This resource was updated in preparation for veterinary review. It was originally published on November 19, 2018.
A major aspect of providing the best care for all of the residents at your animal sanctuary involves working in partnership with licensed veterinarians. While overseeing the care of an individual who is ill or injured is certainly one important reason that having a relationship with a licensed veterinarian is imperative, there are many additional reasons that having a good relationship with a trusted veterinarian is essential. To learn more about the importance of veterinary care, check out our resource here.
Because farmed animal sanctuariesAnimal sanctuaries that primarily care for rescued animals that were farmed by humans. strive to provide compassionate, individualized, lifelong care for species that are viewed by society at large as commodities and who are typically only allowed to live a fraction of their natural lifespan in most settings, there are a variety of challenges that can arise when consulting with a veterinarian about their care. It’s helpful to understand these potential challenges so that you can work to avoid them or so you can be prepared to navigate them should they arise. While you and your veterinarian may not agree on everything, ultimately, it is in your residents’ best interest for you to maintain a good working relationship with your veterinarian(s).
Set Expectations Upfront
If you have the luxury of choice when it comes to veterinary care providers for your residents, you may want to start by contacting clinics you are considering to ask about their experience caring for your residents’ species and to inquire about their on-site capabilities. Because veterinary staff are often operating under significant time constraints, keep in mind that some of your questions may need to wait until you meet the veterinarian. Consider treating the first visit as a way to get to know your veterinarian and their resources. When learning about a veterinary care provider, either on the phone or during your initial visit, it’s helpful to ask the following questions:
- Ask them about their care experience with your residents’ species;
- Ask them what kind of diagnostic capacities they have on site – for example – can basic blood work be run on site, or must it be sent out? Do they have x-ray machines that can accommodate your residents?
- Ask them if they have constraints on the kinds of medications and treatments that they offer to farmed animalA species or specific breed of animal that is raised by humans for the use of their bodies or what comes from their bodies. species;
- And discuss your sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care and what it means to you.
Because there is often a difference between the care more traditional companion animalsAnimals who spend regular time with humans in their home and life. Typically cats and dogs are considered companion animals, though many species of animals could also be companion animals. (such as dogs and cats) receive versus farmed animal species, it can be helpful to explain that your sanctuary views its residents as companion animals or even family members. This statement alone may convey to a veterinarian the type of care you are seeking, but to be as clear as possible, it’s helpful to explain that you are looking for a veterinarian who can provide individualized care (rather than treating animals only in groups like herds or flocks). Let them know that your sanctuary endeavors to provide compassionate, lifelong care – when your residents are ill, you’ll want to pursue diagnostic and treatment options, if they develop chronic conditions that cause them pain, you’ll want to manage their pain with appropriate analgesics for as long as you can, and if an individual’s quality of life becomes poor and all other options have been exhausted, you’ll want to provide them with a peaceful and gentle euthanasia (more on this below).
For some veterinarians who work primarily in animal agricultural environments, these expectations may be quite different from what they are used to, but it’s important to keep in mind that this does not mean they cannot be an asset to your sanctuary. Some veterinarians may be quite excited about the prospect of providing individualized care and working outside the constraints of agricultural settings, even if they do not fully understand or support your sanctuary’s missionThe stated goals and activities of an organization. An animal sanctuary’s mission is commonly focused on objectives such as animal rescue and public advocacy.. What’s important is not whether they necessarily agree with your philosophy, but whether they’re willing to work with your team and your residents respectfully.
Depending on where your sanctuary is located, you may not have many choices when it comes to qualified veterinary services, making this conversation even more important. For more information on finding the right veterinarian(s) for your sanctuary, check out our resource here.
