I have always been very fortunate when it comes to veterinarians. I seem to get the choice right far more often than not. Of course, that could be because any time I’ve needed to find a vet, I’ve always done a lot of shopping around before making my final choice, so when I finally do get around to the decision, all the duds have been weeded out.
The thing is I’ve never left choosing a veterinarian down to the last minute. Any time I’ve had to move, I’ve always made sure that I’ve had vet on standby; believe me, that works out a lot better than just sitting around waiting for an emergency to happen and then all of a sudden having to pull out the phone book and start thumbing through the Yellow Pages, or begin Googling, and then not being sure that you’re going to get someone who’s going to be a good fit.
Finding the right veterinarian is important. In fact, you should view it on the same scale as finding a family doctor for yourself or your family. After all, isn’t your dog family? And isn’t he entitled to the best possible care?
You don’t just wait for your aging mother to get sick before you start looking for primary care, do you? So why would you do that to your dog?
I might have thought that, once upon a time. But I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I know that not all veterinarians are created equal. As is often the case here, it’s story time, so let me tell you about an experience I had many years ago.
I’d just moved to a new town. I had a lot on the go; I’d just moved out of my parents’ home and started a new job, and I was living in an apartment. I was busy getting settled in, and the job had a bit of a learning curve, so I was putting off a few things. One of those things I put off was finding a veterinarian.
Now, at the time, I didn’t have dogs. I was sharing my life with a cat named Bruce. I told you about him in Dog People and Cat People – They Really are Different! Anyway, my apartment was in a lot of disarray in the beginning, and you know the expression, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Well, Bruce’s curiosity didn’t kill him, but I was pretty worried about him when he managed to get into a box of light bulbs, and ate one. I knew I had to get Bruce to a vet, but I’d been putting off finding one, so, in a panic, I called the first one in the phone book and made arrangements to have Bruce checked out.
The clinic was clean, the staff at reception were friendly, and it all looked good until we actually ended up in the examining room. The vet, a fifty-ish woman, palpated Bruce’s stomach, forced open his mouth and stuck her finger inside (I was surprised he didn’t bite her) and then said “Well, he’ll probably be okay. Take him home. He might throw up. I can x-ray him if you like, but it’s a lot of money for just a cat.”
Ookayyy… Just a cat? No, not “just a cat,” my cat and, although I’m a dog person first and foremost, I was very partial to Bruce. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was that, while the vet was examining Bruce, she was shaking, and I’m pretty sure that she smelled of alcohol.
I know that this is an extreme case, and I’d like to think that this vet was an exception, but it proves my point: not all vets are created equal, and if you wait until you have an emergency to choose a vet, you could end up scraping the bottom of the barrel. They’re not all the same.
When you are looking for a vet for your dog, keep in mind that you are seeking a medical professional – a doctor – for your pet. There are a lot of good ones out there, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t work hard to choose the best one for your dog.
So, what type of vet do you need? That will depend largely on your dog’s needs. If you have young, generally healthy dogs, as I do, then what you want is the equivalent of a human general practitioner. This would be someone who offers a variety of services like annual checkups, vaccinations, diagnostics, preventative care and routine surgeries like spaying and neutering. This type of vet will be able to guide you through most of the health issues that you are likely to encounter over your dog’s life.
Most dog owners will not need the services of a specialist, and that’s why you will find few that are actually set up in specific practices. Most often, if a specialist is needed, it will be a vet who travels from clinic to clinic to treat patients that are referred by the clinic vets. Your clinic might, for instance, bring in an orthopedic specialist, canine dentist, allergist or behaviorist from time to time to assist with dogs that have special needs.
One thing that you can be assured of is that your vet will belong to a professional association, and will have to keep up his or her credentials in order to continue to be licensed. But does that mean that a credentialed vet is necessarily a good vet? No, it does not.
Keep in mind, when you’re looking for a veterinarian, that they’re not gods. They’re people, just like the rest of us, and some of them are horribly flawed, like the one who “treated” my Bruce. That’s exactly why you don’t want to have to choose a vet at the last minute.
