Vet Waiting Room

If you’ve ever had to spend any length of time in a veterinarian’s waiting room (and what pet owner hasn’t?), it should be immediately obvious to the sensitive that the stress of the event can be overwhelming — and not just for our pets.

Indeed, today’s 10:30 entered the exam room utterly unraveled by her unwelcome experience. Turns out the mere thought of her last visit to the office was enough to bring tears to her eyes. Her kitty, Luscious, had been euthanized six months earlier, and the feelings had flooded back unbidden.

But her heightened emotional state wasn’t just the work of an errant memory. While reminiscing had primed the system, what had ultimately unhinged her could easily be attributed to a question a co-client had posed about her guinea pig, Frank:

“Wow, he’s cute, but how long do those guys live? I hear they only last a few years!”

Now, to most sensitive folk, it’s clear such questions have no place in a veterinarian’s waiting room. But to a surprisingly wide swath of the pet-owning public, anything that intimates curiosity or seems even mildly educational is fair game in such settings.

But in case my client’s tearful reaction doesn’t make plain that such blithe utterances are egregiously insensitive and have no place in a veterinary waiting room, I’m here to offer you a few more examples of things you should never say while waiting your turn.

Bite Your Tongue

1. Wow, that's a really big lump!

Never bring up a pet’s health care issue, no matter how obvious it may appear. Whether we’re talking about overlong toenails, drooping eyelids, gaping wounds or miles of bandages, it’s best to wait until the pet’s owner broaches the subject first.

2. Don’t you think it’s about time you neutered him?

In case no one has ever informed you, canine sterilization can be a really touchy topic. Not only is it verboten to spay or neuter within some cultures (go to Germany or Latin America and you’ll see precious few neuterees), but even in the U.S., things can get tricky within certain canine subcultures.

My conclusion? Stay away from the subject altogether. That is, unless you’re willing to suffer an indignant earful like the one I overheard a couple of weeks ago in our lobby. Better yet, stay away from offering any specific health care suggestions whatsoever.

3. I can give you the name of a trainer who can help with that.

This corollary to No. 2 is a minefield! No one wants to be told — obliquely or otherwise — that his pet is misbehaving. After all, you wouldn’t tell a bratty kid’s parent in a pediatrician’s office to revisit his disciplinary tactics — much less hire a psychologist!

4. What kind of mix is she?

Though I don’t have much sympathy for people who get insulted when others don’t recognize their pet as a purebred x, y or z, who needs a huffy waiting room companion? Recognize that some people have big chips on their shoulders with respect to their preferred breed’s highbred lineage. Whatever. It’s not worth the stress.

But if curiosity overcomes you and you must ask, here’s how it’s done: Assume the pet is a purebred and say, “I think I saw a beautiful dog that looked just like her at Westminster. What kind is she?”

5. It must be really hard when you’ve come to the end.

This variation on my first example is the most common no-no I observe. Even if you think you’re just being nice to the seemingly emotional sniffling person sitting next to you, beware that he may just be suffering a cold! And no one wants to be reminded of how old a pet appears or how close to the end she might truly be.

My recommendation? Always tread lightly. After all, a vet’s waiting room can be a perilous place for those who’ve yet to experience firsthand all their pet’s life stages within its confines.

And remember, people in a veterinary waiting room are often like-minded and open to all kinds of chatter — until they’re emotional or surly and not willing to discuss their pet at all.