Vets Giving Advice By Phone: A Vet Speaks Out

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This happens in veterinary clinics all the time. Ring… ring… ring.

The phone rings and it is yet another well-intentioned owner seeking veterinary advice over the phone.

The owner's pet is sick – be it a dog or cat. The pet has been vomiting for two days and may be having a little diarrhea. Maybe the pet is also a little lethargic. So the owner calls and asks to talk to the vet.

For advice.

Free advice.

Before I go any further, let me introduce myself for those of you that don't know me. I'm the Irreverent Veterinarian. I speak my mind and give you my honest opinion. I won't sweet-talk you or sugarcoat the truth. I tell it like it is – to you, the drug companies, the pet product manufacturers, professional breeders and pet owners. Some might say that I'm truthful to a fault. Some of the pet owners, drug companies, pet product manufacturers and breeders who read my columns get really angry. It is hard hearing the truth.

This is a complicated issue for a couple of reasons. Here are a couple of reasons why vets are reluctant to give free advice over the phone:

1st. There are not enough hours in the day to talk to every person that calls on the phone… even if you WANTED to. Most vets can barely keep up with their paying clients calls.

2nd. You can't make a living by giving free advice.

3rd. It is illegal to diagnose or treat a pet without a patient/client relationship. If vets give free advice and something happens to the pet, the vets can lose their license.

4th. I've seen well-intentioned vets give "free advice" trying to help and do the right thing, and later get burned by pet owners.

For example, I had this happen to me. In fact, I've heard about this kind of thing happening to most veterinarians I know. That is why most of us are cautious.

Here is an example of why vets must be cautious about giving advice by phone:

A dog owner calls because her dog is having some vomiting and a little diarrhea. The vet questions her to ask if the dog is still active, if the gums are pink, if there is any trouble breathing, and how long it has gone on. The pet owner answers that the dog is still playing, has no trouble breathing, is nice and pink and the symptoms just started a couple hours ago. Advice is given. For example, the advice was to hold water for 4 hours then start a bland diet. They are instructed how to make a bland diet. The instructions continue… if your dog continues to vomit, please call back or call a veterinary emergency room.

Two days later, the vet gets a call from an upset client, vet or board because a complaint was filed against them. Yep – this is a true story. The dog kept vomiting and got worse. The dog owner did not seek advice. The owner takes the dog to the emergency room and is told that she should have come in sooner – the dog is then very sick.
Then I'm the bad guy. But the pet owner didn't seek my advice when the pet did not improve. I gave her something to try that can work on some pets – but also told her to follow-up if her pet was not better. She didn't.

And yes – I'm the bad guy.

My Final Thoughts on Advice By Phone

I've had clients yell at me, cuss, etc. because I would not diagnose their pets over the phone.

Yep. I've nearly heard it all.

I understand that many people want advice. I'd love to call my doctor and pick his brain when I have a question. Do you think I can call any old emergency room and tell him about my sore leg and ask for advice? They would never take my call in a million years. Have you ever called a human emergency room with a question? You can't get advice on anything.

Veterinarians generally train their staff to be very good at taking phone calls and giving some "guidance" as to whether they should bring their pet in as an emergency or not. Many emergency clinics can guide owners on which things that their dog ate is dangerous vs. not dangerous. Many clinics will suggestion induction of vomiting when dangerous toxins or items are ingested. Many technicians will also give advice on when to worry about a certain problem such as vomiting, how to start water and food and how to make a bland diet.

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