“What are the boundaries of my relationship with my veterinarian?”
We all know that taking our furry friends to the veterinarian can be a stressful time. Learning some of the details of the veterinarian-client relationship can help ease some of the stress. So, what makes up a veterinarian-client relationship?
When you take your pet to your veterinarian to be examined, you become the veterinarian’s client. You are bound by any conditions in your agreement with the veterinarian. But, what about the veterinarian? The veterinarian is already bound by the rules of the veterinary accrediting agency for the state where he or she practices.
For each state, the rules controlling veterinarians are a little different. Additionally, every state has its own licensing requirements. However, the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics of the AVMA (“Principles”) provide a general guide for state ethical rules of practice. Looking at the AMVA Principles can then provide a framework for how states may deal with veterinarian-client agreements in their codes of professional responsibility.
Under the Principles, a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (“VCPR”) begins when the veterinarian takes responsibility for the animal. The Principles require veterinarians to form a VCPR before prescriptions are written or given out, and to keep medical records. The Principles require “informed consent” from the client before the patient is treated. Getting this “informed consent” typically means the veterinarian explains both the risks and benefits associated with a particular treatment method. Then the client signs a document which states the client understands the risks and benefits. This is true with prescription medications as well. According to the Journal of the AVMA, to have “informed consent” client information sheets provided to the veterinarian must be handed out with the drug. These client information sheets have information on risks associated with that particular drug. Further, under the Principles, veterinarians must also write a prescription for medications that can not be obtained over the counter. This includes Veterinary Feed Directive medicated feeds for food producing animals.
While the contractual relationship lies with the human owner, the duty of care lies with the animal patient. This can be seen in states that have reporting laws. Approximately 28 states have laws that allow veterinarians to report suspected cases of animal abuse; of these states, about 10 states make this duty mandatory (see Table of Veterinary Reporting and Immunity Provisions). Very few states make a veterinarian criminally liable for failing to report cruelty. These jurisdictions then usually limit both civil and criminal liability when the report of suspected abuse is made in good faith. Veterinarians are not generally required to cross-report potentially criminal situations to other state agencies. Other laws may require veterinarians to report suspected cases of spousal or child abuse.
Finally, all states have disciplinary rules that apply to veterinarians and their actions. These rules require that veterinarians act or do not act in a certain way in order to stay out of trouble with the veterinary medical examining board of their state and, in some instances, in order to keep their licenses. These rules are in place both to protect the interests of the veterinarians and their clients. The clients’ interests are protected by the inclusion of disciplinary rules for the veterinarian and the veterinarian’s interests are protected by the inclusion of immunity from liability for certain actions. Together, these make the veterinarian-client relationship stronger.
For more on this, see the Overview.
For an in-depth legal discussion, see the Detailed Discussion.