If you had dinner with a group of veterinarians in any given year B.C. (Before COVID-19), you probably heard variations on these stories:

  • The one about the client who wanted his pet treated but didn’t want to pay for anything
  • The one about the client who wanted medication without an exam
  • The one about the client who went to the pet store or the internet for answers instead of the vet
  • And we can’t forget the one about the acquaintance who Facebook messaged them in the middle of the weekend to ask for free vet advice

Well, it’s not B.C. anymore. Now, vets exchange comments without irony in online forums about variations on the following stories:

  • The one about the client who barged into the waiting room past the signs that said “no clients inside”
  • The one about the client who cried or lashed out because she couldn’t be with her lethargic, vomiting cat for his exam
  • The one about the client who was experiencing signs of illness himself but wanted to bring his dog in anyway because he was worried about him
  • The one about the client who messaged them on Facebook at midnight to ask whether their pet could contract and transmit the novel coronavirus 

If I had to pick one metaphor to summarize most of the human condition, it would be that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It’s normal to want what we can’t have. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean we can’t work on our assumptions about what we DO have.

At least the client who ignores the “no clients” sign is bringing us business. Maybe he was laid off from his job, or maybe he has a high-risk family member at home, and he’s worried about having to spend time and money at the vet – but he’s doing it anyway.

There’s a good chance that the client who desperately wants to be with her sick cat loves him just as desperately. Maybe the cat is her emotional support during a time of terrifying anxiety and isolation. What would I be like if one of my animals got sick right now and I had to hand him to a stranger and wait in the car? Probably not as sweet as I’d like to think, and I fully agree with the transition to curbside care and the reasons for doing it now. 

What about the client who admits to being sick but asks for an appointment and cares enough about his dog to put his own comfort aside – and enough about the health of our team members that he admits to his clinical signs before showing up? Maybe he doesn’t have someone to bring his dog in for him, or he isn’t aware that telemedicine might be an option. Possibly he doesn’t know that exceptions might be made to the “no meds without an exam” rule we spend so much time training our clients to accept. He probably couldn’t imagine a world in which we would just say, “here’s some medication.” Three weeks ago, neither could I. And now vets are joking about chucking it through the car window as he drives by. Nothing wrong with joking, by the way – but there’s a difference between laughing at a scared client and laughing at ourselves. 

It’s actually a sign that our message has been getting through when a client who is terrified his pet might get sick from COVID, or could transmit it to his elderly mother, asks us about it and not his cousin’s sister-in-law who works as a groomer. Also, if a client sends us a Facebook message at midnight or at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, it’s not because they want to wake us up or act like our time isn’t valuable – it’s because they’re awake and worrying about their pet. Yeah, been there myself. 

We spend so much mental energy under normal circumstances wishing for more – more trust, more money, more respect. Honestly, it’s taken a global pandemic for me to realize that most people are ready and willing to give us ALL THOSE THINGS. We’ve asked for them and we’ve earned them. And now we have to be gracious when they’re offered, even if the package in which they come looks a little different than we’d choose. 

A side effect of social distancing is that we are all online all the time. It’s great, actually – imagine having to be socially distant during a time when that really meant isolation! I mean, I had an 80’s dance party in my living room over Zoom last week! But it also means constantly being subjected to the media, to updates on deaths and equipment shortages, and most of all, to other people’s actions, opinions, disagreements, politics, choices… many of which will not align well with our own. The constant simmering anxiety we all feel, along with an inability to look these people in the eye and remember they are also anxious and facing unknown demons, makes us even more likely and willing to judge them. 

In this new reality, when we can’t see two weeks into the future, when our policies and protocols are changing not just daily but sometimes hourly, it’s never been more important to remember that we are all struggling with something – and for once, we’re all struggling with the SAME big thing. We don’t have to travel too far in strange shoes right now to understand the view.

Measuring others against standards we’ve created in isolation – that’s the easy way out. Anger, bitterness, and knee-jerk reactions are streetcars offering faster travel down that easy road. Withholding judgment and assuming everyone is just trying to do the best they can with what they have – that’s the hard road. It requires a lot more maintenance, but it’s leading to a better destination.

How does that article you’re reading today about teens throwing spring break parties in Florida affect how you will relate to your clients tomorrow? That client who hates the thought of being separated from her dog while either of them is sick? You and I ARE that client, or we could be, and a lot sooner than we ever expected. When it’s our turn, how will we want to be talked about? How will we want to be treated?  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.

Dr. Katie Berlin


Dr. Katie Berlin is a small animal general practitioner in York, PA. She is also a certified personal trainer, book nerd, and marathoner, and she co-hosts the Veterinary Super Friends Podcast with Dr. Carrie Jurney of Not One More Vet. She graduated from Williams College with a degree in Art History and worked in art museums before earning her DVM from Cornell in 2009. She is an avid supporter of Fear Free practice and the battle against burnout in veterinary teams. Through her website, The Vet Reset, she is working to promote the role of fitness and physical health in building mental health and emotional resilience for veterinary professionals.