Choosing The Right Veterinarian
Searching for a Vet
Where do you start your search for a vet? Personal recommendations from people you trust are a great place to start. Check with these folks for recommendations:
- Your dog’s breeder
- Family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, groomers, doggie daycare providers and dog trainers
- Other breeders, dog clubs, your current vet (if you are relocating), or your dog trainer
- Online directories, such as Angie’s List
- Pet insurance
Compare these recommendations to those vet clinics that are certified by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the standard for veterinary quality in the U.S. We always recommend going to an AAHA-accredited hospital when you have the option. You can find one on the AAHA website.
Then consider you and your dog’s specific needs. Consider the following questions:
- Is your dog more comfortable around women or men? Your dog’s comfort with his vet is an important consideration. Many dogs are anxious when they go to the vet; you want your dog to be as comfortable as possible with his vet.
- Do you need a vet that makes house calls? Yes, there are still vets who dog so. If you have limited mobility or if your dog does not travel well, look for a veterinarian that offers this service.
- If you have a rare breed with specific health issues, is this practice experienced with your breed? There are vets that specialize in certain breeds, such as Shar-Pei or English bulldogs. If you own one of these breeds, you might consider seeking a vet with a lot of knowledge and experience treating them.
Checking Out Vet Practices
Now that you have a short list of clinics that meet your basic requirements, start investigating them. Here are some questions to consider as you get started. You can get answers to many of these questions by calling or visiting the office, or perusing their web sites.
Questions about the clinic
- Is the practice located so you can get to it easily? You want to be sure you can get to the clinic in a reasonable time. The more difficult it is due to traffic or distance, the less likely you are going to be to go.
- Are the hours of operation convenient for you? Consider your work and personal schedules to be sure you can get to the office when needed.
- What days, dates and/or holidays is the office open or closed?
- Who is the contact after-hours or in an emergency? Fewer and fewer vet clinics offer 24/7 service these days. If this one does not, find out if you can still speak to a vet to help you decide whether to take your dog to the emergency clinic or wait until the regular clinic opens.
- What are the fees for the various services? Find out fees for a basic office visit and well-dog checkup. Your decision should not be based on price alone but well-dog checkups can range from $100 to $600. Best to know before you go.
- Does the office accept your pet insurance plan? If your insurance pays the vet directly (most do not), you need to know beforehand that the vet will work with your insurance company.
- What is the range of medical services that the practice provides? Most vet clinics offer surgery, diagnostic imaging, anesthesiology, laboratory, and pharmacy services. Some offer specialty and non-traditional services such as rehabilitation and physical therapy.
- How many staff people are in the office? Staff matters! Are there enough people to answer the phones, respond to requests, check you out without a long wait, etc.?
- What is the breakdown of vets to vet techs? Vet techs are essential to the smooth running of a veterinary clinic.
- Do they offer additional services, such identification tattoos and/or microchips? How much do those cost?
- Are there non-medical services such as boarding, grooming, and training classes? These are not terribly important to your decision but all things being equal might sway your choice.
Questions regarding the vets in the clinic
- Is the clinic accepting new clients?
- How many vets in this practice treat dogs? Obviously, you want to go to a clinic where small animals like dogs are a major part of their practice. Some practices specialize in certain species, such as cats and birds, so be sure the practice you choose emphasizes dogs.
- Is the vet who would see my pet licensed? This is a no-brainer! All vets must be licensed to practice but there is no harm in confirming this.
- How soon are appointments available? It’s hard to work with a clinic where appointments are hard to come by. You want to be able to get in within 24-36 hours with acute problems and within a week for non-critical appointments.
- Are the doctors members of a professional veterinary associations and if so, which ones? Veterinarians should be members of regional, state or local veterinary associations, if not the national association.
- What veterinary school and residency programs did the vet(s) attend? When did they graduate? How many years of experience do they have? Some vets go offshore to get their veterinary degree because it is so difficult to get into North American vet schools but it’s best to know this before you visit the clinic. Finding a vet with the right balance of recent education and experience is important. Typically you do not want to seek out a brand-new vet with little experience but you also want to be sure that a vet that graduated 30 years ago has maintained currency in the field.
- Does the veterinarian have a network of specialists for referrals? This is more and more critical since many dogs require specialized treatment over their lifetimes. If your breed has unique health challenges, such as eye problems in golden retrievers or GI issues in bulldogs, be sure your new vet can make a good recommendation.
