This page provides simplified explanations and answers about the VCPR as it relates to the veterinary care of pets. It does not address the VCPR in animal shelters or in the context of large animals. For a complete definition of the VCPR, read the VCPR section of the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics.
Q: What is a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR)?
A: A veterinarian-client-patient relationship, or VCPR for short, exists when your veterinarian knows your pet well enough to be able to diagnose and treat any medical conditions your animal develops. Your part of the VCPR is allowing your veterinarian to take responsibility for making clinical judgments about your pet's health, asking questions to make sure you understand, and following your veterinarian's instructions. Your veterinarian's part of the VCPR involves making those judgments; accepting the responsibility for providing your pet with medical care; keeping a written record of your pet's medical care; advising you about the benefits and risks of different treatment options; providing oversight of treatment, your follow-through on their recommendations, and outcomes; and helping you know how to get emergency care for your pet if the need should arise.
Q: How is a VCPR established and maintained?
A: A VCPR is established only when your veterinarian examines your animal in person (except in a very few states where a relationship can be established electronically). It's maintained by regular veterinary visits as needed to monitor your animal's health. In states where it is allowed to be established electronically, an in-person examination will still be required for the use of certain medications or for certain other activities, such as issuing a health certificate (federal regulations apply in both cases). If a VCPR is established but your veterinarian does not regularly see your pet afterward, the VCPR is no longer valid, and it would be illegal and unethical for your veterinarian to dispense or prescribe medications or recommend treatment without recently examining your pet.
In most cases, a valid VCPR cannot be established online, via email, or over the phone. However, once a VCPR is established, it may be able to be maintained between medically necessary examinations via telephone or other types of consultations. It's up to your veterinarian’s discretion to determine if this is appropriate and in the best interest of your animals’ health.
Q: Why is a VCPR so important?
A: For one, it's required by law in most states—in order for a veterinarian to diagnose or treat your animal, or prescribe or dispense medications. (If you have questions about your state's veterinary practice act, contact your state veterinary medical board). Adherence to the federal definition of the VCPR is also necessary for some prescribing and issuing health certificates. Two, it's the best thing for your animal's health. Your veterinarian should be familiar with your animal's medical history and keep a written record of your animal's health so they can provide your animal with the best possible care. The AVMA's Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics also require a VCPR for a veterinarian to prescribe medication or otherwise treat an animal. This is echoed in the AVMA’s Model Veterinary Practice Act.
Q: How can a VCPR be ended?
A: You, as the client, can terminate a VCPR at any time by notifying the veterinarian. If your veterinarian chooses to end the VCPR, they should notify you and, if your animal has an ongoing illness, provide medical care until you have transitioned to another veterinarian.
Q: What does my veterinarian offer that an online source can't match?
A: Your veterinarian knows you and knows your animal(s), and this is critical to keeping your animal(s) healthy. For example, your veterinarian can customize a vaccination program to give your animal the best protection from disease and make sure that it isn't getting a vaccine it doesn't need. Vaccine and drug reactions, although uncommon, can occur, and your veterinarian is trained to recognize and treat them to minimize the chance that the reaction will become severe or even life-threatening.
Figuring out what's wrong with an animal is like solving a very complex puzzle. Your veterinarian has to figure out how to fit all of the clues (puzzle pieces) together to solve it. Veterinarians have, on average, 8 or more years of college and in-depth veterinary school training to prepare them for this task. Their training makes it possible for them to thoroughly evaluate, diagnose, and treat your animal's problem. Doing these things effectively involves thorough knowledge of your animal's body systems and how they function, as well as a familiarity with how medications and other treatments work and if any treatments interfere with others. Hands-on physical examination is incredibly valuable to your pet and can't be replaced by a phone conversation, web-based conversation, or email description.