Expectations For Euthanasia
When it comes to euthanasiaThe act of ending someone’s life to spare them from suffering or a significantly reduced quality of life that cannot be managed., there can be significant differences between what a sanctuary expects and what a veterinarian is used to with other clients. It’s much easier to have a conversation about what you expect early on, before you need to consider euthanasia for one of your residents. Just as you explained that you are looking for individualized care that is on par with what one would expect for a beloved companion cat or dog, it can be helpful to explain that when it comes to euthanasia, you want your veterinarian to use the same gentle, non-physical methods that are typically accepted for a companion animalAn animal who spends regular time with humans in their home and life. Typically cats and dogs are considered companion animals, though many species of animals could also be companion animals.. There are numerous euthanasia methods that are approved for farmed animal species that are neither gentle or non-physical and that are in conflict with what a sanctuary would expect for their residents. Therefore, it’s important to have a conversation about what method(s) they are comfortable with for the species for whom you care and whether or not they would be willing and able to perform euthanasia using gentle, non-physical methods.
To avoid issues around euthanasia, we recommend creating a euthanasia policy and sharing it with your veterinarian, ideally well before you are in a situation where euthanasia must be considered. You can find our euthanasia policy template here. In some cases, you may find that while your veterinarian does not have experience performing euthanasia in the way you expect for certain species, that they are open to the idea and willing to do it. For some species, they may want to consult with other veterinarians who have experience performing gentle euthanasia so that they can be better prepared in the future. However, you may also encounter a veterinarian who is not open to performing euthanasia using methods you are comfortable with. By broaching this topic before you are actually in a position where euthanasia is needed, you’ll hopefully be able to ensure that your veterinarian is both willing and able to perform euthanasia in the way in which you expect, and if they cannot, can look into other veterinarians who can.
Building A Relationship
As the title of this resource alludes to, once you have found appropriate veterinary care for each of the species at your sanctuary (as typically, a large animal veterinarian will have a very different skill set than an avian veterinarian, for example), you should strive to build a good working relationship with them. Do not think of your veterinarian(s) as someone you call only when you have an emergency. Looking at veterinary care in this way not only overlooks other important ways your veterinarian can support your sanctuary and its residents, it is also likely to set you up for headaches later on. A veterinarian who is familiar with your organization and your residents, as well as the type of care you provide, is likely going to treat you differently than they would someone they know nothing about. Perhaps this means they are willing to squeeze one of your residents in during an emergency, even though they are fully booked, or maybe they are willing to discuss certain cases over the phone or email, letting you know if they have immediate recommendations or if they need to perform an exam first. A veterinarian with whom you have a good working relationship may also be comfortable prescribing certain medications for you to have on hand to use under their guidance during an emergency. What is appropriate and what they are comfortable with will vary, but odds are that you are going to be in a better position if you have a meaningful relationship with them rather than only seeking their services when you are dealing with an emergency.
Do Your Part
A good working relationship requires that both parties do their part. Don’t overlook your responsibilities when it comes to maintaining a good relationship with your veterinarian!
Show Them You Respect Their Boundaries
Just as you will enter into this working relationship with certain expectations, so too will your veterinarian. If they have made it clear that there are certain species they are not comfortable working with or certain procedures they will not perform, you should respect these boundaries. For example, if you find a veterinarian who is experienced in ruminants and equines, but they make it clear that they are not comfortable working with your avian residents, then you’ll need to dedicate some time to finding an additional veterinarian whose experience makes them better suited to work with your avian residents. Similarly, if your veterinarian says they are not comfortable performing a certain procedure, ask if they have recommendations for other veterinarians to contact. Attempting to guilt trip a veterinarian into doing something they explicitly said they would not do not only jeopardizes your relationship with your veterinarian moving forward, but can also place your resident(s) in danger (and potentially life-threatening danger) if the veterinarian already told you they do not feel comfortable with the procedure. To revisit the example of a large animal veterinarian making it clear that they do not see avian patients, pushing them to do so could result in your avian residents receiving veterinary care that is below the level you would hope for simply because your veterinarian is inexperienced in avian medicine and is unable to develop their knowledge in this area.
