Do vets lack empathy?

A few years ago I bought a motorbike. I’d never been much of a petrolhead, but I was approaching 40, so… It was a 1975 Honda XL 350, with style and character in spades, but it ran a bit rough, so I took it to a mechanic who specialises in old bikes for a top to bottom service. One thing lead to another, and a service soon turned into a partial engine rebuild. After the rebuild that little single cylinder engine thumped along beautifully, and man, I loved riding that bike. I felt like Steve McQueen as I puttered along to the beach or rattled down to work and back. I loved it so much that I rode it almost every day. For months on end. Without ever checking the oil level. Not because I didn’t care, but because I was ignorant to the fact that, unlike modern cars, old motorbikes needed regular TLC. 

Luckily I was only about 2 kilometres from Scott’s workshop when that newly refurbished piston inevitably and violently seized onto the wall of the chamber, instantly destroying the cylinder head with a heart wrenching clunk. The crestfallen look on Scott’s face when he saw me pushing the bike into the workshop all red faced and sweaty  was almost as painful as the realisation the I’d ruined my bike through sheer stupidity. 

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” – Hanlon’s razor.

By it’s very nature veterinary science is a profession of empathy. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to care enough to be a vet if you don’t have empathy for animals. Are you able to imagine what the animal is feeling? Can you extrapolate from your own experiences and sympathise enough to be able to construct ideas of the problems that need to be solved? I have met very few vets who lack empathy for animals, and in fact when I personally feel a lack of empathy I take it as a very urgent warning sign of compassion fatigue and the need to step away from work for a while. 

But empathy for our patients is not enough. Not only do we need to take upon ourselves the suffering of the animals entrusted to us – we also need to be empathetic to their owners. Yes, even those ‘stupid’ people who let their own pet suffer for days before deciding that maybe they should bring it to the vet. 

Whether it’s at work,  socialising with vets or on social media, those in the veterinary industry like few things better than complaining about our clients. I’m guilty of it as much as anyone. It’s completely understandable: we sacrifice years to study to be able to most effectively help animals, and then we diligently dedicate our days and our years to that task. Small wonder then that we get frustrated when the owners who are supposed to be our partners in caring for their pets act like our opposition by disregarding our recommendations and second guessing us, or by simply appearing careless about something that we care so deeply about.  

“This poor dog has been sick for days, and now they bring it on at 5pm on a Friday afternoon and expect a quick fix, and I bet they are going to bitch about the bill!” Like I said, getting angry at clients is understandable, but it’s not acceptable. 

Here’s the thing: when I ruined my motorbike I knew that I was to blame. I felt like an idiot; I still do. I needed Scott to fix that bike. I didn’t need him to berate me, or to remind me that I should have been checking the oil levels, or make me feel stupid or lecture me in how to care for old bikes. That lesson had just been learnt, (and would be reinforced when I had to pay again to have the engine RE-rebuilt!)  And if Scott had done anything other than sympathise and do his job I would definitely not still be taking my bike to him for regular services. (Including regular oil changes…)

So when that dog with the chronic ear infection shows up AGAIN, two weeks after you said they should come in for a recheck, and the ear is even worse than it was before, frustration is natural. But your job is to help them, not make them feel bad. And even if, like most of us, you remain polite to the owner and refrain from telling them exactly how stupid and careless they are, you are probably still raging in your head, or going off to your nurses about it. This achieves nothing other than ruining your day and adding negative energy to the work environment. And chances are that the owner can pick up on your anger anyway.

A much better approach would an attempt to think empathetically: the client probably genuinely wants the ear to be better. They love this dog, and they are very likely not cruel or bad people. They are busy people, with 99 problems and a hundred other priorities. The care and wellbeing of animals is one of your highest priorities, but not necessarily one of theirs. You have years of study and a lifetime of being obsessed with animals behind you. They don’t. What they may have is two needy kids, or a shitty week at work, or a sick parent. Or they’re a bit scared of the dog, or they love it so much that they can’t bear to pin it down to get the drops down it’s ear, so they choose not to do it and naïvely hope for the best. And then one day they get to the point where they realise that they have to bring the dog back to you. In fact, they thought that they should do it about two weeks ago, but they were busy. Or maybe, probably, they were avoiding bringing the dog in because they’re embarrassed that they haven’t been able to medicate the dog and that the ear is now a total mess, and they worry that you’ll judge them. 

And when you do judge them, even silently, they can probably tell. Which means next time they won’t come in, or they’ll go somewhere else because they are too embarrassed to see you again. And all you’ve gained is a little bit of extra bitterness in your soul.

Instead, why don’t you take a step back. Recognise that you’re feeling angry and frustrated, but then try to think about why this client isn’t doing what you’ve asked them too. At worst it’s probably just ignorance, or laziness, or the fact they they are all too human and are unable to manage all their priorities effectively. (Are there some things in your life that you know you should be doing, but you just don’t get around to it?) Acknowledge that maybe this is a very hard thing for this person, and allow yourself to feel sympathy. Empathy. You’ll be surprised how quickly these emotions will supplant anger and frustration, and how much nicer they feel than anger and frustration. And how much better you’ll be at your job.

“This ear looks very painful. You really should have brought him in two weeks ago like I asked. I was worried that this might happen. Now we’re back at square one and we’ll need to send a swab for culture again.” All true. All reasonable. And bound to make an owner feel like crap. 


“Have you been finding it hard to get the drops in? I struggle so much to medicate my own dog, especially because it makes me feel so bad when he hates it so much. We’re not where I wanted to be with this ear, so we need to get serious to get on top of this. Here’s our new plan…. I appreciate that it’s time consuming and can be stressful, so if there’s anything that is unclear or that you need help with please let us know. If you want you can come in every day so the nurses can help with the drops until you get the hang of it. Or we can hospitalise Fluffy for a few days to administer the treatments so you don’t have to stress about it, until the ear starts being less painful.” 

Find time for empathy. Find solutions in stead of criticism. You may just find yourself very popular with clients, and with a bit of extra peace of mind. And sometimes you’ll be wrong. The client will be careless and uncaring and will try to blame you for their mistakes. Some people are just assholes, but by looking for the best in people and aiming as high as you possibly can you will at least not be the asshole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: