Visiting Veterinarian

When child care interferes with pet care

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - May 24, 2007

It was lunchtime at the veterinary seminar I was attending in Boston. Standing on line for the buffet, I was talking on my cell phone to my daughter who had been giving her father a hard time about homework.

"You're so good at math," I cajoled her. "How about doing multiplication now? When I get home tomorrow, we'll do the reading together."

The woman next to me in line smiled.

"How old?" she mouthed.

I cradled the phone against my ear with my shoulder and flashed nine fingers.

"Okay, honey. Mommy needs to go," I said, hungrily eyeing the cold cuts. I made a plate, then scanned the dining room for a seat. Ah, there was a table of women vets chatting animatedly.

"Can I join you?" I asked, sliding into a vacant chair, ready to discuss the stresses of being Superwomen.

"Don't you just hate that?" one of the women was saying. "I'm trying to explain about Fido's medication and this woman's kid is interrupting constantly and her baby is screaming at the top of its lungs."

"Yeah," another woman agreed. "I have this one client who brings four kids with her to every appointment. And then complains about the bill. She keeps saying 'I have four kids to feed,' as if I couldn't see that."

"Why do they bring the brats if they can't control them?" a third said disdainfully.

I sighed. I put down my fork. I took a deep breath. Being the overwhelmed parent of two smallish children myself, my sympathies lay with the maligned mommies. I opened my mouth to speak - then thought better of it.

"Excuse me," I said, quietly picking up my plate to leave. "I see someone over there I want to talk to."

Don't get me wrong, I have stories of my own about unruly children at the office. Some 20 years ago I was working on a dog... I don't remember what the problem was but I do recall that the owner was a summer person and a physician, and that his sweet-faced son was about four years old. The doctor was grilling me about his pup's condition. I was trying not to get defensive. Neither of us was paying attention to the little boy.

Suddenly I looked over and saw, to my horror, blood running down the child's face. He did not seem in pain. I did not see a wound. My gaze traveled to his hands which rested in his sopping wet lap. In one hand was the jar we used to collect ticks, usually filled with rubbing alcohol. In the other hand, the purple-top tube in which I had put the dog's blood sample. Both were empty. The child had dumped the jar of alcohol-soaked ticks in his lap, then drunk the blood sample.

His father freaked.

"Now we have to go to the hospital and give you the stuff that makes you throw up!" he said grabbing the boy's arm. I doubted the child needed serious medical attention, but wisely stayed out of it.

The kid with the popgun was another story. The parents were a lovely couple. Their dog was a bit high-strung, but their son was a whirling dervish. At first I ignored the child. Then I tried to engage him in conversation. Finally, when he shot a ping-pong-sized ball from his gun at my expensive surgical light, I lost it.

"Stop it!" I snapped at the kid. "Could you please ask your son to sit down and be quiet?" I yelled at the dad. He smiled sheepishly with a barely perceptible shrug. At the time I didn't understand. Today I do. That's the I-would-get-him-to-stop-if-I-could shrug.

Many parents do not have any choice except to bring children along on errands. I support and applaud you. I'm impressed you managed to get everyone dressed and into the car. But children at the vet's office can pose specific problems we should consider.

If you have a large number of pets or if any of your animals are aggressive, nervous, or particularly difficult to handle, bringing kids just adds to the stress and confusion. If possible, leave them with a spouse, friend, neighbor, or sitter. If your pet has a life-threatening illness and the visit may include talk of hospice care or euthanasia, having the children present may impede communication. I, for one, don't mind including young people in these discussions, but some veterinarians and some parents may not be comfortable with that.

Feel free to tell your veterinarian's secretary that you want to schedule your appointment to coincide with school or day-care. Most veterinary staff will be more than happy to accommodate such a request because (sssshhhhh, I'm not supposed to tell you this) a lot of them don't like it when you bring your kids.

Visiting the vet can be an educational life experience. Nancy Salon-Nunes used to routinely show up with her entire daycare in tow for her cat's wellness visits. I loved it. The kids were well-behaved and I had fun talking to them. (If you want a real tour, check with your vet beforehand. Don't just show up uninvited on a busy day in August with a gang of tots.)

Okay, say your pet is young, healthy, and friendly. Say you have no alternative but to bring your children with you. Or maybe they just want to come. Fine by me. Just follow a few basic rules.

Don't let 'em play with the tick jar, drink blood, or shoot weapons in the exam room. Seriously, no veterinary office is child-proofed. There is dangerous stuff here. Children should wear shoes. They should keep their hands, faces, and mouths, off the tables, counters, and floors. They should not touch syringes, needles, medications, lab samples. They should not play with the equipment including the scale, lights, stethoscopes. They should not stand close to the animal being worked on. Little kids are right at face level to the action and even something as simple as a nail clip can be dangerous if a piece goes flying into a child's eye. Children should not interact with pets that do not belong to them.

You will probably find varying amounts of tolerance and assistance depending on the particular office, your kids, and the day. Veterinary staff cannot do their jobs and babysit at the same time. The staff may not have children, or may not be thinking about what you need. Ask for help if no one offers. "Can someone hold the dog while I bring the baby in from the car?" is a perfectly reasonable request. "Do you have some crayons? " is a perfectly reasonable request. Better yet, plan ahead and bring a toy or coloring book along. You know your kids best. You know what will help them behave so we can get our job done safely.

And what if they won't behave?

I once saw a mom come in with a child, maybe two. One of the kids just couldn't settle down. The mom finally stopped and turned to me. "Excuse me," she said calmly. "This will just take a minute."

She lifted the child up and placed him on a counter so they could be face to face. She got very close, smiling, and making good eye contact. The two then engaged in a focused conversation. Mom talked. Child listened. Child talked. Mom listened. Repeat.

"Thanks," she said, returning to the exam room a moment later, her now-compliant child at her side.

No. Thank you, I thought to myself, for having the wisdom to take a minute to listen to your child so you could then listen to me.

Of course it's not always that easy. That's what I wanted to tell the kvetching veterinarians..., but I don't think they would have understood. Not yet. Maybe they will be blessed with easy kids, if they decide to become mothers. Maybe they will be those lucky women who handle the challenges of parenting with serene aplomb. Or maybe they will be humbled (as I have been) when one day they find themselves helplessly giving the we-would-make-them-behave-if-we-could shrug as they schlep their own precious offspring along on errands.