Along these same lines, you may find that your veterinarian is unwilling to prescribe certain medications due to the drug’s use being prohibited in certain farmed animal species. While we understand that this can be extremely frustrating, especially if you know of other sanctuaries whose residents have received the same treatment, arguing with your veterinarian about it is unlikely going to change their minds. The boundaries they set in this area may have little to do with their own feelings about farmed animalsA species or specific breed of animal that is raised by humans for the use of their bodies or what comes from their bodies. and the treatments that should or should not be available to them. It likely has much more to do with their fears that prescribing certain medications could put them at risk of legal issues and the loss of their license. (We do want to point out that what we’re describing here is very different from a veterinarian having a blanket policy of not prescribing analgesics or antibiotics to farmed animals. If you feel your veterinarian is unwilling to provide your residents with the care they need, you should look for another veterinarian who will.) In the case of prohibited medications, while every situation and veterinarian is different, often the best thing you can do is establish a good relationship with your veterinarian and demonstrate to them that you are responsible and can be trusted. While some medications may always be off limits, you may find that the longer you work together, the more comfortable they are prescribing certain medications.
In addition to the above, you should also respect their boundaries when it comes to physically working with your residents, particularly when it comes to their safety. Perhaps you and your staff are able to perform certain tasks with certain residents without using any form of restraint, but remember that your veterinarian probably doesn’t have the same relationship with your residents as you do. If they request for individuals to be restrained during examinations, you should respect this while finding middle ground if their request feels out of sync with your Philosophy of Care (more on this below).
It’s also important that you respect their boundaries and follow their directions when it comes to things like how and when to contact them. If, for example, your veterinarian gives you their cell number for emergency use but asks that you continue to use the main phone line for non-emergency situations, you must make sure that anyone from the sanctuary who may need to contact them is aware of these protocols. Consistently failing to do so shows a lack of respect for their boundaries and is sure to sour the relationship.
Show Them You Value Their Time
Along these same lines, make sure your actions show your veterinarian that you respect their time. Consistently missing or showing up late to appointments sends the message that you do not. Similarly, if you work with a mobile veterinarian who comes to the sanctuary to see patients, not being prepared for their arrival also doesn’t send a great message. For on-site visits, it’s a good idea to talk to them about what they need and expect so that you can have everything ready to go upon their arrival. This often means moving the individual who needs to be seen into a pen or other area where they can more easily be approached and examined and also usually entails having a safe way to restrain them. Depending on the situation, they may also have important questions about the individual’s age, health history, vaccination status, recent treatments, etc., so make sure you have this information readily available.
Another point of contention with veterinarians, and something that shows a lack of respect for their time, pertains to emergencies. While legitimate emergencies definitely happen, consistently waiting to contact your veterinarian until a situation is dire is sure to cause issues and damage your relationship with your veterinarian (and is also a disservice to your residents). In some situations, it may be reasonable to wait for a short period of time so that you can further assess someone’s condition, but regularly choosing to wait to contact your veterinarian until a situation has become urgent is not going to win you any favors and could negatively impact the individual’s prognosis (and is likely going to lead to more expensive vet bills). Make sure you know your veterinarian’s typical working hours and keep them in mind when considering whether to contact them immediately or to wait to see how an individual’s situation changes – if it’s getting close to the end of their regular office hours, waiting to call them might not be the best idea. Consistently waiting to contact your veterinarian until after hours, weekends, and holidays, when you could have contacted them sooner, is likely to cause frustration or, worse, put you in a situation where care from your primary veterinarian is simply not available.
Similarly, misrepresenting the seriousness of a situation is not a good idea. While telling your veterinarian that a certain situation is an emergency may get one of your residents seen sooner, if your veterinarian squeezes you in and finds this situation is not, in fact, urgent, they may be less likely to make accommodations for you in future emergencies, especially if this seems to be a recurring issue.
