When I adopted my first dog, Ralph, over 10 years ago, I had no idea how to choose a vet. How do you know what kind of practitioner is best for your particular dog, and once you choose one, how do you know if you’ve made the right choice? I complicated matters with several cross-country moves, which meant finding a new vet in a new place each time. We’ve also added to the family with another dog, Radar, and three rascally cats. Needless to say, after many years, many moves, and many veterinarians, I’ve become something of an expert on selecting the perfect vet for my pet family.
Whether you’re a first-time dog person unsure where to start, or a seasoned dog guardian looking for a refresher on finding a new vet for your best friend, this guide to finding the perfect vet will help you give your dog the care she deserves.
How to Find a Vet for Your Dog
Know your pet’s needs in advance
Before you start visiting veterinary practices and asking questions, make a list of priorities for you and your pet. This will help you ask the right questions as you narrow down your options.
Consider the following:
- Your dog’s age
- Any health concerns.
For example, my pets are all getting older, so I’ve recently found a vet who specializes in geriatric care. If you’ve just adopted a puppy, you will likely want to find a good general veterinarian who can be there as your puppy grows up.
Here’s my own checklist of veterinarian must-haves (but keep in mind yours may vary depending on your dog):
- Knowledge and support for select holistic/alternative treatments, balanced with up-to-date facilities and cutting edge medical technologies and care.
- Generous appointment times (I ask a lot of questions, and there’s nothing worse than feeling rushed at the vet).
- Support for area pet rescue organizations (it’s important to me that my vet be invested in the local animal welfare community).
- Smaller practice. I’m at the vet pretty frequently with my gaggle of pets, so I prefer a place where I know I can see the same doctor every visit and develop a friendly relationship with the staff. Many larger veterinary hospitals offer incredible care (and greater flexibility in scheduling), so it really comes down to personal preference.
Other factors to consider may include hours to suit your work schedule, proximity to your home, and pricing.
How to start (and narrow down) the search
Once you’ve zeroed in on what you want from a veterinarian, it’s time to actually find a few candidates. Good old fashioned word-of-mouth is the best place to start.
If you’re a dog person, chances are you know other dog people whose pet-care philosophies are in line with your own. So ask a friend about their veterinarian. (As a bonus, many vets have referral programs that can lead to discounts for you and the friend who referred you.)
If you’re in a new place where you don’t know many people, check out reviews on a site like Yelp or Angie’s List, where you can learn about other people’s experiences with veterinarians in your area, and select a few who might meet your needs.
Whether you get a referral from a friend or an online search, you’ll want to make sure the veterinary practice is accredited with the American Animal Hospital Association. The AAHA evaluates veterinary practices on standards for patient care and pain management, surgery, facilities, medical records, cleanliness, emergency services, dental care, diagnostic imaging, anesthesiology, and continuing education. While vet hospitals are not required by law to be accredited, accreditation shows a commitment to maintaining high standards of care and services.
Schedule a tour
Once you’ve found one or two potential vets, plan a facility visit without your dog to get a feel for the place itself. Any reputable veterinary practice will be more than happy to show you around and make you feel welcome. Here’s a checklist of things to look for when visiting a veterinary facility:
- Is it easy to get to from your home, and is parking relatively easy?
- Is the facility clean, both in the lobby/waiting area and exam rooms? You should also ask to see the “behind-the-scenes” facilities; you may or may not be able to tour the hospital, depending on what’s going on that day, but most good vets value transparency and will show you as much as they can.
- Are there separate waiting areas for dogs and cats?
- Do animals and people in the waiting area and hospital seem comfortable (keep in mind a lot of pets are nervous at the vet, so they don’t have to seem “happy,” just comfortable and safe)
- Is the staff caring, calm, and courteous?
Your tour may be conducted by a staff associate or vet tech, but you should also be able to meet with at least one veterinarian on staff.
Ask the right questions
When you visit a veterinarian’s office for the first time, in addition to getting a feel for the facility, you should ask plenty of questions to give you a full picture of their practice. You may write down a few specific questions based on your list of priorities, and you should also ask the following questions:
- Does the vet refer patients to specialists as needed? (The answer should be yes.)
- Which emergency services are available on-site, and to what facility will you be referred if emergency appointments are not available?
- Are diagnostic tests like X-rays, bloodwork, ultrasounds, etc. done in-house or referred offsite?
- How are overnight patients monitored?
- What types of payment does the practice accept? Do they offer payment plans for major surgeries and/or treatment for chronic conditions?
- Does the practice support any local animal welfare organizations (this may or may not be important to you, but in general, a vet who actively engages in the local animal welfare community is one who has pets’ best interests at heart!)
Your in-person visit should leave you feeling positive about the clinic and staff, and hopefully you’ll have a good rapport with the veterinarian. Communication is a vital part of quality vet care. After all, your dog can’t tell the doctor where it hurts, so it’s up to us humans to do the talking. You should feel comfortable asking questions, and the vet should listen thoughtfully and offer clear, direct explanations.
Once you choose a good vet, be a good client
Establishing a good veterinary routine for your dog depends on finding a vet you trust to provide the best possible care. However, it’s not a one-way street; as your dog’s guardian and advocate, you have a responsibility to support the client-vet relationship. Keep in mind these steps to being a good veterinary client:
- Show up a little early (but not too early) for appointments to allow time for any necessary paperwork.
- Be an advocate for your dog, but know when to step back and let the vet take over. This can be a tough one for me sometimes because I have a long history in pet care, but it’s important to remember that one of us went to vet school, and it sure wasn’t me.
- If you have a question, ask. If you want a second opinion, request a referral. Remember, communication is key.
- Be patient, and remember, animals can be unpredictable. A good veterinary practice will respect their clients’ time, and stick as close to the appointment schedule as possible. A good veterinary client, on the other hand, will remember that in any medical practice, there is the potential for high stress, and emergency situations may take precedence over routine appointments.
Think of your relationship with the veterinarian as a collaboration: you both want what’s best for your dog, and by working together, you can meet all of her needs.
Now that Ralph and her furry cohort are older, we’re at the vet’s office more and more often, and I’m grateful to have found a practice I trust to see them through their golden years. Even when vet visits are scary, I know my pets are in good hands because I took the time to find them.
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