Thursday, May 12, 2011

Even The Best Veterinarian Can Make A Mistake

"Mistakes are as serious as the results they cause."
Gregory House, MD

Just recently I read an article Dr. Tony Johnson wrote for Pet Connection blog: When veterinarians make mistakes.
For humans, medical errors injure more than 1.5 million people a year and result in 7000 deaths. No one knows the number of times it happens for for pets, or how many lose their lives as a result, but the numbers are certainly comparable. The government keeps numbers for human medical errors, but their attention for animals is usually limited to making sure they are relatively safe to eat.

Even the best veterinarian can make a mistake, just like anybody else. Veterinarians are humans too!

They can get sidetracked or they can make one with the best intentions. It happened to us, it can happen to you.

Getting mad at your veterinarian for making a mistake is of little use. Don't get mad—get diligent!

The following story is another excerpt from Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life by Dr. Nancy Kay.

If you think that eventually I'll publish the entire content, though, think again—go get your own copy!

For your dog's sake, this is a book you must read!


Remember, Your Veterinarian Isn’t Perfect
by Nancy Kay, DVM 

I remember a particular client and patient with a good deal of embarrassment.

A lovely gentleman asked me to evaluate his adorable Tibetan Terrier named Pirate because of a head-shaking problem.

As I routinely do, I performed a thorough physical examination. In the process, I was surprised to discover an enlarged lymph node, possible evidence of a cancerous process.

After we discussed this finding, I collected a small needle sample from the lymph node and sent it off to the lab.

Fortunately, the enlarged node was found to be completely benign.

When I called with the good news, the client expressed tremendous relief.

He also ever-so-graciously informed me that he had taken Pirate to an emergency clinic the night before because his head-shaking had intensified, and a foxtail (a grass-type foreign body) was removed from deep within his ear canal.

I was mortified.

I had been so sidetracked by the enlarged lymph node that I’d failed to examine Pirate’s ear canals.

I completely neglected to address the problem that brought Pirate in to see me in the first place!

“First do no harm.” This is the mantra that guides my professional life, and I’ll bet that your vet feels the same.

As much as we try to do no harm, the truth is that all veterinarians, myself included, have made—and will continue to make—professional blunders.

I am profoundly grateful to the savvy client who catches my error before any harm can come from it.

I’m certain that the majority of my colleagues feel as I do.

As your dog’s medical advocate, you should remind yourself that your veterinarian isn’t perfect (neither is the technician, receptionist, pharmacist, groomer, or anyone else who may be caring for your dog’s medical needs).

So when you recognize what you think may be an error or oversight, for your dog’s sake, speak up as loudly as necessary.


Dr. Kay  is the fortunate recipient of the 2011 Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award- presented by the AVMA to the veterinarian who promotes and exemplifies the human animal bond!

DR. NANCY KAY wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California—Davis Veterinary School.

Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients.   Since the release of her book,
Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy.  She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Dr. Kay is a staff internist at VCA Animal Care Center, a 24-hour emergency/specialty care center in Rohnert Park, California. As a way of providing emotional support for people with sick four-legged family members, Dr. Kay founded and helps facilitate the VCA Animal Care Center Client Support Group.  She also facilitates client communication rounds for VCA Animal Care Center employees.

Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award.  This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding.  The Dog Writers Association of America selected Dr. Kay for two awards.  The first was the 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award recognizing
Speaking for Spot as the publication that best promotes the health and well being of dogs. The second award was for the Best Blog of 2009 (

Dr. Kay’s personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding along the beach atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her family reside in Sebastopol, California.

Articles by Dr. Kay:
Reasonable Expectations: The Ability to Discuss Your Internet Research With Your Vet
Finding Dr. Wonderful And Your Mutt's Mayo Clinic: Getting Started
A Different Way to Spay
Making Tough Medical Decisions For Your Dog: Lily's Story

Related articles:
Speaking For Spot: The Single Most Important Dog Book You Will Ever Read


  1. Hi Y'all,

    I've usually found that a gentle question will redirect the vet's attention to the immediate problem.

    What sends me in loops is when a vet refuses to discuss things like titers vs. a shot, or what shots my particular animal "really" get my point. When I leave the office without my questions answered, despite asking directly, and feel all the vet did was run a big bill...

    There are caring vets who make mistakes...there are also vets who treat you like a product on which to make money.

    I also don't like personal physicians who "process you" in and out.

    In either case, if I feel like you're just "runnin' the meter", I'm looking for a new vet or doctor.

    BrownDog's Momma

  2. Hi Hawk, yes, usually that's all it takes.

    A vet not listening or not willing to discuss things is a completely different matter (I wrote about that in earlier posts).

    The point behind this post isn't to criticize vets but raising the awareness that such things can happen and it is important to pay attention and be diligent at all times.

  3. I have been reading How Doctors Think. It would certainly apply to how vets think as well. I'm reading it because it also applies to how trainers think when looking at problem behaviors and consider solutions.

  4. Oh, that sounds interesting, I should check it out too!