Empathy makes better care.

One always feels that the veterinarian’s own pets should be shining examples of animal health and behavior, perfect in every way (the opposite of "the shoemaker’s children go barefoot").  Naturally, you get a "Doctor’s excuse" if you have adopted some crippled stray, but I think that generally people adhere to the "Physician, heal thyself!" philosophy.  Clients often ask me if I have a pet. 

Now that I’m down to one dog (having lost the cats to cancer over the last two years), I feel compelled to explain that we adopted Cady as an adult stray with a few habits already on board.  One of those traits is that she is an inveterate cat-killer.  Our previous dog, Buster the Golden Retriever, was very tolerant of just about anything.  When cats began visiting our yard with Cady in charge, not many of them made it back out again. With this disposition, we couldn’t really have her in the house. If you didn’t close off the room she was in, she made a mad dash to kill the cats.  This gave us much the same sensation as being caught inside a pin-ball machine.  If you did close off the room, she would pace back and forth by a door, whining and yelping (something on the order of "Did you know you’ve got a cat in there?  I could take care of that for you, you know. If you’ll just open the door I’ll get that fixed right up.  Open the doo-oor.")  This made it really unpleasat to have the dog in the house.  Now that we are temporarily cat-free, we really enjoy having Cady in the house, which is great, but I feel compelled to explain why we don’t have cats now.

The point being, a lot of clients expect you to understand how deeply they feel about their pets.  I find that I empathize most with the client when one of my own pets has had the same problem as theirs.  This is the downside of keeping your pets in terrific shape.  My first dog, Anna the Rottweiler, was plagued with hot-spots (pyotraumatic dermatitis). I can tell you that I can really relate to clients who are dealing with this. 

Thus, while the veterinarian’s own pet should be an exemplar of the benefits of preventive medicine, if you had managed to have at least one pet with every medical problem there is, you’d be a more empathetic doctor.  Also, if you’ve had the condition yourself, you empathize more with the animal.  There are a lot of conditions that you think you understand, but experiencing the disease yourself brings it to a whole new level of reality.  I think that this is a major reason for the revolution in our approach to pain control in recent years (compared to what I was taught in 1978, which I’ll elaborate on in a post coming soon).

I can tell you that after the last two days, I have a whole new reality on patients with prostate trouble and urinary tract disease.   I only thought they were getting enough treatment.

I’m not sure I could handle experiencing every disease just to become a better doctor.  I think I’ll try to get by with more continuing education instead.  It’s been a rough couple of days.

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