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The Dilemma: temper, temper!
Should a team member be fired for one isolated incident of physical abuse toward a seemingly aggressive patient during these stressful, unprecedented times?
During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Kingston Animal Hospital’s resources were stretched thin. A surge in pet ownership left staff members struggling to manage increased workloads, making occasional temper flare-ups unavoidable.
One morning, a 95-pound dog came to the clinic for curbside care. Sally, a technician, brought Rover from his car into the clinic for an examination and nail trim. Because Rover was so aggressive, she required assistance from 2 other technicians and the veterinarian. Rover was cautiously restrained and responded well to patience and petting, but exhibited threatening behavior during the nail trim.
Sally attempted to place a muzzle on Rover’s mouth, but he resisted by moving his head and growling. After several unsuccessful attempts, she grew frustrated and smacked Rover in the face with her bare hand, sternly saying “no.” Sally immediately regretted her actions and left the examination room.
The remaining 2 technicians and the on-duty veterinarian unanimously decided it was best to return the dog to his owner. Instead of informing the client about what happened, they simply recommended that, in the future, Rover be given an anxiety-relieving medication before visiting the clinic.
All staff members involved in Rover’s care were extremely concerned and upset. They reported everything that happened to the clinic’s medical director, who in turn interviewed everyone. The medical director had a tough decision to make. Sally had worked at the Kingston Animal Hospital for 7 years and was a well-respected technician with no history of abusive behavior toward any of her patients.
During Sally’s interview with the medical director, she exuded embarrassment and was very apologetic. She said that 2 weeks prior, she had to quarantine because of a family member’s potential COVID-19 exposure, and that her son was attending school virtually from home. She explained to the director that the combination of these stressful scenarios, topped with financial issues, had impaired her judgment and shortened her temper.
While the medical director felt strongly that physical animal abuse of any kind is the single worst offense at a veterinary facility, Sally had no previous history of abusive behavior, was a longtime employee, and was remorseful and highly apologetic. The director also considered the unique stresses of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and decided not to fire Sally.
The director did, however, require Sally to apologize to her coworkers and notated the incident on Sally’s record, indicating that any recurrence of this behavior would result in immediate termination. This notation was then cosigned by the medical director and Sally.
But what about the pet owners? Should she tell them what transpired? Because the medical director didn’t observe any visible signs of harm to the dog and because she believed she had adequately addressed the situation, she didn’t tell the owner. Her reasoning? She didn’t think anything good would come from informing the pet owners about this embarrassing, violent episode.
Do you agree with the medical director’s decision? We would like to know.Let us know your thoughts at email@example.com.
Dr Rosenberg’s Response
This dilemma is extremely upsetting, to say the least. Pandemic stress, a short-tempered staff member, and an aggressive dog led to a disastrous situation. There is never a good reason or an excuse for physically striking a pet patient. Excessive physical restraint frightens dogs. It’s as simple as that. This large, frightened, and aggressive dog should have had a temperament assessment before treatment. That would have most likely led to appropriate sedation and a nonstressful treatment experience.
Given the current state of affairs, I agree with the medical director’s decision not to terminate Sally. However, I disagree with not informing the pet owners. Without identifying specific staff members, the medical director should have told the pet owners what occurred and shared the disciplinary measures taken to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
The pet owners may have accepted this explanation, or they may have strongly detested it, refused to return to the practice, and filed a complaint with the state board. Nevertheless, the medical director should have been transparent with the client and let the chips fall where they may.
Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios he describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.