Is "Whisking Whiskers Away" Best For Pets at the Vet's?

Every veterinarian is different. Some like cats more than dogs. Some prefer female pets to males. Some like working in small clinics while others prefer large hospitals. Some use technicians to help them perform the basics while others want to do it all on their own. Still others like to "whisk pets away to the back" to get things done during a routine visit. 

This latter practice is defensible. But should this increasingly common approach be veterinary medicine's default setting?

I started thinking about this after reading an article on the subject of keeping pets with their owners during veterinary veterinary visits. In this piece, titled "Why Whiskers is Whisked Off to the Back Room," the veterinarian-author explains why she's more comfortable "whisking Whiskers away"  to perform routine sample collections and other minor procedures:

"Musicians call this phenomenon performance anxiety. We can play our parts perfectly a hundred times in the relaxed, familiar atmosphere of a rehearsal, but when it comes time for an audience, things can blow apart. As I considered the possible reasons for my collapse into a gibbering idiot unable to hold the mallets properly, it occurred to me that this anxiety was a similar feeling to the one I get when pet owners insist on “coming to the back” with their pets in the small animal hospital. (This has never been an issue with livestock; the owner is always standing right there with you. I don’t know why it’s different, but it is!)"

This veterinarian then goes on to further justify her stance by citing both staff safety and client comprehension:

"In addition to causing a potentially dangerous distraction to the staff, who now have to divide their attention between the owner and the pet, veterinary clients may not fully understand what they see “in the back.”

But ultimately, she informs us, every veterinarian is different: 

"Some veterinarians do simple procedures, such as toenail trims and blood draws, in the room with clients. It’s entirely dependent upon the pet, the client, and that veterinarian’s individual comfort level. Certainly not all of us do things the same, and we don’t all do it the same way with each client and patient. It’s definitely a case-by-case judgment call."

Sure, I'll readily agree there's always judgment involved. But does this mean hospital policy should always bend so steeply towards separating the pet and the owner anytime anything even remotely uncomfortable is involved?

I think not. Indeed, the difference between myself and this veterinarian is that I believe every hospital should be geared towards keeping pets with their owners during as much of the process as possible. Separation, I believe, breeds diminished confidence, creates conditions for misunderstanding and fails to foster a collaborative bond between pet owner and veterinarian. Togetherness, therefore, should be the default setting. 

To be sure, keeping pets and owners together might not always be possible. We use our judgment to determine whether or not pets might be better off "whisked back" for certain procedures, as when gore is involved, emotions run extra-high (think major emergencies), clients turn green, sterility is an issue, space is a concern, radiation is required, or when pets become significantly more fractious in their owners' presence (this is a very real phenomenon).

But these scenarios, I'll posit, are not the norm for most everyday veterinarian/client/pet interactions. Why, then, should the current fashion in veterinary medicine favor separating pets from their people for everything up to and including the physical examination? 

Yeah ... this piece didn't sit well with me for a bunch of reasons ...

While I completely understand the author's "performance anxiety" (I've been there too), I firmly hold that "performing" should be an accepted part of what we do. As with musicians who mature over time and hone their craft by performing in front of audiences, this feeling eventually subsides (though never entirely for most). 

But it's not even as if I'm expecting everyone to be a star at "performing" in public. After all, technicians can be readily employed to perform all the technical bits. This is modern veterinary medicine, right? Smart pet owners know that plenty of great docs don't handle the fiddly bits. 

But let's forget the questionably apt musical parallels. Looking to what parents expect in pediatric settings is more apropos to this discussion. As in pediatric medicine, physical examinations and simple sample collection should be performed in front of both parents and pet owners. We'd never stand for anything less, right? 

And as I like to tell my employees, transparency begets trust. 

Which makes me wonder: When exactly did we veterinarians start thinking it'd be OK to start divorcing pets from their people in a hospital setting? Hmmm ...

Honestly, I'm not sure exactly how or why this change came about ... but I have my theories. Most of these have to do with the advent of ER care, the rise of specialty medicine, the emergent Dr. Diva syndrome, and the pox that is corporate veterinary culture (and its pervasive pets-as-widgets mentality). Though I'm a big fan of higher quality veterinary care, it's clear that not all change is welcome. 

Call me "old school" but routine client-pet separation as policy is bull--t. I suspect all veterinarians know this in their hearts, much though some of us may go to great pains to justify a more formal approach in the name of stress relief, efficiency, safety, easily confused clients and vomit-free floors. 

After all, what's most important here isn't trust, per se –– or even the red herring that is performance anxiety. Rather, it's the fact that when pets are "whisked away," it undermines the near-sacred experience of veterinarian-client collaboration and stands in the way of an honest rapport between partners. And that's no good for anyone, least of all the pet.