The specter of cyberbullying

June 14, 2018
Julie Carlson, CVT

Julie Carlson is a freelance author and certified veterinary technician in Phoenix. She is the founder of Vets for Vets Pets, a nonprofit organization providing supplies and medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans.

Haunted. Vulnerable. Alone. The act of bullying is to silo a person, separate her from community and take away her security and safety and sense of self-worth.

Haunted. Vulnerable. Alone. The act of bullying is to silo a person, separate her from community and take away her security and safety and sense of self-worth. The U.S. government defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. As someone who was mercilessly bullied in school throughout my childhood, I'd describe bullying as the flagrant violation of someone's sense of safety, pervading every aspect of their life and forever altering their personality.

Veterinarians and their teams are frequent victims of this type of harassment. As many as one in five veterinarians has been targeted by online bullies, or knows someone who was.

Haunted by a cyberbully

Dr. Susan (not her real name) is a veterinary surgeon at an emergency clinic in the United Kingdom. One evening a client brought in a very aggressive, unmanageable dog we'll call Rex. Rex was having mild gastrointestinal symptoms, but he was eating and drinking and generally seemed OK.

Because Dr. Susan couldn't handle the dog and the pet owner wasn't able to put a muzzle on the dog, Dr. Susan treated the dog with pain relievers and gastroprotectants. She advised the client-we'll call her Kate-to return to her regular veterinarian if she saw no improvement.

The dog was later diagnosed with tumors in its chest. Kate brought Rex in to the emergency clinic at least once a night, usually between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., with the complaint that Rex was in pain and struggling to breathe. On each of these occasions, Rex's aggression made it impossible for Dr. Susan to safely examine him, but he always appeared bright, alert and responsive.

Kate made complaints against Dr. Susan, calling her as many as four times a night and talking for hours about her standards of care. Meanwhile Kate was also complaining about Dr. Susan to the emergency hospital's management. Dr. Susan did her best to help Rex and explain the situation to Kate, but she couldn't perform the extensive testing Rex needed at her practice. Though Dr. Susan explained this to Kate, Kate continued calling and bringing Rex to the hospital at night. At times Kate would claim that the dog was doing well; other times she would state that Rex was suffering constantly. Rex's primary care veterinarian advised euthanasia, but Kate refused.

On one visit, Rex bit Dr. Susan's hand so badly it broke the bone, and Dr. Susan cried out in pain. At the time, Kate apologized, but later she wrote the hospital to complain that “the doctor's screams traumatized [her] baby,” and that Rex was kicked out without receiving any treatment, which is false.

The abuse only escalated from there. Kate launched a defamatory online campaign against Dr. Susan, putting up a number of petitions to have her license revoked. The harassment continued for two or three months. Dr. Susan's hospital management team was unsupportive.

Dr. Susan gained her freedom from her bully in an unusual way. Kate was fired from her primary care veterinary clinic, and the new clinic she chose was not covered by Dr. Susan's emergency hospital. So, Dr. Susan was finally free of Kate and Rex.

Several months later, local police contacted Dr. Susan to testify against Kate in another case where Rex had bitten someone. Kate was attacking the dog bite victim because he'd called the police after the attack. Dr. Susan learned that Kate had actually been banned from owning animals years ago. Kate received a slap on the wrist and is now being investigated again for new crimes.

Here's how Dr. Susan describes the emotional toll of her bully: “I cried myself to sleep for weeks. I could not sleep. I was scared. She threatened to kill me, published [my] private data online ... I don't wish her upon my worst enemy.”

How I dealt with my own specter

I've also witnessed cyberbullying firsthand. I was managing a hospital when one of our sister hospitals came under attack. A veterinarian discharged a dog after a spay procedure while she was still quite groggy. According to the client, the dog's gums were white and her heart was racing. The client said the veterinarian told her that the dog had fallen, but that she'd done bloodwork and an ultrasound to make sure everything was OK.

Later that night, when the dog was still not waking, the client took her to an emergency clinic, where CPR was performed three times before the dog finally died. The emergency hospital determined that the cause of death was internal bleeding. The client was understandably upset. In response, she launched an online campaign against the clinic and the veterinarian.

She picketed the practice, and things got ugly enough that the clinic had its lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter. I reached out to my territory manager for advice, because the story was all over the news and I didn't know how to handle inquiries. I was afraid of the intensity of the people initiating the attacks.

My territory manager told me to direct any inquiries to the main office. She said she didn't expect any fallout to affect our hospital because we were several miles away. I asked her if I should address it on our hospital Facebook page, and she said no. They expected everything to quiet down once our lawyer got involved, and it did.

After this, the social media thunderstorm quieted down, but the scathing Facebook reviews of the hospital remain.

How to keep the shadows at bay

People who work with animals often have such passion that it can quickly spiral out of control. A veterinarian in New York became the victim of such intense harassment that she committed suicide to escape her tormenters.

In 2015, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation was forced to cancel its America's Favorite Veterinarian contest because of a vicious cyberbullying attack from anti-declawing activists. The AVMA published an article about the cancellation, writing, “One contestant, for example, was called ‘a whore, a butcher, a mutilator, a hack, an animal hater, a disgrace to the profession.' Other contestants were subjected to the circulation of fraudulent negative advertisements, negative reviews, and threatening phone calls.”

Cyberbullies looking for a forum have created websites and social media pages, including The Veterinary Abuse Network, Ripoff Report and Regret a Vet, which provide one-sided commentary on perceived neglect and misconduct by veterinarians. These sites often detail the savage and violent things the pet owner wishes to do to the veterinarian.

JAVMA News reported that most cyberbullying attacks arose from disputes over patient care, charges for care or services, or diagnosis or treatment. They state that most attacks were initiated within 72 hours of the inciting situation.

Because cyberbullying has become so common in our field, the AVMA has established the Cyberbullying Response Assistance Hotline Pilot Program to assist AVMA members who are victims of online attacks. The hotline is available 24/7 and includes 30 minutes of free consultation time, with further consulting available at a reduced rate to members. The AVMA has also opened their Online Reputation Management page to assist clinics that have fallen under fire from cyberbullies.

To boost your awareness of your online reputation, it's wise to scan the internet for feedback and commentary on your practice. One easy way to do this is to set up a Google alert that emails you anytime the keywords you enter (the clinic name, staff names and so on) appear online.

If any derogatory comments occur, Kimberly May, DVM, director of professional and public affairs in the AVMA Communications Division, advises veterinary professionals to address the facts and avoid getting pulled into personal arguments. Your message should show compassion and focus on what's best for the animal, she says. She also advises any veterinary professional who receives a substantial threat to contact the police.

AVMA@Work published a statement that sums up the point well: “We know that people can become passionate about almost any subject that is near and dear to them, but we ask everyone reading this message to always remember that there is a person on the other end of that message; that they are as entitled to their opinions as you are, and their beliefs may be as strong as yours; and that they should be treated with respect despite disagreement. It is only through civil, constructive dialog-and respectful disagreement-that we make progress on important issues.”

To contact the Cyberbullying Hotline, call (626) 531-1140. Check out the AVMA's Online Reputation Management Page here.

Julie Carlson, CVT, is a freelance author and veterinary technician. She is the winner of the 2015 Hero Veterinary Technician Award from the American Humane Association and the Founder of Vets for Vets' Pets, a nonprofit organization providing medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans. Julie has five cats and two Chihuahuas and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.