Veterinary Realities and Pet Owner Responsibilities

My sister spent two years waiting for her cat to die. Her veterinarian had taken a needle aspirate of what he considered to be a suspicious enlargement and diagnosed mammary cancer based on his interpretation of his analysis. He gave a prognosis of 2-6 months survival. He also briefly mentioned a very expensive surgical option with a low success rate. He offered no explanation of anticipated symptoms and progression of the disease. He simply sent my sister home with a dying cat.

Two years later, the cat has never exhibited a day of illness. A new veterinarian has declared her healthy and debunked the previous cancer diagnosis. So, what happened? The previous vet was wrong; that’s what happened.

Yes, that’s right. Veterinarians can be wrong. Veterinarians can be wrong a lot. This isn’t unlike any other human being on the planet, but for some reason, veterinary clients, just like medical patients, expect health care providers to be omniscient, infallible demigods. We believe every word that comes out of their mouths, even when those words clearly express ambiguity or doubt. We strain to hear concrete answers to the exclusion of our own common sense and intuition. This is not only unfair to vets, but dangerous for the animals under their care.

Putting common sense to work, we have to realize that it is completely unrealistic to expect any veterinarian to know all things about all illnesses and all injuries in all animal species. Once we accept that fact, we also have to consider the possibility that our vet may not be knowledgeable about the specific medical complaint for which we have taken our cat to him/her. When my own cat developed hyperthyroidism, two different vets prescribed two different dosages of the same medication. So, which vet was correct? According to Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook 7th Edition, they both were. Turns out there was a dosing range listed in the drug reference. One vet opted for a low dose option, the other a high dose option. Whose dosing recommendation was I to take?

This is where my responsibility as my cat’s caretaker comes into play. Since I have now accepted the reality that vets can’t possibly know everything, and because I have no way of knowing exactly how much a vet does know about any particular feline disease, it is up to me to assume the role of a strong and well-informed advocate and partner in my cats’ veterinary care.

Gone are the days when I will do anything and everything a veterinarian recommends without my thorough understanding and agreement. Experience has taught me hard lessons where my animals’ health is concerned, and maturity has given me the self-confidence to question my vets whenever necessary. The Internet has also greatly facilitated an enlightened and empowered approach to cat care. I spend considerable time researching my cats’ medical issues online, learning as much as possible about the mechanics of various diseases, their treatment and management options, and their progressions and prognoses. I also participate in online forums, groups, and mailing lists dedicated to both general cat health topics and to specific feline diseases.

I make sure that I can speak with my vet intelligently about my cats’ conditions, that I can ask relevant and necessary questions, and that I am able to make properly informed decisions that are in my cats’ best interests. Every decision regarding my cats’ veterinary care is, after all, my sole and ultimate responsibility. Veterinarians are highly trained, professional advisors, but they do not have to live with the consequences of their diagnoses and prescribed courses of treatment. I do, and more importantly, my cats do. The buck stops with me.

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2 Responses to Veterinary Realities and Pet Owner Responsibilities

  1. I agree. Veterinarians are human and not infallible and can make diagnostic mistakes. There are also situations where a pet owner demands that they do something for poor kitty or puppy. Not every anomaly needs to be treated, but what is the poor vet to do when faced with an overwrought pet owner?

    • lfrazer says:

      That’s a legitimate question, Bob, and one that I suspect most vets are faced with daily in their practices. Vets need to not only provide medical assistance, but if they are going to be truly effective, they need to also instruct and emotionally support their clients. It’s a lot to expect, I know. But any veterinarian who gets into the profession thinking that it’s just about animal medicine is in for a heck of an awakening … and their clients and patients will not be well-served until that awakening has occurred.

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