By Melinda DoddWhen you need a new doctor, you seek friends' advice, read Web reviews and ask questions. It's important to do the same for your pet. "We have to advocate for animals since they can't do it for themselves," says Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, DABVP, executive director of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).
Step 1: Sniff Out the Best
"First, figure out what kind of veterinarian you want," says Nancy Kay, DVM, author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. Kind, caring, compassionate, yes, but also: Does your pet have unique requirements? Is it a traditional pet or an exotic one? Do you prefer a vet who has a solo practice or one who's part of a group?
"If a practice has 15 doctors, with specialists on staff, they're going to have a lot of resources and be able to bounce ideas off each other," says Dr. Cavanaugh. "But if you prefer to see the same doctor all the time, he can always refer you to a specialist when necessary." Of course, solo vets are not available 24/7, and may not always provide emergency care.
After you identify your needs, the best way to find a vet is through word of mouth-your neighbors, other owners at the groomer's, the pet store and the dog park, or reviewers on Yelp.com. "People love talking about their veterinarian, and you can get a consensus," explains Dr. Kay. She also suggests talking with staff at a 24-hour emergency clinic: "They are the absolute best source because animals from all the practices wind up there." If they hesitate to name names, ask them to simply point out the best ones on your list.
Top veterinary hospitals are often AAHA-accredited (for a list, see HealthyPet.com), which means they have voluntarily chosen to meet more than 900 standards established for anesthesia administration, disease treatment, critical care, pain management and other key areas. While many good veterinarians lack this designation, it indicates quality in a world with few accreditations. Another thing to look for: a vet who has been designated a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, indicating that she gets re-certified in care for a specific species every 10 years.
Step 2: Follow the Scent
When you call to set up a visit to a potential vet, pay attention to how the receptionist treats you. It's a tipoff to what kind of practice you may encounter. "You want to feel respected and accommodated," says Dr. Cavanaugh. Dismissive service suggests you might end up being a low priority if your pet is a patient. As you drive into the parking lot, look for other clues that hint at the quality of care: "The area around the building should be landscaped, with no trash, and in fairly good condition," says Larry Corry, DVM, immediate past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "What you see outdoors is probably a reflection of how well the interior area where animals are boarded is maintained. If it's not cleaned up outside, it's probably not cleaned up inside."
When you enter, you want to be welcomed by happy, helpful employees. Their demeanor is a reflection of the general attitude of the place. "It's not just about the vet, it's about the whole staff," Dr. Kay notes. "If they like their jobs, they'll do them better-which affects the health and happiness of your animal."
Also take note of how long you have to wait. But don't freak out if you hear an endless echo of barking: In most cases, it just means you're in an older hospital with a poor acoustic layout, explains Dr. Cavanaugh. Facilities built within the last 10 years are more likely to have been designed to keep those sounds far away from the ears of customers-and their nervous pets.
Ask to tour the premises. "If someone were unwilling to let me see the clinic, I would certainly wonder why," says Dr. Cavanaugh. When you walk around, keep an eye out for high-tech equipment, which points toward the latest treatments. In-house labs, pharmacies and specialists save time. And make sure to explore the whole clinic. "You want to see the areas where your pet may get an injection or get his toenails trimmed, as well as the boarding area," notes Dr. Kay. "Do the animals appear content-no whining or crying? Do they have ample bedding and clean cages? Is the surgery suite clean, modern and clutter-free? Is there an isolation ward for pets with contagious diseases?"
If there's time to spare, talk to the front desk staff about how bills are handled and payment options. Few veterinary offices offer discounts, but many allow payment plans or CareCredit, a credit card that can be used for veterinary services and defers interest for at least six months as long as you make the minimum payment and pay off the remaining balance within the promotional period. However, your vet may offer you a discount if you're a senior citizen or if you own multiple pets.
Step 3: Nose Around
When you sit down for your consultation with the prospective vet, make sure to ask these five important questions:
1. Who do you go to for advice and second opinions?
If the answer is no one, keep searching. "You want a veterinarian who's going to say, 'If I have a difficult case, I call Dr. A or B,'" says Dr. Kay. "Anything else suggests a cowboy mentality, which is not in the best interest of your pet."
2. What type of continuing education do you pursue?
"Veterinary medicine changes rapidly, and it's impossible to stay current without this," Dr. Kay says. (Many state veterinary boards mandate lifelong learning.) For more insight into the vet's background, read his or her bio online or look for a brochure at the front desk for information on the doctor's past internships, residencies and degrees. (If you don't see it, ask if they have one.) Check for affiliations with veterinary associations, which implies contact with new ideas.
3. How often do you vaccinate?
When it comes to core vaccines like distemper and parvovirus, "we now know that these basic inoculations for adult dogs and cats need to be given no more than once every three years," notes Dr. Kay. "There are just two reasons I can think of as to why vets would give them once a year: Either they're not staying current or they're out to make a buck."
4. How do you handle after-hours emergencies and 24-hour care?
You want a clinic that's staffed around the clock (or provides a referral to one that is) so that someone can periodically check on your pet if she has to stay overnight, says Dr. Kay. "You should feel confident that your pet will be taken care of at any time, day or night."
5. Are you thinking of moving or retiring soon?
The last thing you want to do is start from square one again!Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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