Show Them You Respect Their Expertise (And The Veterinary Profession More Generally)
While there will certainly be times when you don’t agree with your veterinarian, and there may even be times when you have more experience with a certain situation or health condition than they do (and we’ll discuss this below), it’s important to demonstrate to your veterinarian that you respect their training and experience as a licensed professional. Ignoring their advice (without having any dialogue about whatever issues you may have), trying to treat medical conditions on your own, or relying more on google than on them sends the message that you do not value their expertise. No veterinarian is going to have all the answers, but their education and training make them the only people who should be prescribing medications or performing surgeries.
They also have the knowledge and experience necessary to put together an appropriate diagnostic plan and to interpret diagnostics results in conjunction with the individual’s clinical signs, while taking into account any external factors that could have impacted the results. Because experienced caregivers may also have quite a bit of experience in terms of certain health conditions and available diagnostic tests, it’s understandable that a caregiverSomeone who provides daily care, specifically for animal residents at an animal sanctuary, shelter, or rescue. may feel they have enough experience to determine that certain diagnostics are necessary, and if they have the means to collect and submit the necessary samples, they may be inclined to do so without veterinary involvement. However, doing so without first having a conversation with your veterinarian (or worse, not having a primary veterinarian and instead reaching out to a veterinarian who has no idea who you are) could lead to conflict. Veterinarians are extremely busy and might not appreciate being asked to spend time interpreting and explaining diagnostic results if they were not involved at all in the submission process and have no real working relationship with you or your organization. This doesn’t mean that a caregiver can never collect or submit diagnostic samples, but it’s best to do this in consultation with your veterinarian.
Another fairly common source of conflict arises when a veterinarian is only contacted when there is an emergency or when euthanasia is needed. These are often the least predictable and often the most stressful services that veterinarians provide. Expecting them to do what they might feel are the worst parts of the job without also enlisting their other services could result in a working relationship that is not as strong as it could be (as discussed above in “Building A Relationship”).
Treat Their Staff Well
While it’s important that you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, do not overlook the importance of also maintaining a good relationship with their staff! In addition to this being the right thing to do regardless of any benefit it may incur, many caregivers have found that establishing and maintaining a good relationship with vet staff has many perks. While it may be difficult to establish much of a relationship with staff at a very large hospital where they interact with too many clients to keep them straight, in smaller settings, getting to know the staff can make the experience of trying to schedule an appointment or get a message to your veterinarian a bit easier. It should go without saying, but if at all possible, learn the names of the staff who help you frequently, and make sure to use them! Being recognized as individuals is a really important thing for veterinary reception and tech staff!
Remember, reception staff at veterinary hospitals must play a very critical role of gatekeeping for their doctors. They are the first line when it comes to contact and gathering information. Talking down to reception staff or being impatient or rude as they collect information is not likely to warm them to you. They are generally required to gather certain types of information before they can convey requests to vet tech staff or to doctors. The care of farmed animals may be a new area for them as well, so give them the patience that they deserve to do their job properly.
Technicians, too, have a very difficult job navigating between reception staff, clients, and doctors. The juggling act that techs must perform on a daily basis deserves respect and appreciation. Make sure to remember that your technicians have valuable experience and knowledge and very likely have tips and tricks that they can teach you when it comes to things like handling or administering medications. Being rude to or impatient with tech staff is a sure way to undermine your relationship with your veterinary hospital. Staff members do talk amongst themselves and remember who treated them with grace and patience and who treated them poorly!
Caregivers who have a good relationship with receptionists and vet techs have reported an easier time getting fit into a tight appointment schedule and have reported receiving assistance in getting information to or from the veterinarian (sometimes with the vet tech acting as go between for a busy veterinarian), among other things.
As we mentioned above, part of establishing and maintaining a good relationship with your veterinarian entails demonstrating to them that you respect their expertise and training as a licensed veterinarian. However, this does not mean that you must follow their recommendations with no questions asked. A good working relationship with your veterinarian should allow room for you to ask questions and have respectful discussions. If they recommend a treatment, and you want to better understand why, you should feel comfortable asking for more information. Similarly, if they say there are no diagnostics or treatments available in a certain situation, but based on what you’ve experienced or have heard from other caregivers, you think there are, you should feel comfortable asking for clarification about why those other options are not being considered. That said, it’s a good idea to think about how you ask questions. Coming across as second-guessing or accusatory could put your veterinarian on the defensive and derail (or completely halt) the conversation.
