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Finding A Good Veterinarian

Ron Hines DVM PhD 1/7/04

1) Select A Veterinarian Whose Personality You Like
The best way to choose a veterinarian is the same way you would select a church – pay them a visit. Call ahead, don’t bring your pet, but tell the staff you would like to drop by and introduce yourself. Yellow pages ads mean nothing – generally the larger the yellow page add, the less likely you will like the veterinarian.

For a start, ask some of your pet loving friends which veterinarians they recommend. If you don’t have any or are new to the areas then call a few local kennels and catteries. As a rule, veterinarians pull their clients from within a five-mile radius. If price is a concern to you, select veterinarians practicing in a blue-collar area. Call up the veterinarian’s office midweek and ask to introduce yourself on the telephone first. If you get the standard blow-off “Dr. Bones is in surgery” ask for him to call you back when he can.

As a group, veterinarians tend to be outgoing, sympathetic people who like to please. But there are a few of us – particularly in specialized or board-certified fields – who have weak inter-personal skills. A compassionate vet will stand within three feet of you, give you considerable eye contact, and address you and your pet by name. He should smile, joke and pet your pet. The vet should never act in a hurry or attempt to speed up the exam. If he or she does, you should probably seek a less busy practice. Lack of some of these attributes can be due to the burnout many veterinarians experience after twenty years in their profession. After twenty or thirty years of tending to other peoples pets some of us forget to wake up and sniff the roses every morning

Condition of the office is also a good clue to your veterinarian’s priorities. Are the rooms clean and free from odor? Are instruments arranged methodically or laying about helter skelter? While your waiting in the reception room notice the items on display. Is your vet active in social and community organizations? Is he or she a local science fair judge? Only plaques from the Better Business Bureau, the local veterinary association and a notice that payment is due upon exam are not encouraging signs.

Veterinarians tend to select staff similar in temperament to themselves. If you do not like the receptionist’s attitude you will probably not like the veterinarian either. As you enter the establishment does the receptionist look up at you, smile and ask how she can help you? While you wait, notice her telephone skills and demeanor. Too many auxiliary staff often means that the veterinarian is trying to maximize the number of clients seen in a day. In that case you will find you spend very little time in actual conversation with the veterinarian – another good reason to keep looking for another vet.

2) See The Veterinarian Yearly

Using your veterinary hospital as an emergency room leaves little time to make friends and have pleasant experiences. Set an appointment with the veterinarian you choose for a routine physical examination when nothing is noticeably wrong with your pet. Engage the vet in conversation until you get to know his style with you and your pets. By the way, bring in a single pet – not a carload. It is hard for me to concentrate on more than one animal at a time. When you contemplate purchasing a pet – insist that the seller allow you to have your veterinarian do a prepurchase examination before you have your heart set on a particular animal. Nothing upsets me so as to tell the recent owners of a pet bad news about its health. Usually, by the time they bring me new pets the pet is already a family member. If something serious is wrong, it leaves me and the owners feeling so guilty.

If you are of a devious nature – or just curious about the veterinarian, tell him your pet has been shaking its ears and head even though it hasn’t. After a thorough otoscopic examination by the veterinarian (not his technician) the right answer is “sir or madam, I can not find anything wrong with your pet’s ears (other than perhaps a little wax buildup)” If you leave loaded up with antibiotics, creams and liquids and recheck appointments go find another vet.

3) Have The Right Family Member Come In

Nothing makes for more miscommunication and veterinary frustration than one member of the family noticing a problem and a different, uninformed member of the family presenting the pet to the vet. Remember, the pet cannot talk. We rely heavily on the signs and symptoms that you tell us about. It is not uncommon for a husband to bring in their pet to tell me it is limping but their wife didn’t tell them which leg it was.

4) Set A Morning Appointment

We all fatigue during the day as we go about examining animals. If you want a thorough, considered examination for your pet, do not come in as a late afternoon appointment. And don’t make a Saturday appointment – Saturdays are always hectic at an animal hospital. Monday is not much better because all the emergencies of the weekend are waiting at the vet’s front door.

5) Make A List Of Your Questions Relating To The Problem That Brought Your Pet

I find that appointments go smoothly when owners have made a list of the questions they wanted to ask their veterinarian. This is also helpful if only one spouse of a couple can accompany the pet but they both have questions. It is quite exasperating to explain a problem in detail to one member of the family only to be called an hour later by the spouse requesting I repeat everything I had just explained.

6) Confine The Discussion To A Single Major Problem

It is quite rare that major unrelated problems occur simultaneously in a pet or a person. If you present a shopping list of problems that concern you you are probably not visiting your veterinarian frequently enough. A common dialogue goes like this: “Doc, I brought Peaches in because she is lame in her left rear leg, hasn’t been eating well the last few months, has a bald spot on her right shoulder and scoots. What do you think’s bothering her?” To make an accurate diagnosis a veterinarian has to focus. Presenting multiple, unrelated problems all at once make focusing very difficult.

7) Ask Questions When You Do Not Understand

Some excellent veterinarians are better explainers than others. If you do not have many questions when a veterinarian is finished telling you what he thinks is wrong with your pet then your are either extraordinarily well informed about veterinary medicine or you have not considered the problem fully. This goes for most medical conditions that pets suffer from – not such things as a splinter or fishhook. Some common questions you might ask are is this a common or a rare condition? What do you think caused it? What is the likely outcome? Ask to read through some articles that the veterinarian has on the subject.

8) Discuss Cost

Because we have no third-party payers in the United States the cost of veterinary care can be high. Ask the veterinarian or his/her assistant to give you an expected estimate of the cost of the procedure. Be sure to inquire as to the cost of follow-up visits and as to who bears the cost of extra supplies or treatment that might later be required. Less financially successful veterinarians often offer “package deals”. This does not mean they are any less competent or reputable – just poorer businessmen. If the procedure is not life-threatening you may choose to inquire at a number of veterinary hospitals – prices are often quite arbitrary and vary greatly between facilities.

9) Be Nice

You get more butterflies with honey than vinegar. I know you are perturbed that your pet is ill and that is what brought you to us; but try to be polite and courteous with the veterinarian and his staff. They are there because they want to help you. You will never know how important a thoughtful note; a bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates can be to the veterinary staff. It makes our day. You will become the apple of our eye and get superb treatment when your pet needs it.

10) Tell Your Friends About The Great Vet You Discovered

Very few veterinarians in the United States have as many clients as they would like. There are just too many of us. Nothing will make your veterinarian happier than for a valued client to recommend him/her to their friends. And be sure you tell him what you did.