Updated November 29th, 2020
I’d hate to have to choose my vet. My pets mean a lot to me and if I wasn’t a vet I wouldn’t know where to put my trust.
Hard as it is, pet owners need to do it. Choosing in advance means you will be prepared if you need a vet in a hurry. The more research you do, the more likely that the vet you find will match your pets’ and your needs.
How To Select A Vet
You might be thinking: a vet advising on choosing vets is hardly a recipe for unbiased advice. I admit that I’m probably going to be blind to some of the benefits of different vet practices, however, I promise I’ll be open about our weaknesses.
I also encourage you to leave extra comments below with your thoughts on what I’ve missed. In the meantime, here are my suggestions on what to focus on when choosing a vet:
PLUS: Don’t miss Dr. Normal Swan’s tips for choosing a good GP below. A lot of it applies to vets too.
Word Of Mouth
Established vets often get most of their new clients via word of mouth. If we had it our way, we’d get them all this way. People getting trusted advice tend to be quick to return that trust, making them enjoyable clients to serve.
A friend, colleague or family member’s experiences with different vets is a good start. Most dog owners at the local dog park will be only too happy to help. Some local groomers or boarding kennels may also be prepared to advise you.
Different people want different things from vets: some are cost-sensitive, others like busy hospitals, others have special needs. Try to ask why it is about their vet that they like to make sure you want the same thing.
I wouldn’t advise using your breeder’s vet though. It will be hard for a vet to act between the two clients when it comes to diseases originating with the breeder, and breeders have very different needs than do pet owners.
Number Of Vets
Newly minted vets are usually very good but they should always have access to experienced minds. Experienced vets like me can easily get stale without the benefit of bouncing ideas off another vet and using their knowledge. When working alone we are at risk of stress and burnout.
A good vet practice allows for collaboration and communication between their vets. This is hard for you to assess easily. Look for clues to a relaxed and easy rapport between the vets in the clinic.
This is of course a gross generalisation which will often be wrong. A clinic with multiple vets doesn’t necessarily communicate well. Some vets working alone are very good at using their colleagues, and many others skilfully handle their cases without requiring outside support.
Ask if it’s possible to see the vet of your choice. Most pet owners end up preferring the style of a particular vet and most practices will support that, but not all. I actually left one of my vet jobs because they wouldn’t support continuity of care.
Vets are all about communication; the advice we give can be the difference between a good recovery or unexpected complications.
You need your practice to be a good communicator. Don’t accept unreturned phone calls, unanswered emails or not replying to Facebook messages. If your questions aren’t answered the same day you make them, it puts your pet at risk.
There is an easy way to check this: make a few phone call or email enquiries and see what responses you receive. Whenever I need a communicative professional, this is what I do and it works!
When you visit, pay attention to how the reception and nursing staff relate to you and each other. You should be acknowledged as you arrive and asked if you need assistance.
You can’t judge your vet’s hygiene standards except by what you can see. If the reception, consulting and waiting areas are clean and low-odour, it’s more likely the rest of the premises are kept clean as well.
You can imagine that very smelly things do happen in vets so as long as it’s not always whiffy that’s OK.
Services & Equipment
What can you expect a local vet to be able to do? Here’s a list of what most practices consider standard in 2016.
- Digital x-ray
- Dentistry & Dental xray
- In-house laboratory
- IV pumps
- Blood pressure & ECG monitoring
- Anaesthetic multi-parameter monitors
Practices often vary in the services they offer too.
- Orthopaedics: what level is offered before referral?
- Grooming: all pets or just when sedation is required?
- Pet Boarding: which species can be boarded?
To research each practice all it takes is to browse their website. If they do it, it’s likely to be mentioned.
However, equipment and services aren’t everything. A good vet practice knows its limitations and will refer to other vets or specialists when needed. Look for signs of this as well.
What are the opening hours of the practice? Differences between vets are mainly:
- How late they stay open in the evening?
- What time they consult to on Saturdays?
- Do they open Sundays?
- Do they offer after-hours care at the same site?
Our practice has fairly typical hours of 8-6:30 weekdays and 9-4 Saturdays (no after-hours). Like most vets, as long as you call while we are open we will stay back to see you even if it’s after closing time.
