How This Veterinarian Handles the Tricky Clients-as-Friends Terrain

Vet and client

One of my veterinary colleagues is a power friender. She’s a pretty and spunky extrovert with a demeanor that screams, “If you talk to me, I’ll talk back!”

Needless to say, this makes her an excellent communicator in the exam room. Unfortunately, it also makes for some too-close-for-comfort social experiences every once in a while.

Consider the time she and I were out for a ladies-only dinner. Her clearly besotted client plopped himself down in the booth beside us. The rest of the evening was comprised of a regalia of stories referencing his cats’ exploits. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d had my work face on all night, which isn’t exactly relaxing. A girl’s gotta get away from the biz every once in a while, right?

Everyone draws their own line in the sand: Here are my clients. Here’s me and my personal life. Some will inevitably slip over into private friendlandia. We all set our critical thresholds at different levels, depending on our personality types and our social circumstances — married, single, big city, small town, etc.

For my colleague, the client-to-friends ratio will be relatively high. For me, it's significantly smaller.

For me, it’s only longtime clients who tend to figure significantly. They’re the ones whom I’m likely to go way out on a limb for — inside and out of the hospital.

In contrast to my garrulous colleague, my personal challenge is friends whom I’ve sourced from outside the hospital — and whom I’ve subsequently accepted into my practice’s fold. For example, how do I handle friend-to-clients when I’m on my day off and their pet is sick, they can’t afford care or it’s time for some difficult decision-making — as in, euthanasia, hospice care or big ticket procedures?

It’s not easy, but learning to navigate murky personal-slash-professional waters is something everyone confronts — whatever their career path.

Luckily, there are some rules of engagement I’ve collected over the past 15 or so years that you'd do well to pay attention to, whether you’re a vet’s friend-to-client or a client-to-friend.

Rule #1: The Money Thing

It’s all about generosity. Except when it’s not. Then it’s about parity — and that can get confusing. (“Does this freebie mean that I pay for dinner next time?”) And that’s because friendship and money don’t always mix, which is why my rule is to charge friends the same as my clients. The only difference is that, when a sliding scale is needed as a result of financial difficulties, I’ll be quicker about doing this if you’re someone I’m already predisposed to trust and respect.

Rule #2: Public Interactions

If we see each other outside the office, let’s agree to do what any other friends would do: Say hey, exchange dates when we might want to meet up, and allow our respective days to progress as previously planned without any potentially unwelcome disruption. This is especially true if you’re my relative. (Was that harsh?)

Rule #3: After-Hours Advice

You’re my friend and you want some basic advice on my time off? No problem. Just give me some chronological leeway, and make for darn sure that you're calling about your own pet and not some other friend's or relative's.

Rule #4: Emergency Etiquette

I will make every attempt to be present at your emergency because you are special to me, but respect the fact that this is not always workable. For example, my child may be asleep and I may not be able to leave him alone at this late hour. Or perhaps I’m at a function on the other side of the city. Maybe I’ve even had a few at happy hour and I shouldn’t be attending to anyone’s pet.

Whatever the case, it would be nice if you’d accept it gracefully — along with my suggestion to see a veterinarian whom I can kindly call and inform of your impending emergency, so you receive the most personal care possible in lieu of myself.

Rule #5: End-of-Life Care

I promise to hang on the phone with you until all hours of the night if you’re tortured over your pet’s impending death or any other serious veterinary situation. I will do this for good friends. I have all the time in the world for them. What else are friends for?

Here’s where friendships are tested — and forged. Truth be told, the surest way that I’ve found to get friendship-worthy close to a client is to bond over an end-of-life encounter. They just get to us, you know?

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