Your choice of a veterinarian is an extremely important decision that could profoundly affect the quality of care that your cat receives. So how does one go about choosing a vet?
First, you should probably begin by defining your needs. It may help you to compose a list of those things that are a priority for you. For instance, do you need someone in close proximity to your home? If you depend on public transportation or a friend driving you then the distance is certainly a very important consideration. Do you prefer an old-fashioned one-veterinarian office or a multi veterinarian practice with on-staff specialists and the latest in diagnostic equipment? Of course, there are many practices that fall somewhere in between these extremes - just something to consider while narrowing down your choices.
Does your cat have any special needs such as a history of urinary blockages? Is he diabetic, or have heart disease? If so, then you need a veterinarian with as much experience as possible in treating that particular problem.
Do you think you want a hospital with all the latest technology like laser surgery, CAT scans, and magnetic imaging? Of course, everyone wants the best diagnostic tools, but these machines have to be paid for, and once in a while that causes extra testing and costs that perhaps could have been done without.
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What is an "Animal Hospital"? What is a "Veterinary Clinic"?
First, let's discuss the differences between a veterinary clinic and a veterinary hospital: By definition, a veterinary "clinic" has a set number of hours in which it is staffed or open and does not provide 24-hour care. A "hospital" is available 24 hours and staffed by either a veterinarian or para-professional staff at all times.
What is an AAHA Hospital?
Some veterinary hospitals are accredited by the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) which means that they have fulfilled certain requirements designed to increase the level of care being provided to companion animals. A hospital can be AAHA certified in one, or all, of seven categories- Feline being the one we most care about (the others include Traditional Medicine, Avian Medicine. Emergency Care, Emergency and Critical Care, Dentistry, Surgical, and Ophthalmology).
What is the Difference Between a "Feline Specialist"and a "Feline Practitioner"?
A "Feline Specialist" is a veterinarian who is certified by the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners)- a professional organization of veterinarians who share an interest in providing excellence in the care and treatment of cats. To look for a Feline Specialist in the USA visit the AAFP website.
What About Emergency Veterinary Services?
If there is no other emergency facility available near you then a "hospital" might be your best bet. Problems don't necessarily show up during office hours and knowing where the closest 24-hour facility is would be a really good idea. Other owners opt to use a clinic for their scheduled veterinary appointments and visit a designated emergency facility near them if needed. If you go this route, make sure you keep the emergency facilities phone number and address somewhere you can find it when you are upset and approaching hysteria.
How Do I Begin Looking For A Veterinarian?
If you have friends or family members with pets, ask which clinic they use and what they like and dislike about the clinic, the vets, and the staff. If you are new to the area and don't know anyone, you might want to go through your phone book to look for possible candidates. You might want to look for a feline specialist if one is available, or a veterinarian in an AAHA Hospital with feline accreditation. If there isn't a specialist in your area, don't worry - many general practice vets are extremely capable, very concerned with continuing education and they make it a real point to stay informed. Make a list of the 5 or so veterinarians you think are most likely to suit you. Then call the offices and ask a few simple questions over the phone. The receptionist won't have time for an extended conversation but should be able to tell you their days and office hours, who handles the emergencies after hours, how many vets they have on staff, and whether clients are able to get in the same day or typically have to wait for an appointment. This conversation, besides giving you answers to important questions, will give you a feel for the office. There are not really any right or wrong answers at this point- you're just finding out how they sound over the telephone. Mark off any that rub you the wrong way and continue.
Next, drive by all of the locations and check out the time it takes to get there making special note of traffic issues, parking, and the general look of the place. If getting there is easy, there is sufficient parking, and the building seems well maintained, keep them on your list. If not cross them off.
Can I Ask to Visit The Veterinary Hospital?
Now you have maybe 3-4 possibilities, so call and ask for a tour of the facility. This should be no problem for them but it may need to be scheduled in advance, as they don't need strangers wandering around during surgeries, or during the busiest times of the day. I would immediately cross those who won't allow a tour off of your list. You should expect to be shown the reception areas, exam rooms, backroom labs and emergency/trauma areas, kennels, cages, and holding areas and at least be allowed to view a surgery room through a window. You want to see cleanliness, organization, professional-looking techs and other staff, and notice any odors. It is normal to smell the occasional poops or pees, but the stench of long-neglected animal waste should not be present. A slight disinfectant smell is normal. Check where the floor meets the walls for embedded grime, and look at the counters- has the clutter been there for months? Is the bedding in the cages clean? After this visit, you will probably rule out another one or two places just because something rubbed you the wrong way, or the place was dirty, or you just didn't feel as if they wanted your business. At this point, it is time for an actual veterinarian interview. You can now schedule an office call with prospective vets and proceed to ask them various questions that will inform you about their veterinary philosophy.
