Congratulations! You are now officially the caretaker and hopefully best friend of a brand new companion. Perhaps you’ve been convinced you just needed someone special in your life, someone who will love you unconditionally and put up with your weird eccentricities. Perhaps your family has ganged up on you and their pleas for a family pet have worn you down so much you’ve no alternative but to give in. Or, perhaps, you’ve just opened your front door to a tired and hungry face waiting patiently for your help. No matter how you came to be the best friend to your best friend, one thing is for certain, and that is they depend on you. Once you’ve made the decision to welcome your furry, scaly, feathered friend into your nice and comfy home you’re hooked. You shelter, feed, love them and in return you become the center of their world. It can be a harmonious end to one great act of kindness until you realize your job is not finished.
Like humans, pets need healthcare too. They require physicals to make sure they’re healthy, preventatives to keep them that way, and treatments should they become sick or injured. In short, they need a doctor and since they can’t find one for themselves, it’s up to you. How in the world do you locate a doctor who specializes in living critters that aren’t human? How do you know if they’re the right doctor? How on Earth are you going to pay for this? All of the these questions and many more are reeling around in your troubled mind, so you ask around for recommendations or you hit the internet and start a search or perhaps you even pull out the old dependable yellow pages, pinch your eyes closed and point. In truth, any of these options will get you in the door of a veterinary hospital or clinic, but how can you be certain it’s the right one? Do you even know what to look for? Do you know what questions to ask? Hopefully, this article can help you do just that, so take a deep breath and relax. With a little knowledge under your belt, you’ll be informed enough to make the right choice.
Consider the distance you have to travel to get you there first. Thirty miles or more doesn’t seem like much when you only go once a year, but if you need to make the commute more frequently, it can be a giant headache for you and your pet. It also becomes a danger to your companion’s welfare should there be an emergency situation requiring immediate care. Therefore, the veterinarian you choose should be within a reasonable driving distance of your home, and by reasonable I mean no more than fifteen minutes if possible. Sometimes this becomes a little easier said than done, especially if your pet is neither dog nor cat, which leads to the next thing you must consider in your quest.
Does the veterinarian you have in mind care for the species of animal you are responsible for? You can call and ask them of course, but keep in mind that just because they say they’ll be happy to examine your exotic friend, does not necessarily mean they know what they’re doing. There are many differences in treating cats and dogs versus animals such as pocket pets, birds, reptiles, or even our barnyard friends. Some of the medications and treatments used for canines and felines can injure or possibly even kill another species, so you need to make certain of your newly discovered veterinarian’s experience. Do your research. There are many sites on the internet that can help you find hospitals or clinics specializing in the care of exotics. Most of these you can access just by typing the species plus vet care into the search bar.
The next thing you need to consider is what types of services your prospective animal clinic or hospital offers. Although boarding and grooming are important and necessary to many people and their companions, the services I’m speaking about are more on the medical side of things. For instance, what are the hours of operation for the clinic or hospital? Are they open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? If not, does the doctor respond to after-hours emergencies and if so, is the facility equipped for such a service? (This means does the veterinarian respond to the call alone or do they have a technician that responds with them? Keep in mind, if the doctor comes solo and the job requires more than one person to do it, then you’ve just become this veterinarian’s assistant whether you want to or not.) If the doctor doesn’t take emergency calls, who does are you referred to? How far must you travel to reach this referral? Or, better yet, does your prospective doctor offer anything more than an apology for the fact they are closed and an invitation to call back during normal business hours? Answers to these questions should be provided easily enough by the facility’s staff and if not, just call the number after hours to see what you get.
Does your veterinarian provide staffing for overnight care should your companion have a need to be hospitalized? What? Don’t they all? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Although many hospitals and clinics have the resources to keep your pet hospitalized, not all of them have the staff to stay overnight to provide constant care. This means, although the doctor or technician will come in to complete the required treatments, they will leave once they are completed and your sick or injured companion may be biding away the majority of their nights, weekends, or holidays unsupervised.
Experience is a key factor in any field, so you obviously want the doctor who is taking care of your pet to know what they are doing. However, the experience of the veterinary technicians working with the doctor are extremely important too, probably even more so than people realize. In many, if not most facilities, it is the technicians who are the doctor’s eyes and ears. They are more than likely the ones who will be performing needed treatments for your pet and will be the ones seeing your companion most often. So if experience is what makes or breaks the deal for you, do not discount the technicians.
Another thing to think about when choosing a veterinarian is the facility’s equipment. Why? Because without it the doctor either opts out of its necessity or refers it out to be performed someplace else. The best example I can give you is lab work. Microscopes are a staple in just about every practice allowing the doctor to check samples taken from your pet for anything potentially harmful that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Microscopes help with tests such as needle aspirates, urinalysis, complete blood count, and countless others, making them one of the most important pieces of equipment in the practice. If your veterinarian does not have a microscope, you may want to start asking questions or reconsider you decision altogether.
