How to Handle Scary Relief Gigs.

Not all relief jobs are smooth sailing, and part of being a relief vet is dealing with uncomfortable situations in unfamiliar environments with strangers. It comes with the territory. In the spirit of Halloween, I present some scary relief vet scenarios.

The Scary Practice

It happens. You agree to work at a practice but you never have time to visit before your first day. Both you and the practice are taking a leap of faith and basically agreeing to a blind date.

Arriving a few minutes early, you park at a building that looks like it’s been repurposed many times in its 100-year history: family home, speakeasy, chicken restaurant, legal office, palm reader, then finally veterinary practice. The owners have painted paw prints on the walkway leading to the front door to reassure the customers that they’re in the right place.

Looking at the parched, overgrown landscape, you consider ghosting them but think better of it since you realize the negative impact that would have on your reputation. So you tentatively push open the door, startled by the creak as it swings. The front desk staff and dust simultaneously greet you causing you to smile and sneeze at the same time. You’re shown to the office with dirty carpeting, wood-paneled walls, and faded curtains with scenes of hunting dogs and you set your bag down on the cracked, crooked office chair. You smile politely but shudder at the thought of how this day is going to unfold.

While this description is mildly exaggerated for effect, I’ve worked in some practices that come close. In some, the lack of cleanliness and aesthetics belie the quality of medicine. In others, it very much coincides. The point being, don’t judge a book by its cover.

If you find yourself in this situation, definitely don’t make comments or criticize the practice. Keep a friendly poker face, and move on with your day. Focus on providing the best service possible to the patients and clients remembering that your mind and physical exam acumen are your most valuable tools. Oh, and that otoscopes that look like this can still be useful.

The Scary Technician

You’ve met her. You have to work hard to stand a chance of even remotely earning her begrudging respect. The team fears her and follows her lead making you feel like there are zombies at your back all day who want to slowly eat you alive. She does not like change and your mere presence is rocking the boat. She ignores you or constantly points out how their doctor handles cases better. The blatant implication being that you don’t know what you’re doing. When you attempt to smile, it registers more as fear and insecurity than friendliness. And forget about getting a smile out of her. If you could force her to say cheese, she’d be more than capable of doing it while frowning.

Sometimes this is easier said than done, but always take the high road. Avoid confrontation, passive aggression, and defensiveness. Engage your highest levels of emotional intelligence and stay professional and friendly. Keep an open mind and be receptive to suggestions about cases and patient care. Remain helpful and tuned into the needs of the practice, even if they fall outside the realm of your regular duties. Almost 100 percent of the time, you will earn people’s respect. And if you don’t, that’s their problem, not yours.

The Scary Client

Oh boy, they are mad. Unreasonably mad. You’re not even sure about what. All you did was diagnose a flea infestation on their dog and tell them you’d be sending home the appropriate treatment. The client seemed so friendly this morning. However, while discharging the patient you’re suddenly getting chewed out because they claim their dog picked up the fleas while at the practice and that you have the capitalistic, greedy nerve to try to sell them a treatment! Don’t you even CARE about animals?

Backed against the exam room wall, your eyes widen as you watch this client morph into some kind of demon. Unfortunately, your mind fails to deliver to your mouth all the burning comebacks that it will conjure in the middle of the night thereby uselessly robbing you of much-needed sleep. Instead, you stand there speechless.

First of all, keep your cool. Even though the angry client is hurling their inner cauldron of stress at you, exorcist style, the source is rarely you. It’s everything else in their life. Even with the angriest of clients, empathy is the best approach. Listen to their tirade long enough to allow them expression, then calmly ask them how you can help. When they have to answer a question, it often stops the rant dead in its tracks and diffuses the tension. If it gets too out of hand, call the practice manager…or a priest.

The Scary Case

You’ve just started getting a hang of the workflow at this new practice. The clients are nice, the cases interesting, the staff is helpful, and the minor anxiety that pestered you earlier in the day has subsided. Then you hear it… “I NEED A DOCTOR!” Adrenaline surges through your system as the tech lays a mangled dog on the treatment table. The injuries are severe and the anatomy partially unrecognizable. Fear momentarily freezes your limbs, dulls your brain, and blurs your vision and that vampire of confidence whispers in your ear that you don’t know what to do.

But you do know what to do. Take a deep breath and remember your ABC’s and evaluate airway, breathing, circulation, and mental status. Both the dog’s and your own. Then you can calmly, and deliberately start using the tools of your trade to save the patient. It’s easy to freak out with truly emergent cases and momentarily forget your training. However, it’s there and sometimes all it takes is a deep breath and a quick wooden stake to the heart of that lurking confidence sucker.

Also, don’t forget that you can call for assistance. Have a staff member call a local emergency or specialty center and ask to speak to an emergency vet or critical care specialist. In general, your colleagues will be happy to provide advice and walk you through complicated cases.


As veterinarians, we must be courageous every day as we problem-solve to take care of our patients and clients. And as relief veterinarians, we do the same but often without the back up of a familiar location and team. You can do this, no matter what terrifying scenario is thrown at you. Just pull out those wooden stakes and silver bullets and scare off those confidence robbing ghouls. Then go save some animals!

Happy Halloween!

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