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Addressing Abuse: Threats Faced by the Veterinary Profession in Alberta


By Travis Grant 


Back in July, I took my dog Doug—a 1-year-old brindle pug who’d suffered a serious eye injury—to an emergency veterinary practice in Edmonton. Because of COVID-19, I had to call in advance, provide the necessary information over the phone, and arrange for staff to meet me at the front door. Once Doug had been admitted, I waited outside for several hours—a typical wait time at any emergency practice—watching others bring their pets to the front door. The wait was insightful. 


Emergencies, by their nature, are unplanned and stressful. Most of us treat our pets as family members so when they’re sick, we bear the weight of it. And because emergencies are never planned, many pet owners are not prepared for the financial cost of providing the required care. You could see it in people’s faces. Nearly everyone expressed frustration with wait times and anger at the cost of treatment. Front line staff who were serving the public took it in stride, patiently empathizing and communicating with people, making every reasonable effort to de-escalate situations.  


This was my first time accessing emergency veterinary services, and I was alarmed by people’s behaviour. In my line of work, I wouldn’t tolerate it once, never mind repeatedly. Yet this is something staff at veterinary practices experience every day in the course of their work. People, for the most part, are good and don’t make a habit of rudely confronting people they encounter, so it’s all the more confounding that some of us assume we have license to behave this way towards veterinary professionals who are simply providing the services we seek.  


Abusive behaviour is a problem with a wide aperture. The tenor of our exchanges, particularly online, have become explosive in recent years and COVID-19 has had an exacerbating effect. Economic fallout from the pandemic has created uncertain and desperate situations for many. Restrictions on gatherings and movement are perceived by some as draconian, while others consider the pandemic a hoax. All the while, societal issues related to mental health, mental illness and domestic abuse have risen in concert, often invisibly in the wake of public health measures requiring distancing and isolation. 


Here in Alberta, this came into sharp relief when Dr. Walter Reynolds, a respected family physician with a wife and children, was murdered in his clinic in Red Deer, Alberta. What was nearly unimaginable the week prior became a horrific reality, and it brought to the forefront the real risks faced by those whose chosen professions are in service of others, their place of work often becoming a confluence of social issues that manifest and congeal into ugly, abusive and even violent acts. 


Veterinary professionals are experiencing these same risks. On June 14th, Theresa Hyshka and her daughter Blair arrived at Calgary North Animal Hospital demanding emergency care for their pet guinea pig. The hospital’s exotic pet specialist had already left for the day so there was little that could be done, but Dr. Michelle Dmytriw offered to examine the guinea pig, free of charge. The Hyshkas grew belligerent and the heated exchange that followed ended in an assault charge after Blair Hyshka struck Dr. Dmytriw in the face. 


The veterinary profession, above all else, is dedicated to the health and welfare of animals. To work in the profession is to ease suffering. But a detail often overlooked is that veterinarians, registered veterinary technologists (RVTs) and frontline staff interact with people as much or more than they do with animals. And while the majority of human interaction is based on established client relationships, built on trust and mutual respect, it’s not always the case, as we saw in the attack on Dr. Dmytriw. 


I raised the issue with Dr. Brent Jackson, who has practiced veterinary medicine in Alberta for over three decades and has always been heavily involved in the veterinary community, serving on a number of boards, including the Alberta SPCA’s. He worked for several years in an emergency practice but these days Jackson practices at the Erin Ridge Veterinary Centre in St. Albert. He addressed the issue of problem clients at emergency practices. The primary reason, according to Jackson, is that emergency practices lack established Veterinary Client Patient Relationships, or VCPRs, as they’re known in the profession. In the absence of an established VCPR, people can be quick to anger, disrespecting anonymous veterinary staff in the heat of the moment. When I recalled my experience at the emergency practice, he wasn’t surprised. During Jackson’s time working in an emergency practice setting, he said that abusive clients were a reality of the job, for all the usual reasons: stress, emotions, financial burden, and frustration with wait times. Despite VCPRs being more common in small animal practices, abusive clients can still be a problem. “It’s something that front line staff and RVTs experience more than vets. Clients who are angry with front-line staff usually correct their behaviour when they speak to a veterinarian because they see us as more of an authority. I don’t think we’re as easy a target.” 


