An uncomfortable veterinary client conversation: 'Hey, don't tell my mom ...'

An uncomfortable veterinary client conversation: 'Hey, don't tell my mom ...'

When a client's son knows why a boxer's problems arose but wants to keep it on the down low, how much should you tell the mom?
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Aug 08, 2018

What dog could resist nuzzling its nose into this? (Shutterstock.com)Dr. Lisa Kay had built her practice in a bustling suburb of a large Midwestern city from a single-doctor startup to a four-veterinarian, 22-employee practice in six years. She had been treating the Reed family’s pets for the past four years. The family had two dogs, one cat and two kids. They were a typical representation of Dr. Kay’s client base.

Recently, on a weekday morning, Mrs. Reed brought her 4-year-old boxer, Solo, to the clinic, accompanied by her 16-year-old son, Aaron. The dog had, in Mrs. Reed’s words, “started acting really upset.” When Dr. Kay asked her to be more specific, she said Solo seemed to have become afraid of every little movement. Solo had normal vital signs, but he was clearly agitated. A cursory neurological exam revealed a generalized hyperreactivity to normal stimuli such as head-petting and foot-placing.

In the middle of the exam, Dr. Kay was interrupted by her receptionist. She asked the doctor to step out of the room so she could speak to her privately. Out in the hallway, the receptionist said Mrs. Reed’s 16-year-old son had confided in her that the dog had gotten into his “stash.” She said he wanted Dr. Kay and the team to know so they could help the dog but did not want his mother to know.

The first thing Dr. Kay did was care for her patient. Solo was admitted so the team could stabilize, monitor and control any potential seizures or distressing hyperactivity. Next, she spoke to the owner and told her the clinic would need to keep Solo for the day while she evaluated his clinical signs. This allowed her to treat the dog and consider how she was going to present her diagnosis to the concerned owner.

Six hours later, Solo was stable and able to go home. Dr. Kay called the owner and asked that she pick up Solo—she would discuss her findings with her when she arrived at the clinic. A very relieved pet owner arrived for her dog and met with Dr. Kay one on one.

Dr. Kay told the owner that it was her opinion Solo had suffered a drug reaction most likely the result of marijuana intoxication.

There was a long pause in response to this revelation. Finally Mrs. Reed uttered, “I’m going to kill him!” It was clear she had some inkling of her teenage son’s drug-dabbling. She apologized to Dr. Kay and was clearly embarrassed. It almost seemed as if her son’s endangering the family dog was the last straw.

Mrs. Reed left the clinic, grateful for the team’s help. Dr. Kay was happy she’d been able to honor the young man’s request while at the same time providing the care necessary for Solo to make a complete recovery. She believed the issue of drug usage and the owner’s family dynamic would be addressed in the privacy of their home.

Did Dr. Kay handle this case properly? Should she have been completely forthcoming with the information she’d acquired from a minor? Or was this semi-opaque revelation ethically acceptable?

Dr. Rosenberg’s response

There’s no doubt that the pet owner understood from her consultation with Dr. Kay that her son was responsible for Solo’s marijuana exposure. It would have been easy for Dr. Kay to simply tell Mrs. Reed that her son had fessed up to the staff about his “stash.” But instead she provided only the information necessary for proper care of the pet, while at the same time establishing a clear understanding of exactly what had happened. And she did this without overtly entering a private family matter. The only thing I would have done differently is to mention that I am first an advocate for the dog and that something of this nature should never be allowed to happen again.

Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.