their stories.

I have spent a decade in the USA, Peru, Cuba, and Australia, covering stories about people whose lives I can't not be interested in.

Most recently, I completed a photographic documentary about the reality of veterinary practice, called SO MANY OTHER THINGS. It was shot over a year and released on September 24, 2018.

Previously, I spent from 2012 to 2015 documenting music and friendship in an Australian metal band, FRANKENBOK. 

Other stories I've photographed over the last 10 years can be found in my Archive.

Contact Michael via: Website -  So Many Other Things


There are currently no comments.

Add Your Comments

All comments will be submitted to the administrator for approval.

To prevent spam, please type in the code found in the red box to verify you are a real person.
  Required fields

Blog Categories


Recent Blog Entries


Tag Cloud

follow us on twitter