Written by: Heather Clemenceau
The veterinary profession is often replete with occupational stress. Research has suggested that people whose work involves making life-or-death decisions about suffering animals, experience higher levels of physical and psychological trauma, making them an at-risk population for post-traumatic stress. Veterinarians, just like other healthcare professionals, also contend with compassion fatigue, defined as “the emotional burden that health care providers may experience because of overexposure to traumatic events that patients are experiencing.” These stressors are often compounded by the clinic’s own clients, who may exert unfair pressure for impossible levels of service, including at times, free or deeply-discounted pet care. A 2008 U.K. study found veterinarians commit suicide at a rate of four times that of the general population and twice the rate of other medical doctors and dentists. One of the first mental health surveys of U.S. veterinarians, conducted in 2014, found one in six veterinarians may have considered suicide.
The recent story of Roxy, the goldendoodle who required emergency surgery for complications from a routine spay, was not some feel-good rescue effort that dog lovers engineered with the help of the media, against a “money-grubbing” pet clinic. It became a personal attack on veterinarians and vet technicians everywhere.
The Goodman family from Vaughan, Ont. recently praised a CTV reporter’s story that they claimed allowed them to get Roxy back after surrendering her to the Willowdale Animal Hospital when they couldn’t pay the $8,000 emergency surgery. To be sure, $8,000 is a lot of money, but the article that created a deluge of online hate and bad reviews for the clinic did not examine the possible reasons for such an estimate. The public had zero information about the type of emergency care Roxy needed, yet enraged pet owners ran with the theory that the “big, bad” veterinary clinic was gouging her desperate owners. Spaying surgeries are usually routine but it is still a major surgery and as such, any complications can be serious, and may include:
- Loose stitches
- Incisional infection
- lacerated bladder or ureter
- Abdominal evisceration
- Dehiscence of sutures
- disseminated intravascular coagulation
All these possibilities can/may require:
- IV fluids/colloids
- Scans and radiographs
- Blood transfusions
- IV antibiotics
- Pain control
- Post-op lab work
- Emergency clinic hospitalization of 24 hours or more
- Sterile equipment
Clinics all have their own ways of breaking down these costs – they may have newer equipment and building rent may vary depending on where the clinic is located. An emergency clinic may also provide a fully stocked hospital that your regular veterinary clinic may not provide. Payment terms can be difficult to negotiate since you typically only see an emergency vet when you have an emergency, so you don’t have the same type of relationship as with your regular vet. Because of this, many clinics may feel that it doesn’t make good business sense to give credit to people they don’t know. Consider also that the College of Veterinarians of Ontario publishes fee schedules and while each veterinary facility will determine their own fee schedule, veterinarians cannot conspire to fix fees and it’s considered misconduct if a veterinarian charges fees that are excessive to what is normally charged.
Many people waded-into the online commentary about the CTV article, including this DVM who had some wise advice that was shared amongst nearly 3,000 people on Facebook:
“So there’s been a news story lighting up my social media today from CTV, about Roxy the goldendoodle. I don’t know all the details of the case, but I felt the need to weigh in to the folks at CTV who “broke” the story. For those who are interested, here is the email I sent them:
Hello, CTV news team.
I want to comment on a story you reported that has recently caught my attention, as well as the attention of many in my line of work. I am a veterinarian. I work in a small animal hospital north of Toronto.
My social media has been alive with conversation today about Roxy the goldendoodle. The first thing I want to bring to your attention is that this story, and others like it, are basically bullying. You heard me. Now hear me out.
Of course my heart goes out to this family. I’m sure it has been a very emotional ordeal. I am not privy to the details of the case, so I will speak here in relatively general terms.
It is always tragic and heart breaking when a family pet is facing a large vet bill. Whether the pet is experiencing complications, or a severe illness, or an injury, or whatever. It is painful and heart wrenching to have to sit down across from a person and have a very frank discussion with them about how sick or injured their pet is, and what it will take to try to heal them.
Here’s a piece of information that should not be a surprise to anyone. Medical care costs money. Sometimes, the medical care a patient needs costs a lot of money. We sometimes forget this, as Canadians, because we have the incredible privilege of seeking medical care whenever we need it, however minor or severe, and not have to sit down with the doctor beforehand and talk about what that care will cost. But OHIP doesn’t cover our furry (or feathered, or scaly) family members. And medical care costs money. It’s not a nice feeling, to have to have that conversation. Trust me, I know. In this particular case, likely because of social pressure and media attention ( #bullying ), this vet clinic opted in the end to do the work pro bono, and reunite this family with their dog. I am sure that made the dog, the family, and possibly even the veterinarian, very happy. But it doesn’t keep the lights on. It doesn’t pay the staff payroll. It doesn’t restock the shelves.
