When Veterinarians Come Under Attack Online

The veterinary profession is not immune to vicious cyberbullies, who spread false information, ruining both lives and livelihoods.

Cyberbullying has affected the veterinary community, too. By: kentoh/123RF Stock Photo
Cyberbullying has affected the veterinary community, too. By: kentoh

Facebook. Twitter. Yelp.

Help!

This veterinarian entered professional life back in the 1980s — before computers in everyday life, before cellphones and definitely before Facebook.

Today, veterinarians and many other professionals are told to use social media as a positive means of communicating with their clients and prospective clients. But there is a dark side to social media as well. It’s called cyberbullying.

Regular bullying used to stop at the end of the school day or work day. With cyberbullying, there’s no escape.

Having been a social media tyrannosaurus vet, I prayed to come out of extinction and be reborn as a social media–embracing veterinarian. My wish was granted. Always with permission, we post pictures on our Facebook page of the wonderful pets we see day in and day out at our hospital, or offer information that will be helpful.

Like most of you, I am never far from texting, sharing, emailing or Googling something. The latest treatments in veterinary medicine and obtaining advice from experts about a difficult case are also 1 touch away. I can email videos of a neurologically impaired kitty, for example, to a neurologist in a split second. It’s an understatement to say our entire way of communicating and practicing medicine has changed because of the Internet.

Free access to information and sharing knowledge is great — but the downside is ugly. Veterinarians, professionals and all people have to face a new reality: Internet reputation defamation.

Cyberbullying

Bullying is a part of human nature. Most of us may remember a painful bullying episode in school. We may have been bullied, we may have done the bullying or we may have seen our children bullied.

Back in dinosaur school days, bullying may have been being gossiped about, being shunned in the cafeteria or being left off the party list. Much of it was small-potatoes stuff, and we came out of it without being severely hurt.

But today, we know social media can take down a kid in a devastatingly fast and vicious manner.

  • Bullies can hide behind the screen of their phone.
  • They can be more virulent, more dangerous and, at the same time, more cowardly.
  • It’s a lot easier to post something on Facebook than to be nasty to the target face-to-face.
  • Cyberbullying is not just for kids anymore. People with a complaint or a grudge, or some folks who just get kicks out of “trolling,” can do intense damage as they spew their venom online. Young people have committed suicide because of cyberbullying. Veterinarians and other professionals have done the same.

Earlier this year, a New York City veterinarian committed suicide after an aggressive Internet campaign attacked her about the treatment of a cat that began as a pro bono case. Although this was an extreme incident, the veterinary profession is trying to address how to intervene in these situations before Facebook campaigns based on spurious evidence can go viral and destroy a person’s livelihood and emotional state.

No one should be denied a platform to speak or an avenue to lodge a complaint, but creating vicious web pages to ruin people is no way to discuss a disagreement. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. Cyberbullying can ruin reputations and render people desperate.

You may be saying to yourself that if people feel they have a malpractice case or a serious grievance, then grief or anger may drive them to cyberbullying. But this is not usually the case. Often, people with petty agendas or financial disputes try to “get back” at a veterinarian or professional and mount cyberattacks.

Several blogs and Facebook pages are devoted to tearing down the veterinary profession. Sites like these are 1-sided, and opinion dominates fact. On a number of these sites, the suicide of the New York City veterinarian was celebrated as a victory.

For more on the topic of online bullying, check out this related video from PBS:

The Ethical Approach

If you have a gripe with your veterinarian, beginning with a candid conversation will get you further than any attack on social media or in a bad review. If you have a serious complaint about how you were treated at your vet’s office — or by your dentist, doctor or hairdresser, for that matter — make your complaint directly. If you are met with dissatisfaction, you can always post a negative review.

Just a quick search of the latest “bad” reviews of some of my colleagues was pretty interesting:

  1. Disgruntled or ex-employees tend to write negative reviews (under false names).
  2. Many negative posts are all about the money.
  3. People use reviews as threats (“If you don’t refund my money for the radiation therapy that didn’t work, I’ll post a bad review.”) The problem is so prevalent that Trip Advisor, a travel review site, now offers hotels a “blackmail reporting” tool.

Common sense tells you there are 2 sides to most of these posts, so read reviews with a discerning ear. Former employees clearly have an agenda if their employment ended on bad terms. As for the financial complaints, many clients resent spending money at the vet because they don’t have pet insurance. And a lot of expensive treatments such as radiation therapy do not come with guarantees, just as in human medicine. My mom’s cancer didn’t respond to radiation, but I didn’t blame her oncologist for it.

I have been lucky enough in my career to have most clients speak to me directly about a problem. Face-to-face, on the phone or via private correspondence, I hear the bad with the good, the problems with the positives, the compliments with the complaints.

Honest and Transparency

Doing this for a long time, I have found that honesty and transparency are the best policy. Faith in confronting a problem with openness has usually worked. Some of my best and long-standing clients are folks who have come to me with a real bone to pick about something at some point in our relationship. If we can settle it and talk it out, our bond is stronger because we have solved a difficult situation together.

Bullying is finally being treated as a very serious problem in our culture among children and young adults. Most parents don’t tell their kids to just “toughen up” anymore. We finally have a serious approach to teaching kids about how their bullying and attacks are a matter of morality, a matter of life and death.

The same goes for adults. We are all just grown-up kids, after all. Let’s hope we’ve learned some dignity and honest communication along the way.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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