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Setting Boundaries with Pet Parents

Veterinary medicine is a demanding profession and as a veterinarian you have obligations to your patients, pet owners, and your co-workers. How can you manage these different groups and keep some sanity for yourself? Setting boundaries is a form of self-care and can help you stay centered under pressure.

“While the thought of taking time for yourself (whether scheduling breaks throughout the work day, leaving work by a certain time or finally using those vacation hours) can feel impossible, it is actually essential to preventing burnout and taking care of your own physical and mental health.”

Rachel Haimovich, Therapy with Rachel

What are boundaries for veterinarians?

Boundaries mark how far you will engage with someone. When boundaries are drawn, they must be communicated to others. Additionally, boundaries let veterinarians formulate how they will interact with others, and what kind of treatment accepted from others. However, boundaries cannot be used to force others to behave a certain way.

Some examples of boundaries for veterinarians could be:

  • I will not be yelled at by pet parents for more than 2 minutes
  • I will not volunteer for or be pressured into more than one overtime shift
  • I will take a lunch break daily. 

Why do veterinarians need boundaries?

Vets think of themselves as “good samaritans” who are needed in every situation. The trouble with this view are the times when it’s not safe or healthy to take on too much responsibility. For example, when you’ve had to pull a late night on-call shift followed by your regular morning shift for the third day in a row, you may be too tired to optimally handle the cases that come your way. Even heroes need some rest.

“Difficulty setting boundaries is especially common in helping professions. The inclinations to “just do one more” and compromise on basic needs such as breaks and a consistent schedule are typically motivated by good intentions,” says Julia McGrath from Aligned Life Therapy.

“A lack of workplace boundaries contributes to worsening mental health, burn-out, and feelings of hopelessness.”

Additionally, many veterinarians tend to be people-pleasers. As caring and empathetic people, vets will listen too long to emotional outbursts from clients or take shifts to help their colleagues. Choosing and communicating boundaries clearly can help vets to remove themselves from situations where they are being used as an emotional punching bag or overburdening themselves. 

How can you set and enforce boundaries with pet parents?

First, you’ll want to figure out what behaviors are not acceptable – setting the boundary – and then communicate and enforce it.

Setting Boundaries with Pet Parents

Setting a boundary is determining what behavior you will tolerate. Some items may include:

  • Attempting to stay with their pet, even in cases of surgery
  • Yelling at or berating you 
  • Personal contacts asking for veterinary medical advice

Communicating Boundaries

Next, you need to tell the pet parent that this is not acceptable. “No” is a complete sentence, so feel free to use it when necessary. However, when dealing with clients, potential clients, or personal contacts, you may want to be a bit more elegant in that message. 

The person may continue pushing the boundary. When this happens, it can be helpful to tell the person the consequences of pushing the boundary. Also give a time frame for how quickly those consequences will happen. Here’s an example:

“I will not tolerate being yelled at during this phone call. (Boundary) Please adjust your tone. If you can’t speak to me in a normal tone of voice (Identifying the boundary pushing behavior) in the next minute (setting a time frame), I’ll have to end this conversation.”

Enforcing Boundaries

Finally, you need to enforce the boundary. This may mean handing the client off to another staff member, such as a medical director or office manager, hanging up the phone, or asking the client to leave. 

Let’s go through an example.

Setting a boundary with a personal contact asking for advice

Recently, a vet in Georgia had a contact, Sue, reach out through social media for medical advice. Sue’s son’s girlfriend in Texas has a chihuahua that was constantly crying. Could Dr. Vet please look at them via Zoom during their free time and fix the dog? She didn’t want her grandpuppy to suffer!

Setting the boundary: Depending on your jurisdiction, veterinary telemedicine may not be legal. So that is an obvious boundary. You may also not feel comfortable with virtual examinations in general. That is a perfectly acceptable boundary as well. 

Communicating the boundary: Dr. Vet replied to Sue with the following message: 

“I’m sorry that the chihuahua is having trouble! Unfortunately, I don’t do virtual consultations.”

You do not have to apologize for your boundary. Also, you do not have to offer an alternative or an explanation for your boundary. 

Enforcing the boundary: Sue ignored Dr. Vet’s boundary. Their conversation went like this:

Vet setting a boundary on social media

What happened here was Sue pushing Dr. Vet’s boundary, and Dr. Vet holding their boundary. The final sentence was Dr. Vet showing the consequences for continued pushing or ignoring of the boundary. A timeframe wasn’t necessary here.

Handling common customer-facing boundaries

Even the best clinics can have stressful situations. Here are a few common situations and some approaches on how to handle them.

Yelling at the Clinic

If a client is yelling and blaming you for something, offer a chance to speak to your medical director or office manager. Tell them that you can listen if they need help, but you cannot help clients who yell at you. 

Here, the timing aspect may be helpful. A sentence like, “I have my next appointment in 2 minutes” can help you limit your time with a vocal customer and force them to move through their emotions to the part where you can help. Your time frame does not have to be true or accurate, by the way. At the 2-minute mark, say, “I have to go to my next appointment now. Our Practice Manager can help you finalize your treatment options and take your payment.”

Emotional Assistance 

Be honest and transparent with what you can and cannot do for a grieving person. A little compassion goes a long way, but you cannot be the client’s only support. Refer them to a counselor or support group for additional resources.

Handling phone calls with irate pet parents

Pet parents can be confused, angry, or fearful when they call to complain. It is not your responsibility to make them feel better. If a client is unhappy, let them vent for a short period of time. When you feel you are reaching your limit, impose a time limit on them. Offer to address their concerns in writing if a verbal explanation is not possible or sufficient.

Price Haggling

Let your clients know that you do not set prices. If the client continues, forward them to the practice manager or owner. Do not discuss discounts or special arrangements. Let those with power over pricing make these calls.

If you are the one who sets pricing, or you have discretionary discounting power, have a plan for customers in need in advance. Remember that you are a for-profit enterprise, and nobody is entitled to a discount. You can choose to share discounts with customers if you feel that they qualify. Customers with bad attitudes may automatically disqualify themselves.

Will I Get In Trouble For Setting Boundaries?

Boundaries are helpful for setting how you will react to potentially harmful treatment by clients. If you’re unsure of how enforcing your boundaries will be handled by your team, try to find some time with your practice owner to discuss how customers are currently treating you and your team. 

You may be concerned about getting a bad review from the customer for enforcing your boundaries. Boundaries come into play when you have already exhausted the standard processes to make a customer happy. You may have already offered any discounts, or apologized for any issues, and are still receiving verbal attacks. In this case, don’t assume a bad review will be published. Setting and enforcing your boundaries is for your personal protection at this point. 

In some cases, clearly setting boundaries early can make a customer see you in a more serious light, heading off confrontational interactions early in the conversation. 

Veterinarians that Set Boundaries Can Reduce Stress

We’ve gone through what boundaries are, why they are important for veterinarians, and a few instances of how to set, communicate, and enforce a boundary with a client. Giving a warning of consequences and a timeframe for those consequences can make interactions with customers clearer and limit the impact or severity of uncomfortable behavior. 

Setting and enforcing boundaries may change customer behavior for the better, but it is really about protecting your mental health and giving you a roadmap in handling tense situations. When you’re ready for those hard moments, getting through them is easier. 

Let us know of times where you’ve successfully used boundary-setting to deal with a prickly customer in the comments!