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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Tragedy Of Owner Failure

Yesterday I saw a nine year-old mixed breed dog who came in because of a swollen belly.  The owner reported that the abdomen had been growing larger and larger over the last six weeks or so.  When I examined the dog she was about as wide as she was tall (a short dog, but still....) and was breathing somewhat rapidly.  I suspected ascites (fluid in the abdomen), did a quick abdominal tap to confirm my thoughts, and was "rewarded" with a rapid 20ml of yellowish fluid.  To make a long story short, the heartworm test was positive, indicating that the dog was in end-stage heartworm disease and right-sided heart failure.  And yes, the dog had been coughing prior to the fluid ever being noticed.

The day before that one of my associates called me to tell me that a patient had pyometra, a severe and life-threatening uterine infection.  The owner couldn't afford to take her to the emergency clinic for surgery, and was going to bring her to me the next day.  I had been in the clinic a while yesterday morning with no sign of the client, so I had the other location called (I work for a practice with multiple satellite clinics, and I was working at a different one than my "home" location).  Apparently the client wasn't going to be able to come in until after 3:00, which was too late to safely do surgery and monitor the patient as it would come too close to closing time.  My associate was going to try and get her to somewhere else sooner, as I'm not working again until Tuesday, but the owner didn't seem rushed.  While she's checking her calendar, her dog might not live.

All too often I see cases that happen entirely because of owner non-compliance or otherwise their failure to properly care for their pets.  In the first case about $6 per month worth of prevention could have kept the dog from ever getting ill.  And if they had brought the dog in at an earlier stage, it wouldn't have lead to such severe illness and could have been treated easier.  In the second case, spaying the dog when she was young would have again completely prevented such a potentially deadly infection.  And when your dog might die, do you really want to spend several days checking to see when a life-saving procedure fits into your schedule?

These situations are some of the greatest frustrations of a veterinarian.  We go into this profession because we love animals and want to make and keep them healthy.  We spend incredible amounts of time, stress, and money learning how to heal and do surgery, and then work hard to improve our skills once we're out of school.  And in most cases the biggest barrier we have to successfully doing what we're trained to do is not a lack of skill or equipment, it's a lack of caring from owners.  In the first case above, the client had thought the coughing might be heartworm disease, but didn't bring the dog in until it was almost too late.  I don't know anybody who hasn't been told "spay or neuter your pet".  And then when we do still have the ability to help these pets, often our hands are tied by the owners' decision.

And the hardest part to us is when these cases should never have even come up, as they are completely preventable.

Owners, please do what your vets tell you to do.  We're honestly looking out for YOUR pet's health.


  1. I think there are people who believe we're making millions off their $6 a month heartworm preventative. Same thing for spays and neuters. I don't care if it gets done at our clinic or not, just get it done!

    My favorite story is about an older lady who brought her dog in because it was lethargic and limping but the limp was the least of the worry. There was a large pyo sitting in the dog's abdomen. The lady was fixated on the limp as I was trying to convince her that the pyo was the life-threatening condition. Finally got through to her and whenever the techs would run up front to help another client she'd ask 'Is Dutchess dead???' LOL! I'm happy to report she got through surgery just fine and we've seen her back just recently for annual exam. She's doing great!

  2. I really don't understand those owners either. My animals come first. I'd drop everything in a second to make sure they were looked after.

  3. I agree completely. It is heartbreaking to see an animal that has been suffering under the watchful eye of their owners. The worst is to see them in that final stage, knowing we could have helped save them if we had just seen them sooner. To me the worst part of working in the veterinary field, not being able to save them all.

  4. there are losers and idiots everywhere. sigh.

  5. The worst part is thinking my pets are exposed to these pets with horrible owners. Of course, that's why I vaccinate and give preventatives :)

    Love your blog, by the way!


  6. This is the group of clients who justify their failure to seek timely veterinary care by saying: "The last time I visited the veterinarian it was outrageously expensive. I can't believe the veterinarian expected me to pay all that money even though the animal died/would have gotten better on its own. Veterinarians are useless and greedy."

    Just because a person owns an animal does not mean that person will ever become a client. There is no amount of education and goodwill that will convert someone who thinks your services are fundamentally worthless into a client. I used to try. Now I send the worst offenders to the local veterinary school, which is more ruthless than I about chasing down bad pay (for those who stop payment on checks) and employs a roomful of attorneys besides. The ones I can tolerate will make for fine anecdotes when I write my memoirs, with their identities carefully blurred, of course.

  7. I'm with Olivia. My dogs are right up there with my kids when it comes to medical attention when needed. And PREVENTION.

    These people who fear the cost of vet visits should not have pets. They clearly cannot afford to have them.

  8. While it is tempting to dismiss these pet-owners as simply irresponsible cheapskates, I believe there is another contributing factor. Our society suffers from science "illiteracy." Even college graduates are woefully ignorant of the basics of biology and chemistry. The situation is not helped by mainstream media and prominent public figures who perpetuate myths, psuedo-science, and worse.

  9. The tragedy of owner failure is compounded by the huge expense that is a trip to the vets. It's appalling how much money is extorted from caring pet owners.

    $400 for an x-ray, blood test and 15 minute office visit... unbelievable.

    1. How is it extortion to expect to be paid for the services we provide? Do you realize that veterinary care is a fraction of the price of the same services in human medicine? Do you realize that the average blood analyzer can cost $20,000 or more? Did you know that the annual salary for most veterinarians is less than half of what human doctors make?

      S Benoit, if you feel that $200 for x-rays, $150 for blood tests, and $50 for an office visit is outrageous, then you honestly know absolutely nothing about the costs of business and maintaining a high quality veterinary practice. Those costs are about half of what it costs to do the same thing on yourself. If you have insurance then you pay a fraction of the true cost while the insurance company pays the rest.


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