Most veterinarians have an interest in, and a fondness for, animals. These qualities are usually important factors in the
choice of veterinary medicine as a profession. But stress, fatigue, and irritability sometimes cause veterinarians to lose
their tempers. Under such circumstances, some doctors have been known to mistreat patients.
A few years ago, several of our staff complained about a young doctor who, when provoked, would become enraged and would roughly
handle certain patients—even striking one. These temper tantrums were elicited when the animal's owner was not present. This
meant that, when inhibited by the owner's presence, the doctor could conceal his anger. Thus, I reasoned that he could learn
to swallow his anger in the owner's absence. This doctor was intelligent, capable, well-trained, personable, conscientious,
and usually composed.
I called him into my office and told him that some of our technicians and aides had reported his outbursts and abuse of our
patients. He regretfully admitted to losing his temper at times and venting his ire on the patient he was treating.
This is what I told him: "There are five reasons why a veterinarian cannot abuse a patient.
"First, it is illegal. It's against the law to mistreat an animal, and if the owner could prove it, he or she could bring
criminal charges against you.
"Second, it is immoral. People leave pets in this hospital under the justifiable assumption that the animals will be treated
with compassion, skill, and understanding. To do otherwise is to betray their trust.
"Third, by mistreating a patient you reduce your effectiveness as a member of this practice and alienate our staff. This has
already happened. Our assistants and technicians are animal-oriented people. To see a doctor abuse a patient antagonizes them.
They lose respect for that doctor, and our efficiency suffers.
"Fourth, you damage yourself. Life is full of frustrations. To take them out on an animal, a child, or any other scapegoat
is cowardly. If we displayed such hostility to an adult, we would probably be sued or arrested, or perhaps punched in the
mouth. Thus, most of us learn to suppress tantrums and control our temper when dealing with adults. To lose control and abuse
a child or an animal is a sign of immaturity and a lack of integrity. It cannot help but damage one's self-respect.
"Last, this must not happen for a very simple reason: We will not tolerate it! Do you understand?"
The veterinarian nodded, and then discussed the frustrations that had motivated his displays of temper. He thanked me for
discussing the problem and for calmly and reasonably handling the situation.
Years later we met, and after exchanging pleasantries, he asked if I remembered the incident. Of course, I had. He then told
me he had taken my criticism to heart, explored his feelings, and had been able to avoid future displays of temper, not only
with patients but with owners as well. He thanked me for the advice that had so affected his life.
Editors' note: This column originally appeared in Veterinary Medicine & Small Animal Clinician.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner.
Visit his website at
Dr. Robert M. Miller