The day I told my veterinary client the truth


We can't let fear keep us veterinarians from broaching this taboo topic with pet owners.

One of my idols is Dr. Gregory House from TV's House. Though he's quite a jerk—unfeeling and conceited—he says things nobody else can, and he's usually right. In the real world, he would probably have been fired long ago despite his brilliance, so you're not likely to find many people like him. But I really wish I could be as blunt with my clients as he is with his. Especially with the ones who shouldn't have pets at all.


I've met many clients I think shouldn't have a pet. They can't afford basic care or simply don't want to pay for it. Rarely have I ever said anything to them in a direct way. Why? I'm a veterinarian. Like many of you, I have a hard time confronting people with hard truths and bold judgments.

Also, I don't want to drive people away from our clinic. I want to maintain a good reputation as a sympathetic and caring doctor. So when I see these clients, I normally go to the back and complain along with the rest of the staff or go online and blog about it.


Not so a few days ago. A client came in for a rabies vaccine for her dog. Her only reason for making the appointment was that her other dog had bitten someone and was under quarantine at Animal Control because its rabies vaccine wasn't current.

Not only were her dogs behind on vaccines, they weren't on heartworm or flea preventives either and hadn't seen a veterinarian in years.

The client said she didn't have the money for my basic recommendations and couldn't do anything other than the rabies shot. As I began to speak to her in response, something shifted in me. I told her about the severe, life-threatening risks of heartworms, distemper, and parvovirus. I told her she was leaving her dogs at risk for disease and potential death. And then I did what I have never done before: I suggested that she consider finding homes for them with someone who could pay for basic preventive care.


Many of you may be thinking, "You're a coward if you've never talked to clients about this!" You may be right. All I can say is discussing these things with colleagues is very different from confronting someone. But avoiding that confrontation hurts our patients and denies clients the truth.

I'm not saying we need to be cruel or argumentative. I was careful to be as polite as possible, and I saw the client get a little wide-eyed at the suggestion that she give up her pets. It made me cringe inside. But it needed to be said, and I don't regret saying it. In fact, I'm now more likely to do it again in the future.

These days, I'm working to be more direct with clients, telling them what they need to hear—not what they want to hear. You can be more polite than Dr. House and still say what you need to say. When you do, you're doing the pet owner a favor and staying true to yourself and your mission to help animals.

Dr. Chris Bern is an associate in Woodstock, Ga., and he blogs about the veterinary life at

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