Will other pet owners, having seen this “feel-good” story now think that all they need to do is publicly shame their vet on news media/social media/etc, and they can get expensive medical care for free too?
Here’s a little fact you may or may not know; all vet hospitals in Canada, BY LAW, are owned by veterinarians. One must be a veterinarian to own a vet clinic. Most of us are small business owners. Why does it seem reasonable to so many people to ask for a line of credit from a small business owner? That’s what banks are for, what credit card companies are for, what credit unions are for. There is even a company called Pet Card that is specifically devoted to providing people with flexible payment plan options for veterinary bills. We don’t know if any of those options were mentioned to the family in this case, but I do think that most people are aware of the existence of these types of financial institutions, and a very simple and fast Google search could also have provided that information. And if the person in question does not qualify for credit from a large corporation whose job it is to provide credit, how can we ask a small business owner to take on the financial risk of providing them with credit?
If the option eventually offered in this case was to surrender the dog, I can only assume, as a veterinarian with 13 years of experience in general practice, that the vets were trying very hard to come up with some way that the end of this puppy’s story would not have to be euthanasia. That may be a tough pill to swallow, but there are many pets who end up being euthanized because there is simply no way that their people can afford whatever care it is that they need. This hospital was trying to find a way for the puppy to be treated, and survive, and hopefully then find a good home. Good on them. In return, they get bullied on national tv.
I can tell you,that in general practice, I see the whole human spectrum, from the very wealthy to the very poor, from the very caring to the very callous, from the very knowledgeable to those who know almost nothing about caring for animals. And we help them all. And, I can tell you that sometimes people are effusively grateful for my help, and sometimes people are downright abusive despite my help. I get accused regularly of being “only in it for the money”. Did you know that worldwide, veterinarians have now officially surpassed all the other health care professions in suicides? All too often, the challenges of either not being able to help, or being accused of being money grubbers when all we are trying to do is help, plays a role in many of those suicides. There is a movement called #notonemorevet. Look it up. Vets care. A lot.
Let me change tacks a little bit, and ask you, Pat Foran, will you come in to work for free? Will you, Ken Shaw and Michelle Dube? How about your camera operators, your producers, your executives, or the rest of the news team – will they come in to work for free? How about that family who so tragically almost lost their beloved pet – would they go in to work for free? Of course not. We all want to make a fair living, and there’s nothing shameful about that. As I mentioned before, medical care costs money. Shame on you, CTV, for bullying this vet clinic, just because they ask an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. For bullying them into giving away that honest work for free.
If you would like to contact me to discuss this further, I am more than happy to participate in the conversation.”
Aimee Gilbert, DVM
Emergency clinics are usually staffed with veterinarians and vet technicians who must perform literal miracles on desperately sick pets, 365 days of the year. You should expect that off hours veterinary fees are typically higher than daytime fees. This is due to the increased costs of providing a dedicated staff who work at nights, on weekends and holidays, so clearly the service will not be cheap. And neither is pet ownership cheap in general – dog ownership over the lifetime of the pet is estimated by OVMA to be in excess of $28,000.
But in an increasingly cynical society, pet parents are committing emotionally-embroiled bribery when they blame clinics for not providing free or discounted services when clients cannot pay or don’t want to prioritize payment. As we’ve seen with this particular example, dog lovers jumped on the social media band wagon in a campaign of harassment and psychological abuse, monopolizing the resources of the clinic and possibly jeopardizing other animal patients. Social media attacks on clinics are so common that both the AVMA and the CVMA publish guidelines for reputation management and cyberbullying.
“If you really loved animals, you’d do it for free.”
In the end, the clinic appeared to treat the whole unfortunate event with grace and aplomb, issuing a statement to CTV Toronto that “emergency surgery was performed, at no cost. We have been diligently and ethically working with Natasha Goodman… We are pleased to confirm that Roxy has been reunited with her family.” We presume that Roxy, who is blissfully unaware of the controversy, is on her way to a full recovery. But few small businesses can afford to offer much pro-bono work. The clinic in this case appears to have gotten nothing in return for their troubles, not even an offer of partial payment that I could find (it would be great if Roxy’s people offered to cover at least some of the cost). Pet owners need to understand that expecting to be paid for your services is not the same thing as “being in it for the money.” You should no more expect your veterinarian to offer free services than you would your general practitioner. Your personal physician didn’t enter the field of medicine because he or she “loves” you either.
Crowdsourcing, discounted surgical procedures, and pet food banks are all options, and there are a number of resources for low-income pet owners in the province of Ontario, but pet owners of more substantial means may have to give up a vacation or two in order to afford the care a pet needs. That next trip to Switzerland, Mount Kilimanjaro or Italy may have to wait for another year or for your next Corporate bonus….