What to do when you think your vet made a mistake

Have you recently lost a pet and believe that, in some way, your vet made a mistake that resulted in your pet dying? 

It can be hard to move forward when you believe that a trusted professional is responsible for your loss, either through the incorrect action or through inaction. 

So, what can you do when you think your vet made a mistake? 

Acknowledge that your vet is human 

Sadly, there are times when a vet will make a mistake.  

For all their training and years of experience, vets are human beings. Like the rest of us, they are imperfect. In most vet’s careers, there will come a moment when they make a wrong call, poorly manage a case or overlook something that they should have noticed.  

The most common scenarios are: 

  • A missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis
  • Mistakes or miscommunications about medication 
  • Actual errors during treatment or surgery 

In the worst case, as with a medical doctor, a lapse in judgement or oversight can tragically end in death.

This is perhaps little comfort to you if you feel your pet was the one with whom mistakes were made. However, it might be helpful to think about your vet’s motivation and to see what happened from their perspective.  

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of vets are compassionate people who care deeply for animals. Not only have they invested in years of training but they also dedicate a huge portion of their lives to saving animals. They are almost certainly upset about losing your pet too. 

The veterinary profession has one of the highest suicide rates because vets are emotionally invested in their animal patients and feel their suffering keenly. They are also people who, due to the rigorous academic demands of practising veterinary medicine, are not accustomed to failing.  

On the occasions when mistakes have genuinely been made, most vets carry the guilt or regret with them for the remainder of their careers, if not their lives. 

So even if a mistake is made, it’s rare that it stemmed from deliberate negligence. 

Of course, that’s not to diminish your sense of loss. Intentional or not, you may still want your vet to be held accountable for your pet’s death. 

Talk to your vet 

If possible, your first step should always be to have an open and frank conversation with your vet. 

If you’re unsure of their name, ask Reception and they will be able to help. 

At the time your pet was ill or injured, your emotions would have been all over the place and your vet may have made recommendations that you didn’t fully understand at the time or now, looking back. 

Book an appointment with your vet and explain at the time of booking that you would like to discuss your pet’s death and the circumstances, decisions and recommendations surrounding it in more detail. 

Many people find that the vet is able to walk them through each stage of the treatment and that this reassures them that all the right things were, in fact, done. 

Was your vet negligent? 

According to Which?, negligence is defined as: 

“when a vet breaches the duty of care regarded as standard of the profession at the time, and their action (or inaction) resulted in harm, loss, injury or damage which was reasonably foreseeable… 

…As well as poor advice, negligence can also occur as a result of missing advice or inaction – it isn’t just confined to things that have been done”. 

As Which cautions though, the outcome of surgery or treatment isn’t always certain. An unsuccessful outcome is typically not because the vet has been negligent. It could be that your pet would have died even with the best possible care. 

If you genuinely feel your vet is at fault 

If, having spoken to your vet, you feel that you have legitimate grounds to make a complaint, you should follow these steps: 

1. Think about the desired outcome 

Before you lodge a complaint, think about what you want the outcome to be. 

Do you want a formal apology from your vet? 

Would you like to know how procedures at the practice have been changed to ensure the same mistake never happens again? 

Do you want the vet to waive their fees or pay you compensation for your loss? 

Naturally, what you probably want most is for your vet to be able to turn back time and save your pet. As that isn’t possible, you will need to consider what sort of outcome you would like. 

If you’re clear about what you want from the outset, it will help the vet to respond appropriately. 

The emotional impact of mistakes often comes down to how they are dealt with. If you feel your vet has brushed off your concerns or refused to answer your questions, then you may be more likely to pursue a complaint. 

Research shows that even fatal mistakes can be less traumatic for the pet’s family and the vet if things are dealt with openly. If a vet has genuinely made a mistake or poorly managed a case, sometimes it’s enough to hear them take responsibility for this.

2. Make a list of your questions and concerns 

Before you make a complaint or even speak to your vet informally, you might find it helpful to write a list of your questions and concerns. 

Think about the course of events that led up to your pet’s death and note down the key decisions and recommendations. 

3. Ask for the practice’s complaints procedure 

Your veterinary practice will have a complaints procedure, which you may find on their website. If not, you can ask the Reception for details. 

Most practices will urge you to speak to the Lead vet for your pet’s case before you do anything else. Many complaints can be resolved in this way. 

If you are not satisfied after talking to your vet, you may be asked to put your complaint in writing to the practice or the group that manages the practice, if there are several branches.  

Typically, you will receive acknowledgment of your complaint within five working days and then a full written response within a few weeks (the time frames will vary from one practice to another).

 4. Escalate your complaint 

If, after receiving a written response to your complaint from the practice, you’re not satisfied with the outcome, you can escalate your complaint to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). 

In the UK, the Consumer Rights Act states that a service such as veterinary medicine should be ‘provided with reasonable care and skill’. 

If you believe your vet has failed in their responsibility to you or your pet, then you can notify the RCVS of a potential breach of their Professional Code of Conduct. 

You can also complain to voluntary, independent and free mediation service Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) about service issues after you’ve been through the practice’s complaints procedure. 

You will need to support your complaint with evidence, where possible. Again, it’s helpful to state what outcome you would like for your complaint. 

5. Seek legal advice 

If you believe that your pet died because of your vet’s negligence, then it is advisable to speak to a solicitor. They can help you to decide whether to take your complaint further, especially if you are seeking compensation. They can also represent your case on your behalf. 

Moving forwards 

In previous blogs, we’ve talked about how important forgiveness and self-forgiveness can be when a pet dies. 

At some point, you will need to decide whether you are able to forgive your vet. Many people find that it is forgiveness above everything else that enables them to begin processing their grief. 

Only you know what’s right for you. This will probably depend on the circumstances in which your pet died. 

Could it be that you are blaming your vet because it’s easier to be angry at them than at anyone else, including your pet for leaving you? 

Did your vet make a genuine mistake for which they have apologised? 

Would your energy be better spent in processing your loss rather than reliving how it happened? 

Or do you believe that your vet was negligent and must take responsibility for his or her actions/inaction, especially to protect other animals in the future? 

It’s your decision.  

If someone is intentionally neglectful of their duty of care then, of course, it needs pursuing for the safety and wellbeing of the other animals treated by them. 

If, however, the vet made a mistake due to a factor like tiredness, a lapse in concentration or being faced with a run of emergency cases in one afternoon, it can sometimes be more cathartic to forgive them for being human.   

Above all, please try to look after yourself. Find ways to celebrate your pet’s life and the special times you shared. Reach out for support if you need it. 

People in The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook may have been through similar experiences. 

The Blue Cross also has a dedicated helpline for anyone who has suffered a pet bereavement. 

Remember, you’re not alone. 

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team 
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support 

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