There’s a growing trend among outstanding, caring, compassionate veterinarians around the world, and it’s not accessorizing for fall with jaunty cat-themed scarves (although I’m really pushing that and hope it will take off).

More and more veterinarians I know and respect are getting skewered in online reviews. These are people who give their all to their patients, only to find horrific things written about them in the most public forum of all. For people who care so much about the animals they treat, having this kind of venom aimed at them online is terribly distressing, even heartbreaking. It also hurts pet owners who see those bad reviews, choose not to go to that vet, and miss out on a doctor they might have loved working with.

Are we simply entering an age where nasty people take pleasure in tearing down reputations from behind their screens? I don’t think so. Many, if not most, of the pet owners who write these reviews are normal, everyday people you would probably enjoy meeting for coffee.

So how does this happen? If these pet owners are so nice and the vets are so great, why do some online reviews say the exact opposite?

I have found there are three common reasons that drive some perfectly civilized pet owners to trash even the best veterinarians online. Here they are.

Guilt & Sadness Mutate

Emotions can do strange things. For example, when I walk into the break room to find my staff has eaten the last of Mrs. Miller’s brownies before I tasted even one, I go on an emotional rollercoaster that rolls from shock, to sadness, to fury, to acceptance, and back to sadness. It’s exhausting just to think about.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many good people I’ve worked with who were wracked by guilt and sadness over a medical outcome for their pet. The guilt often ranges from thoughts like “I should have brought her in sooner” or “I shouldn’t have gone out of the country and left her” to “If I had more money, I could have gotten her the surgery she needed.” The sadness associated with the loss of a pet often heightens this guilt to an unbearable level. My heart breaks for these families.

In some cases (and I do believe it’s a self-defense mechanism) this unbearable guilt morphs into anger. Unable to carry the heavy burden of grief, some pet owners mentally shift their pain and blame to the other person who was there at the end: the veterinarian.

In these cases, “I shouldn’t have waited so long to bring her in” ends up on the internet as “My vet didn’t work fast enough when we arrived.” “I can’t afford this surgery” becomes “the greedy vet refused to help us.”

I’m not saying no veterinarian has ever wronged a pet owner, of course. It’s just that when we see nasty online reviews, we only see one side of the story — a story that may be driven by guilt and sorrow disguised as fury.

Pets Are Amazing & Miracles Happen

I was recently in the vet clinic when a vomiting dog was brought in to me. The owners were pretty certain that he had eaten a washcloth or two, and x-rays supported this conclusion. The poor dog was dehydrated, painful in his belly, and lethargic.

I told the pet owners we needed to go to surgery to remove the cloth. The husband seemed ready, but the wife was incredulous. “We already spent $200 on tests. The dog was only $35.”

I explained the problem and how dehydration was making it worse. I told her that I worried this condition would be fatal. I begged her to let me go to surgery to save the dog. She. Wasn’t. Having. It.

She agreed to let me give the dog some fluids under his skin before she took it home, and that was that. Three days later, when I hadn’t heard an update, I called to check on the dog. I expected the worst.

The husband happily told me that the dog had pooped out the washcloth the previous day. He was ecstatic and so was I. This was exactly the outcome I had been hoping for, unlikely as it was. In the background, I could imagine his wife saying, “I told you so.”

Pets occasionally surprise us by doing incredible things. Everything I said to this family was true; and if I saw an identical case, I would say it all again. The chances of this dog passing this cloth given his physical condition were minuscule… but he did it.

I’m still nervous I may see a review of myself that says, “Strongly recommended an expensive surgery my dog didn’t need.” Still, I would do it again because it’s extremely unlikely the next dog will be so incredibly lucky.

Second Opinions Have Advantages

Another common complaint I’ve seen about veterinarians I respect comes from what I call the second opinion assist.

I once saw a goofy Labrador retriever who was limping. A week earlier, the problem had just started. His owners took him to another veterinarian in town who had taken x-rays, felt the dog’s knee again and again, and ultimately said, “I don’t know.”

She said, “It could need surgery to fix a torn ligament in his knee, or it could just be a sprain. I simply don’t know, and he’s not giving me much help. We’ll need to start some anti-inflammatory medicines and see what happens.” A week later the dog’s owners came to see me for a second opinion. The silly dog was bouncing all around the room, but still refused to put any weight on the leg. I examined him and sent them to the orthopedist to discuss surgery. The family was thrilled with my decisiveness and unimpressed with their experience (and the cost) with the other veterinarian.

But here’s the thing… I acted with certainty only because I had the x-rays the previous veterinarian had taken AND I saw a dog who was still limping one week after the initial injury. The previous vet saw a dog who had just injured himself, and she had no x-rays (until she took them). The situations were totally different, and I had a slew of advantages the first vet didn’t have (the biggest being hindsight since the dog wasn’t improving after a week). That’s the second opinion assist.

So, the next time you’re looking at a veterinary clinic’s online reviews and wondering about that one awful entry, stop and think. You may very well be reading just one side of a story.

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