Along these same lines, despite establishing expectations upfront, there are likely going to be times when what they are used to is not in alignment with what you would prefer for your residents. Again, this goes back to the way society as a whole views farmed animals and the way veterinarians are trained and doesn’t necessarily reflect any sort of disregard for your residents on their part. It is not uncommon for a sanctuary and a veterinarian (or vet tech) to have different “go-to” restraint methods, for example. If possible, see if your staff can be responsible for restraint during veterinary examinations. This can be especially helpful in the early stages of building a relationship with a veterinarian. Not only can it help avoid issues, it also demonstrates what you expect for your residents. In the event that your veterinarian or someone on their staff handles a resident in a way that makes you uncomfortable, speak up, but try to do so without being hostile. Depending on the situation, you may choose to follow-up with them later to discuss your concerns and have a conversation about how to avoid issues going forward. Try to approach this from the lens of looking for solutions rather than placing blame.
Because of the nature of sanctuary care, your veterinarian may find that they come across conditions or individuals at your sanctuary that they do not have hands-on experience working with. For some veterinarians, this may be an exciting prospect that allows them to expand upon the knowledge they already have. Additionally, the knowledge and experience your veterinarian gains while working with your sanctuary and its residents could very well end up being shared with their colleagues, expanding what the veterinary world knows about farmed animals and the diseases that affect them and ultimately bettering the lives of other farmed animals!
However, depending on the situation, a veterinarian’s lack of experience with a certain condition or population (such as elderly residents or large breed chickens and turkeys) can be a source of frustration for caregivers if they feel their veterinarian is consistently pessimistic about the prognosis of certain conditions – perhaps recommending euthanasia instead of exploring other options. Again, this is where it can be helpful to have a constructive conversation. Why do they think the prognosis is poor? If you know of other sanctuaries who are dealing with certain conditions, or if you came across information in a sanctuary group or on our website that suggests there are other options to consider, raise these with your veterinarian and (politely) ask why this is or is not an appropriate option for your resident. There may be times when you bring an idea to them that they hadn’t thought of or weren’t aware was possible, but there may also be times when the specifics of the situation make what worked for another sanctuary contraindicated in this situation.
If you find that your veterinarian is unwilling to answer questions or have discussions about treatment options despite effort on your part to build a good relationship, it may be worth considering if there are other options for veterinary care in your area. While no relationship is going to be perfect, if you really feel like they’re not a good match and that it’s unlikely for the relationship to move ahead in a productive way, it’s probably best to look for a different veterinarian. However, we recommend ending things cordially. You never know when you might find yourself in a situation where you need to ask for their help!
When Disagreements Arise
There are many reasons why you and a veterinarian may not see eye to eye when it comes to certain care standards or treatment plans. Perhaps you feel like they are not exploring available options for difficult yet manageable conditions. Maybe you have historically seen different outcomes than what they have relayed to you, and you have a gut feeling that they are treading down the wrong path. Always keep in mind that, like your sanctuary, veterinarians are trying to do their best. Also, consider that there are areas of knowledge where they will have more experience and training and some areas of knowledge where you may, in fact, have more information and experience (especially when it comes to the long-term care of intensively bred species such as large breedDomesticated animal breeds that have been specifically engineered by humans to grow as large as possible, as quickly as possible, to the detriment of their health. chickens or turkeysUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated turkey breeds, not wild turkeys, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource., for example), and sometimes these two knowledge pools do not fully come into agreement.
