The notification vibrates my phone. “We met at a conference and I’m writing to inquire about relief coverage. I haven’t had a vacation in over 3 years.”

Although this is text communication, I can feel the emotion behind the request. Because I’ve been there. Giving so much of myself to support my clients and patients. Knowing that these animals mean everything to them as mine do to me. But also knowing that over time this type of commitment can take a toll if regular restorative measures aren’t taken. Everyone needs a break. The responsibility of caring for people’s animals, being present and engaged with each appointment, and nurturing the emotional connection between pet and client can leave veterinary staff exhausted.

I agree to cover a week at this solo practitioner’s clinic while she takes that hard earned vacation.

On the first day I meet Rio, the practice owner’s black lab mix who is being cared for by one of the technicians. Clearly an intelligent being, he brings me his Kong first thing, which I dutifully throw. He turns his head toward the bouncing Kong but stays firmly planted in front of me. Then he swings his head back to look me squarely in the eyes with a simultaneous look of exasperation and patience that says, “you don’t understand but you can be trained.” It only took me 3 days of misusing the Kong, to finally learn that I’m supposed to load the toy with treats then just hand it back to him. Duh.

Rio is just one of many staff and clinic animals that I’m lucky to bond with as I travel to various practices as a relief vet.

Entering the exam room of my first appointment at this new practice, I find an elderly woman clutching her Bichon tightly to her chest. She’s polite but I can see the distrust in her face as she checks me out. Remember, the solo practitioner I’m working for has not taken a vacation in 3 years! This is likely because she feels a huge responsibility to support the bond with her clients and patients and was afraid no one else would take care of them like she can. Her clients aren’t used to seeing anyone but her.

In veterinary practice, the human-animal bond is closely linked to the client-veterinarian bond and seeing an unfamiliar vet causes distress in some people. It’s ok though. I understand this dynamic well and through my actions and words I assure her that although I’m not her primary veterinarian, she and her pet are important to me.

Relief vets are skilled at navigating these scenarios and supporting the client’s relationship with their pet and their bond to the practice. We learn to read the dynamics of the exam room and the practice culture and make subtle adjustments in our approach to put clients at ease.

After a busy but enjoyable week working at that practice, I come home to my own two dogs and geriatric kitty. The dependable greetings I receive from them never fail to fill me with joy no matter what kind of day I’ve had. One gives me the full body waggle, another brings me a squeaky toy, and the kitty gives me an aloof “hey” with her eyes.

Feeling satisfied that I helped a colleague take the time to recharge, I kick off my shoes, throw the squeaky toy and settle down on the couch for a little kitty lap time.

As veterinarians, we are stewards of the human animal bond and this responsibility can be overwhelming at times. In order to have enjoyable, sustainable careers, we must occasionally disconnect from this duty to nurture the other sides of ourselves.

As a relief vet, it’s an honor to offer my colleagues the opportunity for restoration and renewal. We can share the work load of the ever expanding pet population and allow each other the space away from work to realize that we are whole people with unrelated talents, responsibilities, goals, and desires. When we nurture the other sides of ourselves, we become more effective veterinarians providing better outcomes for our patients, clients, and practices. This is a winning formula for supporting all manner of human animal bonds.