Ten Ways To Have A Good Relationship With Your Veterinarian

Choosing the Right Veterinarian For Your Pet

Ron Hines DVM PhD

Select A Veterinarian Whose Personality And Values Are Similar to Yours

When I wrote this article a number of years ago, I said that the best way to choose your veterinarian was the same way you would choose a close friend, a church, a doctor, or a club – ask the advice of your acquaintances, your neighbors, your groomer, your humane society. Pay the vet a visit. And during that visit I suggested a number of things to do to decide if the two of you were a good fit. I believe that that advice still good.

But changing times have made my advice more difficult for you to follow. In large urban areas, it has become more and more difficult to find the type of veterinarian my classmates and I were taught to be. That is because American mores have changed and because there has been a relentless acquisition of larger practices by three profit-focused corporate entities throughout the United States (VCA,   Banfield,   Blue Pearl or Mars). The accumulation of money is the sole focus of these entities – no different from McDonald’s, Walmart or Facebook. The only thing different are the products they sell. They have no driving philosophy other than generating money. Veterinarians used to treasure their independence and their freedom to set the policies, tone, mood and goals of their practice. Some focused on generating money, others derived their satisfaction from their work. some were empathetic, some were not. But they all had their freedom and pet owners could easily seek out a vet they liked. Through no fault of their own (other than a corrupt national association that did not share their goals and aspirations) veterinarians in these large corporate practices lost that freedom. To their employers, they are no more than faceless employees, graded by their superiors on the basis of the amount of money they generate for the corporation. Each vet is closely watched and coached. Their average transaction fee is analyzed. The number of patients each sees per day is scrutinized. This is not just occurring in the United States.  It is not just you and your pet that feels the effects of this change. Veterinarians tend to be, by nature, caring empathetic individuals. Forced into roles they are uncomfortable in takes its toll on their well-being. It cannot help but also influence the satisfaction that you and your pet experience. A Merck Pharmaceuticals study found that less than half of today’s veterinarians would recommend their profession to a friend.  I suggest you avoid corporate practices whenever possible. When you find a good vet in a non-corporate practice, just let her or him know that when they feel that your pet’s problem exceeds their abilities, you would like them to refer you to a specialist. That is exactly what your general physician would do.

The rest of this article has not changed:

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 ad, the less individual attention you are likely to get.

For a start, ask some of your pet-loving friends which veterinarians they recommend. If you don’t have enough pet-owning friends or are new to the areas, then call your humane society or 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 or in person. If you are told that “Dr. Bones is in surgery” ask for him/her to call you back when they can.

As a group, veterinarians tend to be outgoing, sympathetic people who like animals and like to please. But there are a few of us – particularly in specialized, board-certified or academic fields – who have weak interpersonal skills.

However, interpersonal skills have nothing to do with professional skills – these folks can be highly competent in their specialty. A typical compassionate general practice veterinarian will stand within three feet of you, give you considerable eye contact, and address you and your pet by name.

The veterinarian should smile, be upbeat and stroke your pet. During a routine office call, the vet should not 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 or thirty years in their profession. After twenty or thirty years of tending to other people’s pet problems, some of us put up protective walls between us and our clients.

What Does The Reception Area Look Like?

The condition of the office is also a good clue to your veterinarian’s priorities. Are the rooms clean and free from odor? Are instruments and equipment arranged methodically or laying about helter-skelter? While you are 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? Plaques from the Better Business Bureau, the local veterinary association and a notice that payment is due upon examination are never encouraging signs. 

What Kind Of Staff Do The Veterinarians Employ?

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’s 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 yourself spending very little time in actual conversation with the veterinarian.

How Up-To-Date Is This Veterinarian?

The mark of a good veterinarian is a person’s willingness to listen, learn, adapt and know their limits. This requires adding to their skills and changing techniques as new discoveries are made in veterinary medicine. If a veterinarian does not refer complex cases out to specialist frequently or consult with expert specialists, he or she probably does not know their limits or is focused on other things than your pet’s well-being.

Once Found, How Can I Keep A Good Relationship Going?

See Your Veterinarian Yearly Or More Frequently If Required

Using your veterinary hospital as an emergency room leaves little time to make the staff true friends and to have a close relationships. 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/her style with you and your pets. Ask about the veterinarian’s pets. If you want someone to be like family, treat them like family. A birthday card or gift never hurts.

