Dog at Vet
When people learn that I’m a veterinarian, their faces predictably light up with a smile. It appears that most folks believe that vets are wonderful. After all, we clearly love animals and we must be very smart: Everyone knows how difficult it is to get into veterinary school. In fact, people often seem far less skeptical of their veterinarian’s capabilities and intentions than they are of their own physician’s.

Time for a reality check. Not all veterinarians deserve the benefit of the doubt. Official veterinary disciplinary boards exist for a reason, and I certainly had a few veterinary school classmates I wouldn’t let near one of my own sick animals with a 10-foot syringe — then or now!

Five Red Flags

How can you know if your vet’s performance is worthy of your patronage? Here are five red-flag indicators that should prompt you to consider looking for someone new:

1. Your veterinarian is a 100 percent do-it-your-selfer, refusing to enlist help from other veterinarians, particularly specialists, within the community. Gone are the days of All Creatures Great and Small, when it was reasonable for one doctor to handle all medical maladies, no matter how simple or involved. A good veterinarian should not resist enlisting help from other veterinarians, particularly specialists, within the community. Advances in diagnostic and therapeutic technologies have made it impossible for any individual to be proficient at everything. If your family veterinarian has been unable to arrive at a diagnosis, your pet’s condition is worsening or not improving in spite of therapy, or a complicated procedure has been recommended, enlisting help from another veterinarian just makes good sense. If such discussion is not forthcoming, your vet is likely a "do-it-your-selfer."

2. Your veterinarian prefers telling you what to do rather than discussing options. This paternalistic style of communication hinders your ability to ask questions and make well-informed choices. Sentence starters from your veterinarian such as, “You need to…”, “You should…”,  “You have to…”, or an unsolicited, “If I were you I would…” are all clues that you are dealing with a paternalistic provider. It’s fine if you ask for your veterinarian to weigh in with some, “What I would do in your shoes” advice, but he or she shouldn’t simply be telling you what to do right off the bat.

3. Your veterinarian doesn’t comply with reasonably current professional standards. For example, he or she insists on a full slate of annual vaccinations without considering what your dog's or cat’s personal lifestyle risks might be, or thinks pain medication is unnecessary for potentially painful procedures or conditions.

4. Your veterinarian has made a significant error while working with your pet. A botched surgery, a missed diagnosis or a medical prescription error are examples that should cause consternation. Yes, mistakes happen, but they warrant some face time with your veterinarian to receive an explanation and determine if you will be staying or taking your business elsewhere. If a mistake happens, your veterinarian should communicate with you about it promptly and proactively.

5. You or your pet simply don’t feel comfortable with your vet. Does your normally delightful dog or cuddly kitty transform into a Cujo or Leo the Lion the minute your vet walks into the exam room? Do you feel uneasy asking questions and openly discussing your worries or concerns? Pay attention to your observations and gut feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

Your Exit Strategy

If you are planning to leave a veterinarian you’ve been with for years, chances are you’re concerned about how to do so gracefully, without hurting his or her feelings. In response to this concern, let me quote my favorite line from the movie Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!” After all, what’s more important, your pet’s health and your own peace of mind or your veterinarian’s feelings?

To expedite a smooth transition, obtain a copy of all of your pet’s medical records, including doctor’s notes, laboratory test results, imaging studies (ultrasound, X-rays), and vaccination history. Simply ask the reception staff to provide this for you. This should be a no-hassle process as you are legally entitled to all you are requesting. If asked why you are moving on, I encourage you to provide an honest, constructive response.

As the captain of your pet’s health-care team, it is your responsibility to determine who your teammates will be. Choose them wisely and remind yourself that the opportunity to care for you and your pet is a privilege that should be well deserved.


Read more Vetstreet articles by Dr. Nancy Kay:

Why the Term 'Pet Owner' Just Doesn’t Work for Me
How Videotaping Your Pet for Your Vet Can Help Get the Right Diagnosis
When to Say Yes to a Diagnostic Test