Dealing with difficult pet owners

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dealing with difficult pet owners
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Working in a vet clinic means you are regularly dealing with angry or grief-stricken pet owners, so it’s imperative you develop robust coping strategies in order to protect your mental health. By Rachel Smith

A love for animals and the desire to make a career out of treating and caring for them is probably a big part of why you decided to become a vet. What you may not have considered when exiting veterinary school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, were the pet-owners: the difficult ones, the rude ones, the ones stricken with grief or guilt. Dealing with these people day in, day out, can take its toll on your own mental health—and those at the frontline say the pandemic has only exacerbated the issues.

“Our team has seen wait times blow out to a level we’ve never encountered before, and clients exhibiting bad behaviour has become a lot more common in the last two years—so much so that it’s expected at least once or twice every shift,” says Dani Bliim, practice manager at SASH on NSW’s Central Coast.

And psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton, a leading expert on veterinarian mental health and the founder of the charity Love Your Pet Love Your Vet, said some vets admitted to her that they actually preferred how COVID enabled phone consults over face-to-face ones. 

“They found it easier to be assertive with pet owners over the phone and didn’t have to think about the body language or worry they would lash out physically,” she says. “One of my clients, a vet, had a gun pulled on them twice—once in a rural situation and once in clinic. And the SBS Insight program last year featured a vet who was pushed up against a wall and threatened over a bill of less than $200. Vets experience a lot of verbal abuse.”

The effect on vets’ mental health

Stress levels in the vet industry are sky high—and repeated exposure to trauma (such as abuse, illness of animals and euthanasia) can lead to compassion fatigue or even PTSD, say experts. We also know from research that in Australia, a vet suicides every 12 weeks.

“I think EQ is just as important for vets as IQ because it is a really emotionally difficult job. It is, I think, a big reason why so many people in our industry either drop out of the industry, which is leading to a terrible shortage of vets, or the much bigger issue, the number of vets who take their own lives,” says Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte from The Healing Vet.

What’s continues to confound Dani Bliim is the guilt vets face for not treating animals for free. “That’s quite shocking to me. I don’t expect my local mechanic to fix my car for free,” she says. “I think vets can help by encouraging owners to insure their pets to take the stress out of unexpected care costs, and by educating them about researching breeds—some, like dachshunds and Frenchies, are more likely to need care and cost more than other animals.”

Dealing with aggressive pet owners

Strong, clear boundaries are key—but it can take a while to establish them, says Dr Bassingthwaighte. “My coping mechanisms as a young vet starting out weren’t healthy; I suppressed my feelings and numbed out. Vet school was a heavy drinking culture and I took that into the job. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve worked on becoming resilient and being able to say to a pet owner, ‘No, I’m not going to accept abusive behaviour’.”

My coping mechanisms as a young vet starting out weren’t healthy; I suppressed my feelings and numbed out. Vet school was a heavy drinking culture and I took that into the job. I don’t do that anymore.

Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte, The Healing Vet

At Bliim’s clinic, rude, bullying and aggressive clients aren’t welcome. “We understand grief can manifest differently but we’re big on protecting the mental health of our team—and as a hospital we have a united front on what we won’t tolerate,” she says. 

Having a few scripts for difficult conversations can help, says Dr Hamilton. “You might say, “I understand that you want to resolve this, but I’d appreciate it if you could stop yelling at me first so I can have a conversation with you’,” she explains. “People may yell because they’re stressed or feel guilty that they’ve left it too late to bring their pet in, or because they can’t afford to pay for the treatment but none of that is an excuse for bad behaviour.”

Handling grief and guilt 

The death of a pet or the need to euthanase an animal is always challenging—for both the owner and often the staff who’ve loved and cared for the animal over many years.

“These owners have suffered a horrendous loss and I think most people just need to be able to voice their emotions to someone they won’t feel judged by,” says Bliim. “It can also be helpful to grieving owners to have follow-up discussions about what occurred and why their pet passed away—as they may not have taken in all the information at the time.”

What if you’re the one most affected? That was an experience Dr Bassingthwaighte had as a young vet. “In my first job I was doing a caesarean on the nurse’s dog, and the dog suddenly died on the table,” he says. “That really left me shattered and affected me emotionally for a long time, because I didn’t have the coping skills to deal with it. Now, I’m an experienced vet and if I’ve done everything I can, I’m okay with that. And these days, I’m very empathetic; I have no problem grieving with a pet owner.”

Coping better

Seeking help, creating a life outside work and having a ‘devotion to self-care’ are the resilience strategies that have worked for Dr Bassingthwaighte. “Reading up and training on things like interpersonal communication and boundaries is important but also, get help—like a life coach or get on a mental health care plan with your GP for discounted sessions with a psychologist. When I sought help, that’s when things in my life changed for the better.”

Bliim agrees that educating yourself about how to manage difficult conversations or handle difficult clients is a must. “And in-house training in these subjects is also important so the team can support each other,” she adds.

Practice owners also need to normalise support and ask how people are doing—not just on RUOK Day but often, says Dr Hamilton. “Let your team know what support is in place, such as a workplace EAP program if they need it.”

If this story has brought up any issues for you and you’d like to talk to someone, please contact Lifeline or Beyond Blue. There are also resources at Love Your Pet, Love Your Vet, or contact Dr Nadine Hamilton for a confidential chat.

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