- During what hours and under what circumstances can you speak directly with the doctor? Knowing whether you will get a call or email back within a day or a week is an important part of your decision.
- Who should you contact after office hours? Most vet clinics no longer offer afterhours care but getting guidance from someone that knows your dog is helpful.
- Is there an emergency facility in your area if your vet clinic is closed? Knowing which clinic the vet recommends and has a relationship with is important.
Go For a Visit
Next, make an appointment to meet with the vet and check out the facility. You may want to visit several practices before making a final selection. Do not take your dog to this visit and be willing to pay for an office call for this meeting, if asked.
- Once you’re there, look around outside. Are there potty areas for the dogs? Are they relatively clean?
- Do you see a copy of the vet’s license and the facilities’ AAHA award and other certifications and affiliations in the office or exam room?
- Ask for a tour.
- Is the facility environment clean and orderly?
- Are there any unpleasant odors?
- Are animal cages in separate areas?
- How loud are the animals in the clinic?
- Is there enough room in the waiting room for animals to wait safely or are they forced to be right next to each other?
- Speak to the vet. Again, be willing to pay for an office call since you are taking the vet’s valuable time.
- Are you allowed to remain with your dog during treatment? Some clinics will not allow owners to remain with dogs during treatment. If you have put the time into training your dog and want to ensure he receives the care you are paying for, you should be with him the majority of the time. Simple actions like vaccinations, blood draws and exams should be done in your presence. More specialized treatments like x-rays and ultrasounds will require the staff to take the dog in the back.
- What is his/her philosophy on vaccinations? Vaccine antibody titers? If you want to optimally vaccinate your dog—enough but not too many—you want to know that your vet agrees with your philosophy. You might consider taking the following with you to your visit:
- If you feed a raw diet, what are the vet’s feelings about raw food? What food does she recommend? Your vet does not need to fully agree with your feeding decision but she should respect your choice. It can be very uncomfortable if the raw diet gets blamed for every issue your dog has, no matter how unrelated.
- When does she recommend spaying and neutering your breed? Does this recommendation take into account the growing body of evidence that early spaying and neutering increases rates of cancer, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries, hypothyroidism, canine hip and elbow dysplasia and female incontinence? You may want to have this link with you to your visit:
- Afterwards, ask yourself:
- Did you feel welcomed in the clinic?
- Did the staff answer your questions respectfully?
- Was the clinic a comfortable place for you?
- Did you like the vet techs? If you saw them interact with dogs, did they do so gently?
- Did you feel comfortable asking questions of the vet?
- Did the vet listen respectfully to your questions?
Once You Have Decided on a Vet and Clinic
- After you’ve decided on a vet, remember to contact your previous vet’s office and ask for your records to be transferred. You may have to sign paperwork and wait a few weeks before the records arrive at the new practice.
- Take time to get to know your vet’s staff. There are times when the staff can answer questions if the vet is not available. Vet techs are a wealth of knowledge, so get to know them too.
- At home, teach your dogs what will be expected of him at the vet hospital. He should be calm and quiet in the waiting room. He should not run up to every dog or cat he sees, since many of them may be sick or not feeling their best.
- Practice restraining your dog, just like the vet and techs will need to do. Hold his head and each leg. Peer into his eyes, ears and mouth. Feel his abdomen. Check his feet and toes. Pretend you have a stethoscope and listen to his heart. Give him lots of treats until he accepts these things well.
- Ask if you can bring your dog for visits outside of appointments. Have the staff give him treats that you have brought from home. If your dog recognizes and likes the staff, it will be less scary to him when they walk into the room. Weigh your dog and, if possible, spend 3-5 minutes in an exam room with him. Have him get on the table. Go through the exercises you’ve taught him at home. Reward him with treats for being calm. Perhaps even ask him to do some tricks in the room.
Dealing with Vet Costs
The cost of veterinary care often surprises new owners. Much of that surprise may be because we rarely see and even more rarely pay the cost of our own health care. If you have trouble affording veterinarian care, there are some options.
- Pet insurance is now affordable and very helpful in covering veterinary bills. Be sure to get only Accident and Injury coverage; coverage for regular care is very expensive and not usually financially sensible. We have had very good luck with Pets Best, Pet Plan, Embrace and Trupanion but there are other good companies.
- CareCredit covers veterinary care, in addition to human medical treatments, and is accepted at many vet clinics.
- Animal shelters in your area may know of or offer subsidized veterinary service, such as rabies and spay/neuter clinics.