We apologise, however, that we can’t answer calls after-hours. At our size this service would push our vets & nurses too far. We ask concerned clients to call the Animal Emergency Centre after hours, which is continuously staffed overnight and on weekends.
Distance & Parking
There are thousands of vet clinics in Australia, but you’re only going to be able to choose from a handful that are a reasonable distance away.
Look not just at how close each vet is, but whether they have off-street parking for safe and convenient loading and unloading of animals.
Pricing & Payment
I’ve said it before. Vets vary a lot in their fees and it’s your right to ask about their pricing. Don’t be embarrassed.
Most people prioritise the quality of their vet care over prices but for many clients affordability is important to consider.
Pricing can be hard to assess though. Common services like consultations and desexing don’t vary much between vets, and vaccinations often vary more due to differing protocols like 3-yearly programs. Try asking about things like standard dental scale & polish procedures, or a typical 10 minute lump removal.
Continuing Professional Development
Any vet worth his or her salt is constantly improving and changing. Knowledge updates, procedures get modified or replaced, and new evidence forces us to stop doing other things.
I don’t know any vet practices that actually publish their attendance at courses but it’s something we should start doing. From now on, our vets’ continuing education is published on our staff profile page.
Vets vary as much as other people, and no more so than in their approach to alternative remedies. A quick glance at a vet’s website will tell you how relaxed they are about using the less-evidence-based forms of healing.
We’re happy to support treatments not supported by evidence if they don’t interfere with those we consider to be effective. However, if you want a vet to offer alternative remedies instead of other options, we’re not the best vets for you.
A grey area includes treatments like laser therapy, stem cells, dental sealing procedures or many arthritis treatments. It’s hard to say how well they work and each vet needs to make their individual peace with the generally low level of available evidence.
Another philosophical bone of contention is the use of reward-based dog training methods. This is especially important in choosing the type of Puppy Preschool class your puppy will receive but also impacts which dog behaviour consultants are used. Here’s a list that includes some local vets who take this approach but many others also do a great job.
You will also find differences in areas like pain management, cancer care, desexing policies & euthanasia.
You should be able to ask for a tour of most veterinary clinics (including ours) as long as surgery is not being performed at the time.
A well-laid-out veterinary building will have:
- Two entrance/exit points for clients
- A separate waiting area for cats & nervous animals
- A separate cat hospital
- Dog runs
- A specialised surgical theatre
Currently we can only lay claim to points 1. & 5. This is certainly one of our weaknesses.
What happens to your pet after the practice closes? This is an area that varies a lot between vets.
If animals need critical care, is a staff member on site through the night?
Try Before You Buy
Many practices like us offer free first puppy or kitten checkups (yes, also rabbits & ferrets). It’s an opportunity to come and meet the staff and have a consultation with a vet. There’s no obligation to buy anything or come back if you’re not happy.
This is a great way to see if you & your pet can make a connection with the vet.
Another under-used service is the second opinion. These aren’t free but for only the cost of a consultation fee you get a whole new look at your pet’s health. Read more about getting second opinions here.
Who Owns The Vet Practice?
This is not of concern to most pet owners and rightly so. However, if you want to know more, visit our page on the changing ownership of veterinary clinics in Adelaide.
Tips On Choosing A Good GP
from Dr. Norman Swan’s ABC Health Report
- Is the practice is externally accredited
- Does the doctor practice with partners so it’s less isolating
- Does your GP listen and give you time?
- Do they check that you get what you want rather than jumping to conclusions?
- Do they do a full physical exam and think about you in the context of your life as a whole?
- Do they share the decision making with you and allow you to understand their thinking and rationale?
- Do they seem to jump to a referral or prescription too readily?
- Are they willing to admit they don’t know something but have a plan to deal with it?
- Are their front of house staff friendly and discreet?
- Do you get the sense that the GP works in a team?
- Has the doctor got extra letters after their name? (this last one is tricky as many vet courses graduate students with two degrees: look for Diplomas, Certificates, Masters, Fellowships & Memberships, but not MRCVS which just means British registration)
In conclusion, there are really no bad vets (they don’t stay open). What you need to look for is the vet that suits your pet’s needs the best. Good luck & remember that no decision is ever final.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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