I really hope that you never encounter a vet like Bruce’s. Probably you never will, because she was pretty much beyond the pale. You might, however, encounter vets who are abrupt and insensitive, those who can’t be bothered to explain in detail what’s wrong with your dog or, on the flipside, those who explain everything in excruciating, condescending detail and treat you as if they think you’re a total moron.
You might also encounter vets who have a dislike for certain animals. My friend Neila once visited a vet who asked her why she wanted to own Rottweilers when there were so many more pleasant breeds available. I probably don’t need to tell you how long that vet lasted with my Rott-loving buddy.
So, vets are people like the rest of us, with their own likes and dislikes, their own prejudices and preferences. You’re not going to like everyone you meet. But here’s the thing…
If you don’t like your vet, you’re going to end up rubbing shoulders in a bad way, unless you’re one of those completely submissive people who is quite happy being told what to do by someone you can’t tolerate. That’s why I keep hammering home the point that you can’t just leave choosing a vet to chance. You need to find someone who suits you, someone you can live with over the long term, someone that you feel you can trust to help you make the decisions that are right for your dog.
I’ve never (outside of that first time) had a vet I didn’t like, and that’s because I’ve always shopped around, asked questions, gotten references, and when necessary, said “Thanks, but this isn’t working.”
If you feel it isn’t working, you don’t need to justify or explain. Just move on. You’re not in a marriage, okay?
When you’re choosing a veterinarian, remember that you’re also going to have to deal with support staff. An animal hospital is made up of many people, from the vets to the techs and even the receptionists and the volunteers who clean out the kennels. At some point, you’re going to be in contact with most of them.
So, are they kind and caring? Do they greet you and your dog warmly? Do they genuinely seem to care about animals or are they just going through the motions?
When I visit Dr. Stephen with Janice and Leroy, everyone makes us feel so at home. The receptionist calls out, “Janice, Leroy, treats!” Then I can usually count on a person or two getting down on the floor to play with my two big lugs while we wait for Dr. Stephen. It makes all of us feel good. We know that we’re important to them. Maybe that sounds like a little thing, but it’s not. It’s just one more thing that tells us that we’ve found the right veterinarian, and the right clinic.
You’re also going to want to be sure, when choosing a veterinarian, that he or she will be available to you if there is an emergency. This goes beyond their responsibilities, though. Wherever you live, you should always make sure that you know the easiest route to the animal hospital. If an emergency does occur, time could be of the essence.
Once you do have the right vet, make sure that you know how to work effectively with him or her. Your vet will want to set up a program of regular care for your dog to make sure that vaccinations are up to date. He or she will also want to make sure they have a complete record of health for your dog so that if something should happen and they are not available, the vet on call will have all the information that is needed.
This is probably the most important thing I can suggest. I’ve never been a fan of being a patient of “a clinic.” Of course, I know dog people who go to the same clinic over and over, but just see whichever veterinarian happens to be available. These days, I always insist on seeing Dr. Stephen, and before I ended up with him, it was always Dr. Kim. You might think that with all the animals vets see in the course of any given week, they won’t remember yours, but believe me, they will. They’ll know your dog, and they’ll know you.
Just as an example, Stephen often sends me home with instructions on how to perform a certain procedure that will keep me from having to come back to the clinic over and over. He knows that there’s a lot I can do on my own, but there are vets at his clinic that won’t even allow me to administer a shot. They don’t know me, so I’m not judging, but they do make my life (and that of my dogs) a little more problematic. So, find one vet, and build a trusting relationship.
Veterinarians are not all cut from the same cloth. Take your time, and find the right one. Once you do, respect him or her, because that’s the best friend you and your dog will ever have. And please, never neglect the important task of finding the right veterinarian, no matter how busy your life is. In an emergency, the last thing you want to have to do is shop around. Take finding a vet for your dog no less seriously than you would finding a doctor for you and your family.
I have learned, over the years, the importance of working with a really good veterinarian. I would not trade Dr. Stephen and his highly capable staff for anything. My wish for all of you is that you should be as fortunate as I have been, but that’s not going to happen by accident, so if you don’t have a good vet, get to work finding one immediately.