(originally published in Veterinary Forum: April, 2001)
Even though most veterinarians would never think of discriminating against a person because of race or nationality, a surprising number don’t hesitate to openly practice breedism or one of its variations. In addition to those who dislike rottweilers, Dobermans, pit bulls, Siamese or Persian cats, quarter horses, or Holstein cows, we find those whose prejudice extends to all breeds within a certain self-created category. Rather than just disliking Chihuahuas, they dislike all “rug rats.” Still others may include entire species or even groups of species on their personal black lists, finding all cats, goats, or pocket pets worthy of contempt.
But what difference does it make if we don’t like a particular group of animals? None if we don’t treat them or must otherwise interact with them. However, if they and their owners form part of the practice base, then it can make a big difference. Let’s observe this phenomenon in action to see what we can learn about how it may effect the quality of the treatment process.
Before entering the examination room, Dr. Nadick scans her next patient’s record, then cringes when she sees that it’s a Pomeranian. A self-labeled “big dog person, “she finds everything about Pomeranians irritating. “They’re always yapping and underfoot and begging for attention,” she explains, “plus they’re all cowards.” This disdainful image then became the lens through which she views Leo, her next patient, and all members of his breed.
So often when we think about the human-animal bond, we think about animal-assisted therapy or grief counseling. However, the bond and the physiological changes it encompasses serve as the primary “language” via which human and animal communicate. Dr. Nadick’s negative feelings about Pomeranians willcreate changes in her body language and physiology that Leo will detect. Then the question becomes, how will this affect the animal and its relationship with the veterinarian, and how will these effect the treatment process?
Luckily for most veterinarians who maintain various animal prejudices, most animals posses sufficient stability to tolerate this negative message for the length of the average veterinary encounter. If Leo finds Dr. Nadick’s response destabilizing though, he may react fearfully and freeze, fight, or try to get away. If his response supports her breed-based prejudices, it may produce one of two quite opposite effects on the veterinarian. On the one hand, the fact that Leo behaves in a manner consistent with her negative view might strengthen her prejudice and cause her to find the dog even more offensive and irritating than before. Consequently, she will consciously or subconsciously communicate an even more antagonistic message to the dog. On the other hand, the fact that he responds exactly as she expects might please her and lead her to interact with him in a more positive manner.
Obviously, if Leo’s response generates more anti-Pomeranian feelings, this greatly increases the probability that the dog will not receive the same high quality examination that Dr. Nadick would give an animal belonging to a breed she likes. Even if he did, these bond- and behavior-related negative physiological changes her attitude could generate in the dog could undermine the validity of her findings. Although inconsequential most of the time, these changes could cause Dr. Nadick to miss early signs of a medical problem. Paradoxically, if Leo’s negative reaction pleases the veterinarian, this positive change in her mood could neutralize any negative effects her previously antagonistic reaction had on him.
How does Dr. Nadick’s prejudice affect her relationship with Leo’s owner? It goes without saying that most people seek veterinary care for their animals because they value the animals for some reason. Most of them also expect the veterinarian to share this view unless the animal does something obvious to negate it. Consequently, most clients pay as much, if not more, attention to how their veterinarians relate to their animals than they do to any medical aspects of the treatment process. Although veterinarians often blame location or their lack of state-of-the-art technology when clients switch to another practice, a belief that “Dr. Nadick doesn’t like Pomeranians” or “Dr. Green hates cats” serves as more than a good enough reason for many owners to forego the services of even the most fully equipped veterinary hospital.
So what should we do if we experience such prejudicial feelings? First, accept these as real and capable of undermining the treatment process. Second, determine the source of the negative feeling and what you can do to alleviate it. Sometimes just learning more about that particular breed or species resolves the problem. If a previous negative experience with one individual led to a blanket condemnation of an entire breed or species, counseling might be in order to resolve any unresolved fears. Three, take a pro-active rather than reactive approach to these animals and their owners. If you don’t like a particular breed or species, refer those animals to someone who does. If you don’t want to do this, be honest with the client about your prejudice, acknowledge how it can affect the animal’s behavior and physiology, and vow do your best to minimize these effects. Believe it or not, most clients will forgive their veterinarians who openly admit that they don’t like pit bulls or cats. However, veterinarians who deny such prejudices or, worse, behave in a manner which communicates that the problem lies with the animal rather than the practitioner could easily lose both that client’s respect and his or her business.
Practically all people maintain one sort of animal phobia or another. According to human behavioral scientists, some of these phobias may represent deeply embedded remnants of our ancient past whereas others represent modern encounters to which we assign a strong negative emotional charge for some reason. However, because we veterinarians present ourselves as lovers of all creatures great and small to the public, we either need to conduct ourselves in a manner consistent with that image or willingly refer our clients and patients to those who can.