Signs of a Vet Who's Not Right for Your Pet

To me, one of the signs of a really good veterinarian is the willingness to say, “I don’t know,” followed by, “but I’ll find out.”

Vet checking a Shih Tzu

As I wrote about in my recent post on specialists, veterinary medicine, like human medicine, has grown and advanced to the point where it’s simply impossible for a single doctor to know everything. And though your doctor needs to know only one species — homo sapiens, as in us! — we veterinarians come out of school with the foundation for treating anything on four legs, plus birds. That’s why when people tell me they’re worried about a veterinarian who says, “I don’t know,” I tell them they should worry about the veterinarian who always has the answer. That’s just not possible, and even the best specialists are sometimes stumped at first.

But if not having all the answers isn’t a reason to wonder about your veterinarian, what is? Here’s what I look for in a veterinary hospital, because it says a lot about the standards of care throughout the practice. In discussions with colleagues, I wasn’t surprised to see versions of the same come up repeatedly.

Rule. No. 1: Bad odors are a bad sign. Though smells do happen in hospitals, they shouldn’t stick around. I am big on the concept of “odor-neutral.” While I kidded the folks at the VCA specialty center in Sacramento about a couple of oh-so-slightly crooked diplomas, I was noticing something else. Or rather, not noticing it. There was no smell. Despite being a large, 24/7 operation with pets in exam rooms, surgery suites, the intensive care unit and kennels and cages, the entire operation smelled like … clean. Not cleaning supplies, just clean. I was so impressed I asked to meet the maintenance supervisor and gave him my compliments.

Rule No. 2: I always say, "Don't trust a live pet to a vet with dead plants." When I bring this up to veterinarians in my talks, I tell them I realize they they're not typically the ones taking care of the waiting room greenery. They may even skip the front entrance and come in through a staff entrance so they don’t get a “pet’s eye view.” I get that, but I don’t buy it: If a veterinary hospital's staff doesn’t notice the plants need water, I have a hard time trusting the place to be attentive to my pet’s needs while he’s there.

My attention to detail is well-known, but I’m not alone in this. My colleague Dr. Bruce King, owner of Lakewood Animal Hospital in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, regularly sits in the bathrooms to check out the view. Cobwebs? Get the broom! And I once visited the spectacular VCA Sacramento Veterinary Referral Center and pointed out only half-jokingly that a couple of the many, many frames with impressive credentials weren’t hanging absolutely straight. The next time I visited, I couldn’t find a single frame that was a millimeter off — and I tried.

Rule No. 3: Communication problems are trouble. I touched on this in my article about working with the same veterinarian as often as possible, but the issue of rapport is just as important with a veterinarian you’re meeting for the first time, such as in an emergency clinic. You need to feel comfortable asking questions, and you should be offered all the options for your pet’s care to consider. This is true even in an emergency situation, when the veterinarian will ideally get your pet stabilized and then go over the situation and options with you.

What if your veterinarian breaks one of these rules — or all three? I wouldn’t leave over an occasional lapse. We’re all human, after all. But a consistent problem with "know-it-all-itis," a lack of attention to detail and an inability to communicate? Chances are that veterinary practice is out of practice when it comes to being the best they can be. It may be time to look elsewhere.


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