Dr. Jackson also noted how animal abuse poses additional threats to veterinarians and their staff. When animals are abused, it’s often an indicator of a broader pattern of domestic violence. According to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the link is indisputable. On their website, the CVMA cites a landmark 1983 study that first drew attention to this issue. Of the 53 families studied who met the legal criteria of child abuse and neglect, 60% of those families had confirmed instances of abused or neglected companion animals. When the child abuse that occurred was physical, the results were even darker. In 88% of the families where children had been physically abused, animals were also abused. Research conducted in the decades since continues to support these findings. When veterinarians see signs of animal abuse, there’s a distinct possibility that the pet owner is either an abuser or the subject of abuse. And given a veterinarian’s obligation to report animal abuse, the risk of becoming directly or indirectly involved in a domestic violence situation exists. 


There are even documented cases of domestic violence victims seeking help at their veterinary practice. In May of 2018, a Florida woman who had been held hostage and physically abused by her boyfriend managed to convince him she needed to take her dog to the vet. The boyfriend drove her to the practice at gun point, threatening to murder her and her family. When the woman arrived at the practice, she handed staff an urgent note: “Call the cops. My boyfriend is threatening me. He has a gun. Please don’t let him know.” The staff quietly notified the police and the man, 39-year-old convicted felon Jeremy Floyd, was arrested at his home and charged with domestic violence, aggravated assault with a firearm, false imprisonment, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of ammunition by a convicted felon and simple battery. It was extremely fortunate that police were able to intervene before anyone involved, including staff members, was seriously injured. 


Mental illness can also pose workplace risks for veterinarians and their staff. I spoke at length about this with Dr. Karen Allen, who owns Hastings Lake Animal Hospital, located south east of Sherwood Park. Allen echoed Dr. Jackson’s comments on patterns of abuse by clients but she has had considerable success mitigating these risks by educating and empowering her staff in areas of client relations, coaching them on strategies for de-escalation, and by focusing on strong client relationships. 


In her experience, Dr. Allen said that the most threatening scenarios she’s encountered involved people experiencing mental illness who grew agitated in the process of making irrational requests. The two examples she cited involved individuals who brought in deceased animals, certain they were still alive and demanding they be treated. The first instance involved a man who snuck into a practice where she worked in Vancouver, cradling a dead pigeon. The other involved a man who had been monitoring his deceased dog for signs of life and was certain he had seen the dog move. In both instances, Allen kept the individuals calm by appearing to examine the lifeless animals, while her staff contacted the police. These situations ended uneventfully once police arrived, but it was clear that the unpredictability of both scenarios was unsettling and posed potential risks to her and her staff. 


The most normalized form of abuse occurs online. In this age where online opinions have exponential reach, even the smallest misunderstanding or slight can explode into a full-blown public relations crisis, which can escalate to threats of physical violence. The problem is so endemic, none of the veterinarians I spoke with about this issue were willing to go on record, for fear of reprisal. I understand their reluctance because it’s something I experienced first hand, when I was the director of marketing and communications at the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS). Social media played a central role in sharing success stories of homeless, abused and neglected animals who had come to EHS, received veterinary care in the shelter’s animal hospital, and found new homes through the shelter’s adoption program. Too often these stories and the details of the amazing work done by shelter staff were overshadowed by members of the public who took to the shelter’s Facebook page, accusing shelter veterinarians of euthanizing healthy animals, calling them murderers and wishing similar fates for staff. The impact left many shelter veterinarians and RVTs feeling devalued, discredited, and demonized. The same feelings are felt by staff in private practices, and, for many practices, the problem is such that management often determines it’s just not worth the risk and emotional and mental toll of maintaining a social media presence, which in turn limits their ability to engage communities, grow referrals and, ultimately, run optimally successful businesses.  


With no end to the global pandemic in sight, the effect has been a stress test of nearly every aspect of our society. As tensions rise, so too does the risk of violence towards veterinary professionals. All of this is occurring at a time when research shows that veterinarians are four times as likely to commit suicide than the general population, due in large part to the stresses of the profession. So what’s to be done? 


From within the profession, there is ongoing support for veterinary professionals who experience abuse in all forms and the residual effects on mental health. But the community at large must also play a role. We should remember that our one-off moments of anger are experienced by veterinary professionals in the aggregate. The rancid compounding interest that accrues has real world consequences that are unhealthy and even tragic. To be frustrated or angry is to be human. But it’s helpful to remind ourselves that what inspires abusive behaviour is often trivial and that tearing people down for trivialities is to devour ourselves and others for nothing. We must also do our part to demand increased action on broader societal issues such as domestic violence, animal abuse and mental health, especially in this uncertain time of pandemic and economic hardship. It's a complex crisis demanding change that is urgent and long overdue. 


Travis Grant is a writer who works closely with the ABVMA.