Exam Room Etiquette: What to Do to Keep Your Pet Safe and Your Vet Sane

Patty Khuly holding two dogs

This topic is a perennial favorite of mine. While the goal is ostensibly to help every pet owner better navigate the world of the veterinary clinic, the truth is not always so, well, unselfish.

Yes, I have to confess, the main reason I love to talk about how pet owners should behave in veterinary settings is that I want clients to understand what’s expected of them — and their pets — so I'm not feeling so harassed and harried by all those things best left at the hospital door.

It's also because I want to spend as many years as possible in this profession before burning out over simple stressors that are easily fixed via pet owner persuasion (and perhaps by exercising a little not-so-stealthily inflicted guilt).

To that end, here are some choice points on the subject:

1. Cats should ALWAYS be contained in a carrier, box, pillowcase, etc. Indeed, the kind of vessel is kind of immaterial to me (though I bet your cat has some preferences — cats always do). The main thing is that as long as they can't get loose and get hurt or they’re incapable of inflicting any damage on me, my staff, my human patrons or pets, we’re good.

2. Dogs MUST be leashed. And, for the record, if you’ve got one of those annoyingly retractable leads, lock it! There is no place for an unlocked flexible-length leash in stressful close quarters. (So you know, a veterinary hospital qualifies as the most stressful kind of close quarters your dog is EVER likely to find herself in.)

3. Do NOT abuse your cell phone while in the veterinary exam room. If you must indulge (or if your veterinarian is chronically rude enough to make you wait for more than 10 or 20 minutes, so you feel reasonably compelled to use it), then please abandon the call when your veterinarian appears. Sure, if your child or parent is in the hospital — or if you’re about to make the deal of a lifetime —  I’ll grant you a pass. But otherwise, it's just tacky.

4. Do NOT insist on restraining your pet yourself in the exam room. We have trained staff for that. You probably have no idea how many lawsuits have resulted from owners being bitten by their pets after insisting they hold their own animals during an exam. The law is clear on this: Veterinarians are liable. Even if we weren’t concerned for your safety — which we are — we’d at least be entitled to liability self-preservation as rationale for asking you to take a back-seat during the exam.

5. Do NOT interact with your pet when we're trying to get our business done. If we need your help with the pet, we'll ask. And especially, for the love of God, do not try to reassure your pet by caressing her ear right at the moment she’s having her blood drawn, a stool sample taken or toenails trimmed. These are invariably the most sensitive moments of the visit and your intervention is more likely to tip the scales against everyone's safety than in your pet's favor.

6. ALWAYS bring a list. ALWAYS ask for written instructions. ALWAYS listen to what the vet staff has to say. And ALWAYS be prepared to use your own good sense, as well.  I can promise you if you do these things, you’ll endear yourself to your veterinarian. We’re suckers for the dedicated and the prepared. And while some questions may make some of the less charitable among us roll our eyes, the truth is this: There are no stupid questions, just unreasonable expectations on both sides.

The only problem with this approach to vet care is the obvious: People have to want to be considerate, not only to me, but to everyone else at the hospital. And we know that, for some, that's just not so likely.  Yet, I'm optimistic (ish) that I will enlighten some of you to the fundamentals of exam room behavior –– or, rather, the fundamentals of blatant misbehavior. If nothing else, perhaps this’ll help persuade some of the less-than-considerate souls to adopt new behaviors for the sake of their pet’s healthcare. Or so we can always hope.


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