How Do I Interview a Prospective Veterinarian?
Normally, the price of an office visit is not cheap, but many clinics offer a "no animal present" visit where you can speak directly with the vet without the normal distraction of having a pet in with you to be seen. Many times, this type of office visit will be less in cost than if you were to bring in an animal. If you can only afford to interview one veterinarian, that is fine, but the choice of a veterinarian is difficult and now is the time to think about things so you don't have to second guess yourself or have "hindsight" regrets later on. You are the primary person in your cat's care -- you are the observer, the one with the emotional investment and the ultimate responsibility, and you are the one who writes the checks. The veterinarian is the person you hire to help you with the more involved details and aspects of your cat's care, but it is important to remember that he/she is still working for you. So it is vital that it be someone you get along well with, who respects your opinions as an observer and is willing to be open-minded to any thoughts or feelings you have about specific methodology (vaccines or raw feeding, for example). It is imperative to establish a good, open line of communication with the vet you choose and to make certain to do your own homework before each visit. You will want to write down questions you may have and ask the vet to address them individually in terms you can understand.
Here is a list of several questions you might think about asking them. Add your own, and write them down. Most of us get nervous around doctors, and a list helps us to keep our thoughts organized.
Questions to ask a prospective veterinarian: Do you own a cat? Other pets? Of course, it is not necessary that a vet own a cat or even any pets at all, but it's a good icebreaker and gives you insight into their relationship with animals.
What vaccinations are required for an overnight stay at this facility? There are no wrong answers, but if you are an owner who prefers a minimum of vaccinations and they require everything under the sun, it's a red flag.
How many vets work here, and can I always see the same one? If a relationship with a veterinarian is important, then being able to always see the same one is important too. Of course vacations and days off are necessary for them to remain sane, so who will see your pet when they are not available?
How are emergencies handled? Are they treated here, in this building? Is a veterinarian always here? Or do you refer out to another location?
What type of overnight staff do you have? If your pet must be left overnight will there always be someone there to watch them? Is a veterinarian always available for a middle of the night crisis?
Will I be able to receive copies of any lab reports on my animals? Getting copies of any reports is always a good idea, but some vets seem to want to keep them a secret. You may want copies so you can go home and research things you don't understand.
What is your feeling about using alternative medicine therapies? Some veterinarians are open-minded about alternative therapies like herbs, acupuncture, etc. and some are not. You want a veterinarian who thinks the way you do.
How do you view the importance of nutrition in a cat's health? If you are a raw feeder or use only natural ingredient foods this is something you need to know about your veterinarian. Feeding is a hot topic for many pet owners, and you want a veterinarian whose thoughts agree with your own.
Will you write prescriptions for expensive medications so that I can shop around to buy online and save? Selling medications is one way a veterinary practice makes money, and you want to support your veterinarian as much as possible. But in some instances, you can find higher-priced medications for significantly less if you shop around. Is your vet willing to write a prescription so that you may do that?
Do you offer any multi-pet discounts? Some do, some don't but if you have several pets it's worth asking about.
Are you willing to do a phone consultation or a home visit in the event of a difficult case? You are just wanting to determine their reaction to this question- it will tell you if they are open to help, or think they have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers, and if they need help to solve a problem they should be willing to accept it. The well-being of the cat is always the most important consideration.
How often do most cats you see require teeth cleaning, and what anesthesia is generally used? Their answer to this should be along the lines of "it depends". There are no absolute answers, and every cat is different. Each anesthesia choice should be determined by the specific needs of the individual cat.
Do you offer grooming services? It might come in handy if they do.
If I have difficulty understanding a complex case will you review the basics of the disease with me? You want someone who will take the time to answer all of your questions so that you leave understanding what just happened. We all know that they haven't the time to discuss your animal with you for an extended time, but they need to make you feel comfortable in asking questions.
