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One of the most important things you as the caregiver of a special-needs pet can do is to find the best vet possible for your pet and for you. This page contains some suggested guidelines for screening and selecting a vet.
Beginning the Search
Before you begin, think about what is most important to you. Some factors you may want to consider are:
- Training, experience, and competence
- Bedside manner
- Comprehensiveness of services offered
- Allopathic vs. holistic
- Convenient location
Compile a list of potential vets/clinics. If possible, get recommendations and referrals from people whose judgment you trust or from other reliable sources (rescue groups and locally-owned pet supply stores are often good sources to try).
Call the clinic. Let staff know who the ďpatientĒ is in terms of age, physical condition, and special needs, and ask for their feedback in terms of what they would suggest for a get-acquainted visit.
Ask whether the vet would schedule a preliminary visit for you, without your pet, so that you can interview him/her, ask some pertinent questions, and have a look at the clinic. Depending on the response, tell them that you will call again to schedule a preliminary appointment.
If you like what you heard on the phone, then walk into the clinic unannounced, and let the receptionist know that you are a potential new client. Ask for any pamphlets they might have on the clinic, their services, philosophy, costs, etc. Sit down in the waiting area and observe how the staff interacts with clients and, more important, their patients:
- How do they schedule appointments? Do they book 15-, 20-, or 30-minute appointments for their patients?
- How does the clinic staff interact with clients in the clinic and on the phone?
- Does the vet come out to the waiting area, and if so, how does he/she interact with clients and patients? How does he/she interact with the clinic staff?
- Is the general look and feel of the clinic appealing to you?
- Is the reception/waiting area comfortable for people and pets? Is it chaotic or quiet?
- How does the clinic smell?
- What is the noise level in the clinic?
If the clinic passes so far, schedule a preliminary visit with the vet, but without your pet. Make sure that you ask for a reasonable amount of time so that you can get your questions answered. Be prepared to pay an office visit fee for this appointment.
At the visit, bring a brief history of your pet, particularly if there are any relevant medical issues (chronic illnesses, allergies, vaccination reactions, sensitivities, behavioral, or personality issues) that the vet should be aware of. Ask the vet what his/her recommendations are in light of your pet's profile. Even if there is no relevant medical history, ask about their recommended protocol, given the petís age and general physical condition.
Ask to get a tour of the clinic.
Other specific questions to ask:
Qualifications: What are the vet's training and any special certifications; and what kind of continuing education does s/he and the clinic staff receive?
Back-up and referrals: What professional support does s/he use for patients with difficult or specialized medical or behavioral needs? Where does s/he turn for help when s/he doesn't have the answers? (This is a critical question for owners of special-needs pets.)
Accessibility to emergency care: What emergency support does s/he use and/or provide?
Hospitalization: If an animal needs to stay overnight, is it supervised around the clock, and by whom? What are that person's qualifications and what is their access to the vet in case of an emergency?
Boarding: Does your vet offer boarding services and can you leave your pet in his/her care if you have to be away from home? If so, are cats and dogs boarded in separate areas? If not, can he/she refer you to a pet sitter qualified to care for your special-needs pet?
House calls: Does the vet make house calls in an emergency and will s/he make a house call for a home euthanasia? If the vet does not make house calls, ask him/her for suggestions Ė can he/she refer you to a vet who does home emergency calls and/or euthanasia?
Nutrition: Does the vet recommend only super-premium foods? How does s/he feel about homemade and/or BARF diets?
Preventive care: What is the vet's approach to preventive health care for kittens/puppies, for adult pets, for geriatric pets? Does the clinic have a blood pressure monitor, and do they routinely check BP on animals that are at risk for hypertension?
Holistic/alternative care: What, if any, methods does the vet use, and what are his/her views on alternative and complementary medicine for animals? Is he/she willing to work with a holistic vet if you request that?
Vaccination protocols: Particularly for cats, itís important to find out whether the vet follows the latest vaccination guidelines by the Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force. Ask whether they follow the stringent guidelines, including:
- careful labeling on the charts
- using the recommended sites for injection
- using single antigens when possible
- using single-dose vials
- spacing between vaccinations
- doing 3-year versus yearly vaccinations
- following the recommendations re risk-benefit assessments for the non-core vaccines such as FeLV
Declawing, ear cropping, and tail docking: If the vet does it, how often and for what reasons? How easily can a client get a cat declawed or dogís ears cropped or tail docked? What, if anything, does the vet do in terms of educating clients and persuading them not to elect these procedures? (I prefer vets who do not perform these procedures except when medically necessary).
Other clinic policies:
- What is the clinic's policy in terms of you being with your pet during certain procedures such as blood draws?
- What is the vet's stance when a client wants an animal euthanized for behavioral problems?
The Introductory Office Visit
If the vet and clinic pass the above steps, it's time to take the "patient" in for an introductory visit. Be sure to bring a copy of your petís health records to this exam. This is the critical final step in the process of assessing the vet.
How thorough is the exam? The vet should at least check the following during a first exam:
- heart/lung auscultation
- heart and respiration rate
- ear, eye, mouth, gum, and teeth check
- general body/skin/hair condition check
- palpation for lumps and lymph node enlargement
- Depending upon the animal's age and physical condition, a blood screen, blood pressure check, urinalysis and/or fecal exam might be needed as well
How does the vet interact with your pet?
- How is the vetís bedside manner?
- Does s/he genuinely seem to like animals?
- Does s/he handle your pet gently?
- Does s/he talk to and reassure your pet?
- How does s/he deal with frightened or aggressive animals?
- Is s/he focused on your pet or is s/he easily distracted?
- Does s/he take her time, or does s/he seem to be in a hurry to get to his/her next appointment?
- How do the vet techs and other clinic staff treat your pet?
- Does your pet seem to like the vet and the staff?
How does the vet interact with you?
- Is s/he courteous?
- Does s/he explain what s/he is doing, and why, during the examination?
- Does s/he encourage you to ask questions, and answer all of your questions clearly and completely?
- Does s/he explain his/her observations and findings to you, and tell you what you need to monitor or watch out for?
- If medications are prescribed, does s/he explain what they are for, and explain about possible interactions and side effects?
- If your pet is going to require any kind of home nursing care, does s/he make sure you are sufficiently prepared and equipped to handle that responsibility?
- Does s/he make recommendations regarding follow-up visits and/or follow-up care?
- Does s/he tell you to be sure to call if you have any questions later?
A truly excellent vet is going to score high on all three of the above criteria, and is going to be someone with whom you can communicate clearly and easily. Ideally, you will find a vet that will meet all of your criteria, but if you find yourself having to choose between vets that have different qualifications or strengths, you need to be clear about what the most important decision criteria are for you.