Too often when people ask me to recommend a "good" veterinarian I discover that they are really asking for a "cheap" veterinarian. I always remind them that while cost is important, there are other issues to consider when choosing health care for a pet.
And if that doesn't get through, I ask them if they would choose a pediatrician the same way. Can you imagine price as the only consideration when choosing a doctor for your child? Of course not. Nor should that be your only consideration when it comes to choosing a veterinarian for your pet.
For me, the keys to a healthy relationship with a veterinarian are the same as with a physician -- communication, skill and trust. The last is even more important with a veterinarian than with a physician. Knowing what goes on in a veterinarian's office after you leave your pet behind is impossible. An animal can never comment on treatment, and so an animal lover must rely on trust to be sure a pet has been dealt with humanely.
Before you choose a veterinarian, ask friends, co-workers and neighbors for recommendations. Animal lovers can tell which veterinarians are knowledgeable, compassionate and hard-working. Those veterinarians are always talked up by satisfied clients.
Other factors may help you narrow down your list of possibilities:
-- Is the clinic or hospital a good match with the pets you keep? Not all small-animal veterinarians are well-versed -- or even interested -- in treating birds, reptiles or small mammals such as rabbits or hamsters. You may wish to use a specialty practice, such as a birds- or reptiles-only practice. Cats-only practices are becoming more popular and may be more comfortable for your cat.
-- Is the clinic or hospital conveniently located, with hours you can live with? If you have a 9-to-5 job, a veterinarian with a 9-to-5 clinic won't do your pet much good. Many veterinarians are open late on at least one week night and for at least a half-day on Saturday morning. Some large group practices run 24 hours a day.
-- Does the staff seem knowledgeable and helpful? You want to be sure you're dealing with a practice interested in hiring or training people to recognize an urgent situation when you call. Animal-health technicians are the backbone of any good practice; look for the veterinarian who values them.
-- What kind of emergency care is available, if any? Although emergency veterinary clinics are prepared for any catastrophe, the veterinarians there are not familiar with your pet as an individual. If your veterinary hospital does not offer 24-hour care, does it work with one that does?
-- Does the veterinarian ask for help when needed? The best veterinarians consult with veterinary college staff or independent or in-house specialists. An increasing number subscribe to online services for access to specialists and databases of information and journal articles. A willingness to discuss tough cases with colleagues is the sign of a veterinarian who's putting in effort on your pet's behalf.
-- Does the veterinarian seem willing to refer you to a specialist for treatment? Your veterinarian should be open to a referral when your pet's condition warrants it. Current companion-animal specialties include: anesthesiology, behavior, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, emergency medicine and critical care, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, ophthalmology, radiology and surgery. Each of these requires additional study and certification over and above that required to achieve a degree in veterinary medicine.
Finally, be sure you feel a rapport with the veterinarian you choose. You should be comfortable asking questions and discussing everything -- including those fees. The final call on whether a veterinarian is right for you comes down to intangibles. If you don't like your veterinarian, you're less likely to call or come in. The lack of productive communication will hurt your pet in the long run.
Pets on the Web: Shame on you if you name your cat "Kitty" or "Fluff" after visiting the Magic Names for Mystic Cats Web site (http://www.k-net.net/(tilde) ingram/magicat.htm).
Dominic Marks has gathered dozens of graceful names from a wide array of cultures -- including African (Kyala, the king-sky god of the Nyakyusa tribe of Tanzania), Finnish (Tuoni, the god of the underworld) and Japanese (Haya-Ji, the god of whirlwinds). My Veterinary Information Network colleague Dr. Becky Lundgren found this site, and she was right when she told me it promised a long period of fascinating reading.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to GSpadafori(at)aol.com.
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