Bring Your Pets One At A Time

It is hard for your veterinarian 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 pre-purchase examination before you lose your heart to a particular animal. Nothing upsets me so, as to have to tell the new owners of a pet bad news about its health or temperament. Usually, by the time clients bring me their new cat or dog, there is no turning back – the pet is already a family member. If I find something seriously wrong, it leaves me and the owners feeling so guilty.

Have The Right Family Member Bring The Pet In

Nothing makes for more miscommunication and veterinary frustration than one member of the family noticing a problem and a different, less informed, member of the family presenting the pet to the veterinarian. Remember, your pet cannot talk. Veterinarians 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.

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 animal hospitals. Monday is not much better because all the emergencies of the weekend are waiting at the vet’s front door.

Make A List Of Your Questions Before You Come

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 that was just explained.

Try To Confine The Discussion To The One Medical Issue That Prompted Your Visit:

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 is bothering her?” To make an accurate diagnosis a veterinarian has to focus. Presenting multiple, unrelated problems all at one time make focusing very difficult for your veterinarian. That goes both ways. Some clinics see any visit as a marketing opportunity. Resist that.

Ask Questions When You Do Not Fully 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/she thinks is wrong with your pet, then you are either exceedingly well-informed about veterinary medicine or you have not considered the problem enough. This goes for most medical conditions that pets suffer from – not simple things like a splinter or a fishhook. Some common questions you might ask are “is this a common or a rare condition?” “What do you think caused it?” “Is this a serious condition?” “What is the likely outcome?” Ask to read through some articles that the veterinarian might suggest on the subject. Read some online before your next visit. WikipediaVINpubmed  and even this site are all good resources.

Do Not Be Hesitant To Discuss Cost

Because pet health insurance has not penetrated the US market nearly as much as it has in locations like Scandinavia or the UK, the cost of sophisticated veterinary care can be higher than an average family can afford. Be sure to ask the veterinarian or their assistant to give you an expected estimate of the cost of a proposed procedure or treatment and follow-up care. Less financially oriented independent veterinarians might offer “package deals”. That does not mean they are any less competent or reputable. Universities often offer complex care at competitive prices as well. The cost of complex care will almost certainly be highest at corporate practices. Purchasing pet health insurance can take a lot of the worry out of unanticipated pet health care costs for both you and your veterinarian. 

Veterinary State Boards and veterinarians insurance trusts often insist that the services of a specialist be mentioned or suggested by all veterinarians. That can be a wise idea or a defensive over-reaction. There is little need to consult a specialist if he/she has no techniques available to cure or stabilize your pet. Referrals can open options for your pet that your regular veterinarian cannot supply; but they can also be a way of avoiding having to give you the bad news.

Be Nice

You attract more butterflies with honey than vinegar. I know you are perturbed when your pet is ill and your mood might be glum. But try to be polite and courteous with your veterinarian and the staff. They want to help you. You will never know how important a smile, a thoughtful note, a bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates can be to veterinarians and their staff at the end of a stressful day. You will become the apple of our eye and get superb treatment when your pet needs it.

Tell Your Friends About The Great Veterinarian You Have Discovered

Very few veterinarians in the United States have as many clients as they would like. Nothing will make your veterinarian happier than for a valued client to recommend him or her to their friends. Be sure to mention to your veterinarian what you did.

Keep Informed

The vast majority of pet owners in the US love and trust their veterinarian. When stress occurs between them and their veterinarian, it is usually due to situations that are not specifically your veterinarian’s fault. Most often, these situations occurred because of inadequate, direct, communication between you, your veterinarian and their staff – or unrealistic expectations on your part. You need to accept that a cure is not always possible.

Veterinarians work very hard. Their staff tend to love the Boss and be very protective of his or her time. Veterinary practices can be very hectic. When emergencies arise or when many patients have been booked, they might decide that there are pets whose immediate needs exceed the need of your pet. When this occurs, the staff has been known to:

Give you too much medical advice that you really need to hear directly from your veterinarian. Assume too many policy decisions and responsibilities that should be made directly by your veterinarian. Not accurately note enough items on your pet’s records. Not provide you with the proper forms.  Not provide you with enough aftercare instructions. Not relay all important information from your vet to you. Under stress, a very caring staff can be falsely perceived to be rude, defensive, short or condescending. If you politely let your veterinarian know when any of these things happen, they should not happen again. The veterinarian that you are looking for is out there. But you will have to put some effort into finding the right one.

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