The nature of the disagreement is going to influence how to proceed, but there are some general things to keep in mind when navigating a disagreement with your veterinarian. First, it’s a good idea to be honest about your concerns while remaining respectful. Unless you are 100% positive you are correct, it’s best to approach the situation open to the possibility that you could be wrong. If the disagreement stems less from clear facts and more from philosophical differences, acknowledge this while expressing your thoughts. If you’d like to proceed down a different path than what they recommend, it can sometimes be helpful to let them know you’ve heard them and understand what they are saying but that you’d still like to try something else (something like, “I understand your concerns about trying ________, but I’d still like to try.”). If they have strong concerns about what you propose, they may ask you to sign paperwork stating you are proceeding against medical advice, but in other situations, they may outright refuse to do what you propose, in which case you’ll need to make a decision about getting a second opinion.
As with any human interaction, the old motto “treat others the way you want to be treated” is good to remember. Chances are that you wouldn’t appreciate your veterinarian questioning your expertise in front of others, so don’t do it to them. This is particularly true for on-site vet visits during which there may be a number of sanctuary staff or volunteers present. Not that you can’t offer suggestions or ask questions in front of others, but if you feel that further discussion is necessary, consider if this is best done in private. Disagreeing with them in front of an audience could put them on the defensive and shut down the conversation entirely. Similarly, avoiding talking to your veterinarian directly and instead asking one of your caregivers to relay the message isn’t a great idea. Likely they would much rather hear it directly from you without having other parties involved.
Unfortunately, given the physical and emotional toll sanctuary (and veterinary) work take, it’s possible you may handle a disagreement in a way you wish you hadn’t. If this happens, apologize. If, in hindsight, you realize that your veterinarian was right and you were wrong, admit it. This can go a long way in keeping the relationship on a positive footing despite not always agreeing on everything. Similarly, if it turns out that you were right and they were wrong (and, in reality, often the outcome is much less clear than a binary right or wrong), proceed graciously. If, for example, one of your residents survives after treatment when your veterinarian said they had a low chance of survival, it doesn’t necessarily mean one person was wrong, and one was right; both parties should be happy that the individual beat the odds! Needlessly reminding your veterinarian about “that time they were wrong” is a bad idea. If they apologize for a mistake they’ve made, accept it and focus on moving forward.
If you and your veterinarian really don’t see eye to eye, and you’ve decided that they’re not the right veterinarian for your sanctuary, it’s still a good idea to keep things as cordial as possible. Even if you were completely correct in your assessment, angrily arguing with a veterinarian puts you at a serious risk of your sanctuary’s reputation being damaged among veterinarians in your region. If you are branded as difficult or uncooperative (as unjustified as that may be), you may have a very difficult time finding another veterinarian in your area who is comfortable working with you, which would have devastating consequences for your residents. Once you do find another veterinarian, you may find that you have an uphill battle ahead of you when it comes to developing a positive relationship with them if your reputation (real or not) precedes you.
Gratitude goes a long way in letting folks know you appreciate them, so don’t forget to let your veterinarian (and their staff!) know that you are grateful for the role they play in your residents’ lives and in your sanctuary’s operations! It’s important to recognize their invaluable contribution to your mission and thank them for providing your residents with the level of care that they deserve. Despite the fact that you are paying them for their services, don’t take for granted the time and energy they put into your residents’ care. If they squeeze in one of your residents on short notice, thank them for doing so. If a mobile veterinarian comes out after hours, tell them you really appreciate it. Another great way to show your appreciation is to give them a positive review online and, when appropriate, to recommend their services to others. When your veterinarian or someone on their staff goes above and beyond to help your organization or one of your residents, consider sending a card and a small token of appreciation. Or, with their permission, highlight their positive impact to your community, perhaps shouting them out on social media channels or in your newsletter.
Although your veterinarian may not ever fully get on board with your sanctuary’s philosophy, it’s more than likely that they, too, will come to know your residents as individuals, and they might develop their own special connection or two. One never knows exactly how a sanctuary will impact those who spend time on its grounds or with its residents, but having more veterinary allies in the sanctuary movement is a net positive for all farmed animals!