Know what to ask when choosing a veterinarian for your dog or cat

When your pet is part of your family, finding excellent veterinary care is a priority. Unfortunately, all practices are not equal when it comes to the level of care that they provide. Knowing which questions to ask when looking for a veterinarian can help guide the process and make it less daunting. Don’t be drawn in by a fancy building or a convenient location without finding out what really matters - the quality of the veterinary care. Here are some questions that everyone should ask before visiting a new veterinarian.

  • Ask friends and neighbors where they take their pets, but choose your references wisely.

Not everyone treats their pets as a family member. Seek out pet owners with similar values to your own. Ask for specifics about why a certain veterinarian is recommended, or not. Your neighbor might love the veterinarian down the street because he is the least expensive, but you might be willing to pay more for a higher standard of care. Maybe your mother-in-law dislikes the doctor up the road because he always tries to get her to do extra testing, such as looking for Heartworms, when Fluffy feels just fine. An educated pet owner would know that yearly Heartworm testing is a good standard of care.

  • How many veterinarians are on staff at your practice?

While solo practitioners can be excellent veterinarians, having a team of doctors with different perspectives is invaluable with more confusing cases. One person can’t be good at everything, and often veterinarians within a practice will be able to develop specific interests. By the same token, find out how long those veterinarians have been with the practice. A low turnover of doctors is an excellent sign.

  • What are some of the common anesthetics that you use for surgery? How are the patients monitored? Do they have intravenous catheters and endotracheal tubes while they are under anesthesia?

Anesthetic protocols change frequently, with the goal always being to increase the safety of the pet. For short procedures such as a cat neuter or a small laceration repair, injectable anesthesia is usually sufficient. But all anesthetized pets should have an intravenous catheter in place to deliver fluids and in case of an emergency. If gas anesthesia is required, isoflurane or sevoflurane are the current acceptable inhalant anesthetics available. Make sure an endotracheal tube is routinely placed, particularly in the case of dentistry. This maintains an open airway and prevents aspiration. There should be a doctor or technician monitoring your pet every second during anesthesia. Minimal monitoring equipment should include a pulse oximeter, which measures oxygen saturation levels and heart rate. Electrocardiogram and blood pressure equipment is also nice to have. Finally, there should be a protocol for pain management for all surgical patients.

  • What happens in the case of an after-hours emergency?

Although some veterinary hospitals are open 24 hours, most refer to emergency hospitals overnight and during most of the weekend. The convenience of a 24 hour facility is nice if one is available to you, but keep in mind that they are usually more expensive due to higher overhead costs.

  • Do you have an in-house laboratory? Do you also use an outside reference laboratory?

More progressive veterinary hospitals will have both in-house and reference laboratory capabilities. Most blood work or other lab testing does not require an immediate answer, and for those cases sending the blood to an outside lab is a good idea. Having an objective source that focuses only on analyzing samples not only makes sense, but is usually less expensive all around. However, during an emergency or in the case of an acutely ill pet, waiting 24 hours for results could mean the difference between life and death. This is where in-house testing becomes a critical necessity.

  • Do you have X-ray capability? What type of machine do you use?

Most veterinary practices have some sort of X-ray equipment. Many are going to a digital unit, which is truly changing the face of radiology. These units are very expensive, but they offer superior accuracy and allow the veterinarian to see the image on a computer screen within minutes of exposure. They also allow for easy sharing of images among other veterinarians or a radiologist, so a diagnosis can be made more quickly. Practices that are still using film for their radiographs should have an automatic processor. Dip trays are an older way to develop film and are rarely used anymore, but if the practice you are considering still utilizes this method, they are likely not progressive in other areas of medicine as well.

  • Do you use a referral hospital for complicated surgeries or difficult cases?

It is a good idea to ask if the practice uses a referral facility for complex cases and/or surgeries. A referral hospital is staffed with specialists such as surgeons, cardiologists, and oncologists. These doctors have completed a residency in their field of study and have become board certified. Veterinary medicine has become much more specialized over the past twenty years or so. Be wary of a veterinarian who proclaims to be able to handle everything himself. Referring a dog with a complicated heart condition to a cardiologist is the appropriate standard of care if an owner is willing to see a specialist. Some hospitals also have specialists who visit the practice regularly or as needed. This can be very convenient and is a nice service to offer, but you should still want to hear that they have a good working relationship with a referral hospital and are willing to refer cases to them if needed.

  • How quickly can I usually get an appointment for my pet? What are your hours?

These questions go hand in hand, because they speak to the availability of your veterinarian. If you work every day, a practice that has no evening or weekend hours may not be a good fit. By the same token, if your pet is not feeling well you are not going to want to wait several days for an appointment. Make sure that your schedule is a good fit with your veterinarian’s.

  • What vaccinations do you recommend?

The answer to this will vary, but be wary of a practice that has a long list of required or core vaccines. Dogs and cats generally need Rabies and some variation of Distemper. Beyond that, the other vaccinations should be considered based on your pet’s lifestyle. For example, a Feline Leukemia vaccine is a good idea for a cat who goes outdoors. A Lyme disease vaccine might be recommended for a dog that is frequently in wooded areas or tends to get ticks. There is not one vaccine protocol that fits every pet - it should be tailored to the individual.

  • Do you have certified technicians at your practice?

A certified technician is someone who has gone to school and obtained a degree to practice as a veterinary technician. Usually this is a two year program, but it varies among schools. They are trained in anesthesia administration and monitoring, placing intravenous catheters, drawing blood, giving injections, taking radiographs, and restraining animals among many other things. A veterinary assistant is an employee who can often perform many or all of the duties of a certified technician, but does not hold the degree. Many practices employ some technicians and some assistants, but there should be at least one experienced certified technician on staff.

If you are lucky enough to have options, finding a veterinary practice that is a good fit for your family can be challenging. Don’t be afraid to call and ask questions before you schedule your first appointment. Finding out about the doctors and staff, along with some more probing questions about emergencies and surgical procedures, will arm you with vital information that should lead you to the right veterinarian.

Photo Credits: Today was "Vet" day! by Flickr: Aiko, Thomas & Juliette+Isaac

Melissa R. Hoffman, DVMDoctor of Veterinary Medicine

I graduated from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1998. For the past fifteen years I have been practicing clinical veterinary medicine in the Philadelphia area. Five years ago, I also became involved in shelter medicine as...

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