Originally published in the July 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Loved this article and want to see more like it? Then subscribe today!
Last month I wrote a column for my local paper on the subject of animal hoarding. As usual, I pushed the limits of my typical reader’s comfort zone by concluding with the question, “Could you be a hoarder?”
Though you might think it an excessively combative approach for a weekly ask-the-vet column, aggressively confronting mental health concerns has served me well in the past. And as it turned out, it proved fruitful here, too.
The day after the column ran, one of our clients openly disclosed that the column had impressed her.
“I guess I’m a hoarder,” she acknowledged to our receptionist (and to everyone else within earshot, too). Which is something the rest of us already suspected. I mean, 19 cats and 900 square feet do not add up. Nor can the single income of the average American begin to address the myriad demands a household of 20 mammals (of any denomination) makes.
In case you’re wondering, our receptionist responded pretty much the same way most of us might when challenged by any awkward client revelation (e.g., “My pug likes to lick my legs. Is that OK?”) –– with a warm smile, a nervous laugh and if we’re very lucky a pithy reply that improbably manages to rise to the occasion.
If your workplace is anything like ours, uncomfortable comments advanced by colorful people are part of the deal –– an entertaining one, at that. We toss around their oddball requests and lob their quirky comments to one another in what I like to call a veterinary staff round of verbal volleyball.
If we look just a little deeper, however, we’ll doubtless recognize these offbeat people as the tip of an iceberg we, as a profession, like to call our “crazy client problem.”
This topic is so pervasive in our veterinary culture that we’ve come to relish witty columns full of “crazy client” anecdotes and generally enjoy anything that holds up a not-so-flattering mirror to our entertaining clientele. Some of us collect these yarns to trade like magic cards at conferences.
Others (myself included) have even been known to tell these tales out of school (identifiers omitted, of course) by way of making a living.
One way or another, we all participate in celebrating the extremes of eccentricity that attend our everyday lives. It’s how we cope as a profession, perhaps.
After all, you can only watch someone tread water for so long before desperately wishing you had some means of throwing them a life vest. Which is why sometimes it’s easier to unload at work than to heft the heavy baggage home for a futile trip through the spin cycle.
You know what I mean. If it’s not the cat hoarders, it’s the depressed, the substance abusers, the manic ones or the delusional few. We’ve got them all. I’m sure you do too.
But why? How is it that we in the veterinary profession seem to cater to unconventionality?
The answer surely has to do with the animal thing. Animals and idiosyncratic human behavior have been linked since the beginning of recorded history –– particularly to the occult but also to the kind of madness associated with artistry and genius.
In particular, our Western culture’s formative mythology has long correlated pets with mental illness –– cats especially.
Overall, it seems pretty obvious to me: People with pets are more likely to be a tad on the anomalous side –– pleasantly in most cases, but pathologically so in a sizable subset. These are the clients whose behavior can clear a waiting room, require family intervention or occasion the rare (and deeply uncomfortable) need to tell someone their patronage will no longer be tolerated.
It’s common enough. In fact, at our place we deal with these clients on a daily basis.
After all, these clients tend to have more pets than most, are typically more emotionally reliant on them and are therefore more likely to lean on us than other clients do. Given their extremes of devotion to their animals and the nature of our profession, is it any wonder we respond by nurturing their zaniness?
Which begs the question: Are we just feeding the problem by enabling them?
Perhaps we are. That is, according to the double-headed dictionary definition of this loaded term:
In its most positive connotation, “enabling” references patterns of interactions between people that allow them to develop and grow as individuals. These can exist on a small stage (within a nuclear family, for example) or on a bigger scale, within society at large. In this latter case, they mostly manifest as “enabling acts” designed to empower some group or another.
In its negative sense, “enabling” is used with respect to bad behavior. In this way, enabling refers to less-than-functional approaches that are ostensibly well-intended but that tend to perpetuate problems instead.
Unfortunately, it’s this dysfunctional scenario definition (one better suited to the Jerry Springer show than to a veterinary practice) that applies to our particular client-abetting ways.
Sound familiar? Sure it does. After all, I’d like to think veterinary professionals are nothing if not well-meaning. Unfortunately, we sometimes have a way of wanting to please our clients in ways that sometimes make things worse for everyone involved.
For example, consider this recipe for disastrous enabling.
Step 1: Add one very sweet client (of limited means) with a feral cat problem surrounding his condo complex.
Step 2: Stir in one veterinarian reluctantly willing to help him TNR them.
Step 3: Sift in a creeping, increasingly delusional “feed them all” mentality on the part of the client.
Step 4: Mix in a steady stream of feline interlopers from the local Walmart next door.
What do you get? A nagging sense that any assistance rendered in service of this client’s increasingly overwhelming and very personal cat problem is ultimately feeding more than just the cats. Because when the people we’re supposed to be working with toward tangible solutions are unrealistically pursuing Sisyphean plans, someone has got to call them out on it, right?
The truth is that we’d all love nothing more than to support our clients in their animal-saving ways whether they can pay for it or not. But at some point, even if the financial toll doesn’t limit us the emotional toll will. Yet that doesn’t keep some of us from digging ourselves deeper.
Which makes me wonder: To what extent is our magnetic attraction for peculiar people a reflection of our own brand of nuttiness?
After all, if we’re honest, plenty of us will recognize some part of ourselves in the kooky, the lonely, the disaffected and the just plain strange. When coupled with our near-pathologic tendencies toward empathy, it only makes sense some of us would have what other professionals might call “boundary issues.”
Hence, the difficulty in managing that delicate balance between exhibiting humanity toward our crazy clients and maintaining our professional sanity. It’s hard work. But if it didn’t seem so difficult, we probably wouldn’t be any good at what we do.