Monday, September 27, 2010
Choosing a Vet
I received some devastating news last week: my beloved vet clinic is permanently closing on Friday. I spent the first 12 hours panicking and calling and emailing everyone I know (including several local yahoogroups), looking for a vet referral. The next 12 hours were spent googling like crazy, doing a cursory review of the clinics I’d received feedback about. I reluctantly ruled a few out due to location, and in the end, narrowed down the feedback to three clinics that look promising.
I’m now in the process of touring these clinics, an undertaking which is both fascinating and overwhelming. It’s required me to think about my priorities, both in terms of what I need from a vet, and what I simply want. I then took those priorities and came up with a list of questions to ask prospective vet clinics. As a side note, I found Speaking for Spot by Dr. Nancy Kay very helpful; there is a chapter on touring vet clinics, and supplied a few additional questions. Today, I thought I’d share what the process has been like so far.
I started by making a free-form list of things that are important to me in a vet clinic. I didn’t try to organize them or rank them in order of importance, I just wrote everything down. Once I’d exhausted my brain, I labeled each item as either a “must have” or “would like to have.” In case anyone is interested, my “need” list includes: being good with fearful/anxious dogs; having a clinic-wide dedication to low-stress handling; being exceedingly patient with drama queen dogs and their paranoid owners (I’m being honestly, okay?); and accepting both dogs and cats. The “want” list includes: a clinic that uses a blend of western and holistic approaches, which I define as taking a minimal approach to vaccines, being willing to use titers (especially for rabies), being open to a raw food diet, but also being willing to use antibiotics, flea and tick preventative, and heartworm medication as needed; a clinic that will be available for urgent visits; a clinic knowledgeable in behavior, and especially positive reinforcement training; and a clinic that’s conveniently located.
From there, I created a list of questions. I went down my list and wrote down different questions I could ask in order to figure out whether or not a clinic meets that need or want. I included general, open-ended questions, as well as specific questions. I quickly realized that my questions fell into five broad categories.
Handling and Behavior
Since one of the most important things to me is how well a clinic handles my pets, I am asking specifically how they do this: What are their general procedures for restraining a pet? How many people usually help with blood draws? Who will be doing the restraint: a vet tech or a kennel assistant? How do they modify their general procedures for fearful dogs? Are they familiar with the work of Dr. Sophia Yin?
In this category, I’ve also included questions on a clinic’s knowledge of behavior. I’ve been asking scenario types of questions. What would they do if my dog growled at them while they were handling them? If my dog was having on-leash aggression, what types of tools would they recommend? Under what circumstances should I use a prong or shock collar? How should I discipline my dog when she does something naughty? All of these questions helped me suss out if they are on the same page, training-wise, as me.
Appointments and Hospitalizations
Since I really want a clinic with good urgent-appointment availability, I’ve been asking questions about making appointments. What is the length of their typical appointment? At multi-doctor practices, will we be able to see the same vet for routine visits? I also want to know about how they handle hospitalizations because I have pets with chronic health problems. Specifically, how are pets supervised overnight? Where do they recover from anesthesia (under direct supervision, or in a kennel in the back)? How do they assess stress and pain, and what are their visiting hours and policies? Can I go “in back” with my pets? Do they have an isolation ward for contagious pets?
General Orientation to Medicine
I really want a vet that will be open to alternative medicine, and yet still be able to recommend more conventional approaches when needed. As a result, I’ve been asking questions about both flavors of medicine. What is their recommended vaccine schedule, and how do they feel about titers? What diet do they typically recommend for a healthy dog, and would they be able to help me formulate a home-cooked diet? How do they feel about those people who feed raw? (Note: that question is specifically worded as though I have a bias against raw feeding. I don’t, but if the vet does, I’m hoping this question will pick it up.) Do they ever prescribe supplements, and if so, what kind? On the flip side, at a more holistically-inclined vet, I’m asking about their vaccine schedule for puppies, under what circumstances they would recommend antibiotics, and whether or not they prescribe heartworm medication.
I am definitely an owner who wants to know more before I make decisions. I like research, and I like being able to ask questions. As a result, I asked what kind of resources they have for patient education, whether or not they will give me print-outs detailing my pet’s lab results, and whether or not I’ll be able to talk to the vet between appointments.
It might seem odd that this question is last. After all, a vet should be a stellar clinician first, right? But here’s the thing: I have no way of knowing if a vet is good or not. I’m not a vet, so how can I really assess their skills? Instead, I checked my state’s board website to see if any of the vets I’m considering have anything on their records. I checked to see what, if any, accreditation they have. Then I asked about their techs: are they certified, and why or why not? What kind of continuing education events do the vets attend? How often do they have staff meetings, and what types of topics do they cover? Where are their lab work and x-rays developed and read?
Even more important, I want to be sure that my future vet knows when a case is over their head, and so I’ve been asking what types of specialists they have a relationship with, and what types of cases they typically refer out. I’m asking what types of surgeries they do on a regular basis.
The answers have been interesting, and so far, I haven’t found the “perfect” clinic. It probably doesn’t exist. I’m not quite ready to make a decision, but I’m close. But no matter which clinic I choose, my tours and interviews have helped me feel more comfortable.