Do you follow the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) guidelines regarding vaccination sites? Because of the risk of vaccine-related sarcoma, special vaccination site guidelines have been issued for all recommended vaccines in cats. A veterinarian should be familiar with this protocol and follow it.
Will I be allowed to determine when my pet requires euthanasia? In making any euthanasia decision whose call is it- yours or his? Will he tell you when he thinks you are wasting money trying to save a dying animal, or will he insist on trying any option and perhaps prolonging the suffering. Again- you want a veterinarian whose views are similar to your own.
May I be present when blood is drawn, shots are given, etc., or will the cat be removed to the "backroom"? You want to be present for as much of your cat's care and handling as possible. How much you want to see is up to you, but what do they actually allow? Personally, I feel that a vet who removes an animal to be treated elsewhere should invite you to come along if you are comfortable with observing.
Do you offer any payment plans or alternatives for very costly emergencies? Nobody wants to talk about money, but the time to do it is before you need to. Discuss the options you might have when your cat needs expensive care and you are down to your last dime.
Do you offer a referral for behavior issues? They should be able to refer you to a Veterinary Behaviorist for extreme behavioral issues.
Is there a vet tech who is especially good at teaching owners how to medicate their cat? Giving pills to a cat is a skill, and it is one that can and should be taught. The techs are better at it than the vets, and there should be someone available to show you exactly how to give medications.
What are your feelings about declawing? What you really want to hear is that there are other options to declawing a cat. This is another one of those questions listed to give you a feel for the doctor. If they snap back "if you want it declawed, we'll declaw it" then maybe they are not the most informed veterinarian. Your own personal feelings will guide you in what is an acceptable response and what is not.
You've done your research, now choose a veterinarian At this point, you can thank them for their time and say "I hope to be visiting you again soon". You should come away with a pretty good idea of the particular veterinarian's bedside manner. Did you feel rushed, were they abrupt with you, did they seem to respect you as a person? If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then politely thank them for their time; pay your bill, and move on to the next one on your list. A good question to ask yourself is this: Is this vet a person you want to be in a room with as you and your cat are experiencing some of the most terrifying moments of your lives?
You are looking for a calm, knowledgeable veterinarian who is willing to spend the necessary time required to care for your cat and also help you understand what is going on. You want someone who is not overly dogmatic in their approach to the rapidly evolving topics of vaccination and nutrition. You want someone who is capable of admitting that they don't know everything and who is agreeable to accepting help from outside their office if need be.
And now you have to make a decision.
Great medical care for your cat takes two
Once you have chosen your veterinarian remember that great cat care is a two-way street, and you have to do your part as well. Yearly examinations are a must- you can't just show up out of the blue and expect to be squeezed in when it is inconvenient. Yearly exams present a vet with a complete picture of what is normal for your cat and it allows them to follow along with the cat's life and keep track of any small changes and conditions. Despite our careful observations, there are things that can only be evaluated by regular medical checkups- what may not look out of place in one visit may begin to look like a pattern after several. As the cat ages, you may need to go twice a year to keep up with the changes geriatric animal experiences. You should always feel comfortable asking your veterinarian questions, but your time with them is always going to be limited, so you should remember to WRITE DOWN any questions, concerns or other issues you would like him to address during the visit prior to the visit. The key is to be organized and concise. Do not take advantage of a vet's time but do try to get in as much as possible.
Veterinarians are your partners in caring for your cat
To finally wrap this up, remember- the veterinarian works for you. A DVM or VMD after their name does not make them an all-powerful authority on everything. It just speaks to specific education, and like all of us, they only know what they have been taught. You are the primary observer of your cat, you know your cat inside out, and you know what is normal for them and what is not. I urge you to trust yourself when deciding whether something is wrong or not. If you think something is wrong, then it probably is. Never be afraid to ask for a second opinion- medical professionals are long accustomed to that procedure and you should ask for a referral any time you think you need another opinion on a topic. Your cat depends entirely on you and two heads are better than one. So ask questions, be considerate of a veterinarian's hours and time, and pay your bills when you say you will. A great veterinarian who is intimately familiar with your cat's history is often the difference between a mild illness and a devastating loss.
Plan ahead and your cat will thank you for it.
The article was written by our member Cearbhaill
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