Choosing a Veterinarian
Laurie S. Coger, DVM, CVCP, RP
Many people play a part in what we do with our dogs. Breeders, trainers, training partners, authors, and judges have an impact on our dogs and us. We very carefully select a breeder and then a puppy, decide whose training philosophy we will follow, who we will train with, and what judges we will and won’t show to. We read books, watch videos, and go to seminars to learn more about improving our performances. We will get up at absurd hours in the morning, drive for hours, and spend most of our weekends and free time for 5 minutes in the ring. We will go to almost any length for our dogs. And when health issues come up, the sky is the limit for anything our dog might need. When my own dog had health problem that I could not address, I found myself searching for a veterinarian, something I had not given much thought to previously.
Fortunately, most dogs require only routine preventative health care. However, when we place additional stresses on our dogs by competing in obedience, agility, herding, conformation, or tracking, choosing a regular veterinarian becomes especially important. Should your dog suffer an injury or develop a complex medical problem, you may also need to seek the help of a specialist. Many knowledgeable people do not what questions to ask or what to look for in choosing a veterinarian, or what specialists are available to help with complex issues.
In the United States, all veterinarians are licensed by the state or states they practice in. In order to be licensed, they must be graduates of an approved college of veterinary medicine, which is a four-year degree. Most students have already completed a four-year undergraduate degree before being admitted to a veterinary college. So the average veterinarian has completed eight years of college. After graduating, national and state board examinations must be passed in order to be licensed to practice in their state(s). Some states have continuing education hour requirements for renewal of veterinary licenses. Specialists generally complete a one-year internship and a three-year residency after finishing their veterinary degree. They then must pass an examination given by their specialty organization. They are then referred to as diplomates of their specialty, and can legitimately be referred to as specialists. Fields of specialization include surgery, internal medicine, ophthalmology, theriogenolgy (reproduction), dermatology, and more.
Several qualities are important in choosing a veterinarian for your dog’s regular care. If he or she is licensed, you know that the appropriate educational requirements have been met. But that is only the beginning of learning for a veterinarian. Clinical experience and clinical judgment are the terms veterinarians use to describe the combination of textbook knowledge and actual practice experience. It is the skill that allows veterinarians to simply “know” why an animal is ailing, or what tests to perform to diagnose a condition. Some veterinarians develop clinical judgment after a very short time in practice, while others take longer. In my opinion, it is a vital characteristic for being a good veterinarian.
There is an incredible amount of information to be learned in a relatively short amount of time in veterinary college. Most colleges require coursework in all species – dogs, cats, cow, horses, sheep and goats, and exotic and pocket pets. With all there is to learn about basic health and disease, it is not surprising that most veterinarians know little about competitive dogs, alternative and holistic medicine, advanced nutrition, and behavior and training. However, many veterinarians have learned a great deal about these areas and more, and can provide excellent care and advice for the competing dog. So, from a veterinarian’s and obedience competitor’s perspective, what questions should be asked of a prospective veterinarian?
What do you know about obedience and other dog sports I may participate in?
The ideal veterinarian would know at least something about the sport, and what health issues are relevant to it, and would be willing to learn more. A willingness to learn is very valuable, but you must be willing to share your knowledge of your sport with your veterinarian.
What are your views on alternative medicine, raw diets, vaccination titers, or any other somewhat controversial or “hot” topics?
These views should fall in line with what your interests are, and should be backed up by knowledge and a willingness to work with you. You must feel comfortable trusting the advice you are paying for, and know that the veterinarian will take the time to discuss these topics with you.
Can I see your hospital?
Most veterinarians are very proud of their hospitals, and are willing to show you around at a convenient time. Obviously, the facility should be clean and safe, well equipped and well maintained.
What are your emergency policies?
This may or may not be important, if there is an emergency facility nearby. It is ideal for your dog to be seen in an emergency by a veterinarian who knows him and his history, but most veterinarians are unable to provide 24-hour a day care. Should my dog require emergency care, I want to know that 24-hour observation and treatment are available, which generally means an emergency clinic or referral hospital.
To whom do you refer cases, such as orthopedic surgeries or complex medicine cases?
Beware of veterinarians who don’t make referrals. Referring to a specialist is sometimes the best course of action for the animal, and provides an opportunity for the referring veterinarian to learn from someone with advanced education. With the advances in knowledge and equipment in the various specialties, a general practitioner is not able to give the quality of care that a specialist can provide. Yet many practitioners still try to “do it all” themselves, and in doing so provide less than the best patient care.
Do you have any special interests or training?
Many veterinarians enjoy some parts of the job more than others, and while not true specialists, have developed a great deal of proficiency in some areas. These areas could include dentistry, ultrasonography, chiropractic, and behavior. They may have completed advanced educational programs in these areas, which may be of some benefit to your dog’s health. It also means that the veterinarian is continuing his or her education, and is likely to be up to date with the latest medical information.
How do you feel about working with breeders or show dog clients?
Many veterinarians love working with this type of client. They ask many questions, bring new ideas to the practice, have well trained dogs, and generally will do whatever is recommended if their dog needs it. Other veterinarians do not enjoy this type of client, feeling that they take too much time, and are always looking for a discount because they have too many dogs. The answer to this question will often tell you whether a particular veterinarian will work for you.
What training and competence level does the support staff have? Are veterinary technicians licensed or registered?
As important as the veterinarian is, the support staff is even more important. They are the people who will be answering your phone calls, taking care of paperwork, filling prescriptions, and handling the payment arrangements. Veterinary technicians are licensed or registered in many states, and have passed state examinations after completing their college degree. It is common practice for technicians to administer medications, perform various treatments, and induce and monitor anesthesia. Veterinary assistants and kennel staff will handle your dog if he is hospitalized. You will want to be confident in their abilities and professionalism.
Choosing a veterinarian is not an easy task. It goes far beyond whether the location is convenient or there are evening or Saturday office hours. You are entrusting your friend and competitive partner’s health and well being to someone you may only have seen once or twice a year, until a health problem arises. There are many veterinarians practicing, with many areas of expertise and experiences. By asking the right questions, you can determine if you are comfortable entrusting your best friend to a particular veterinarian and veterinary hospital.
Dr. Coger is a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and has been in private practice for over 13 years. She is a Certified Veterinary Chiropractitioner, and is one of the first veterinarians in the nation to offer Low Level Laser Therapy in her practice.