Most hospitals and clinics have blood chemistry and complete blood count (cbc) machines, giving them the means to run the biggest portion of blood analysis within the facility. Other tests such as those checking for heartworms or diseases like parvo, feline leukemia, FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), giardia and pancreatitis (the list keeps growing as technology increases) can be performed easily in house with the use of premade testing devices that require a small sample from the patient and only a few minutes of time. What does this mean to you? Well, it means that if the doctor can run the test in house, a lot of time is saved and the results are usually available within minutes. However, because of the expense to run these tests in house, it may cost you a little more for convenience. If the doctor recommends testing that must be sent to an outside lab, either because of cost or an inability to run the test in the facility, the turn-around time to receive the results shouldn’t be more than two days for most blood work or about a week for tests requiring tissue samples or cultures. Your veterinarian should be able to give you an estimated wait time on these results.
Another piece of equipment you should expect to see is an x-ray machine. As most people know, these devices can detect issues with bones such as breaks or deformities, as well as some other problems within your pet’s body regarding internal organs. Other diagnostic equipment such as ultrasounds, CAT scans (computed tomography imaging), and MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging) are all also very useful in helping to treat your companion. Since they are extremely expensive, many hospitals or clinics do not have them, however, the doctor should always be able to refer you to a facility that does have this equipment if the need arises.
Many veterinary practices offer the service of surgery. If the one you’re looking into does, then they should have anesthesia machines (to keep the animal asleep during the procedure) and monitors to keep track of vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and so on while your pet is under anesthesia. In addition, the hospital should offer the placement of endotracheal tubes (to help keep their airway open and to deliver oxygen and anesthesia gas to the body) and intravenous catheters (to deliver fluids or medications directly into the vein) before the surgery is performed. If the facility claims surgery as one of their services and they do not have these vital bits of equipment or procedures in place, then I highly suggest you find another one that does. Many countries have an accreditation service requiring hospitals to meet a stringent set of guidelines and standards of care like the American Animal Hospital Association (www.aahanet.org) for the United States. It’s a great way to help narrow your search and ease your mind.
As you can see, there are many advances in veterinary medicine to help your companion live a longer and happier life, although it does come with a price tag. Fortunately, the expense of veterinary care has not even come close to human health care costs. You may be saying, “But I only pay thirty dollars to see my doctor”, but allow me to enlighten you with the fact that your thirty dollars is an insurance co-pay which means that you are paying an insurance premium every month regardless of your medical care needs in addition to the “thirty dollars”. Averaged out, this greatly exceeds the expense of your pet’s medical care and we haven’t even added the yearly deductible most human insurance companies require.
Still bothered by the final bill as most people are? Well, the good news is there are a lot of options out there to help. For instance, pet insurance. Yes, they have insurance for pets too. Most all of the companies cover preventative care such as annual exams, but they also help with the expenses of treating illnesses and injuries. However, like most human insurance coverage, they will not pay for expenses accrued from a preexisting condition so it’s best to acquire the insurance early in your pet’s life. Another downside to insurance is payment for claims is usually by reimbursement for the already paid bill. If you are fortunate enough to have available funds at hand, then the reimbursement idea will in no doubt work for you. If you do not, don’t fret. There are other options.
Finance companies like Care Credit are available to help with veterinary costs. They loan you the funds, based on what you’re qualified to receive, paying the bill directly to the hospital or clinic. In return, you pay the company a small sum per month alleviating the hassle of shelling out money for the total bill all at once. The finance charges are usually pretty minimal and your credit doesn’t have to be perfect to eligible.
Another alternative becoming more and more popular with veterinarians are healthcare plans formulated within the hospital or clinic. These plans differ in each facility so you need to check with your prospective doctor on what is covered, but most are designed with your companion’s life stage in mind. For instance, if you’ve just been blessed with a brand new puppy, you can start a plan that will cover all exams for a year, any vaccines needed, deworming, and, in many cases, altering. I have also seen plans that cover dental cleanings and blood work for those companions who are older. The cost is a discounted total of the combined services with a minimal fee applied to allow the amount to be financed monthly (the fee is usually waved if you decide to pay for the plan upfront). They only require a soft credit check, which is a little more lenient than regular financing, and you are given the option to make monthly payments should you wish to do so. Many facilities add in free exams for a year should your pet require them and any additional needed services are provided at a discounted rate. It’s a really good deal for those who need more than just the normal once a year visit.
Now let’s talk about personal service. The first thing you need to know is there is never a time when politeness should be slacked, ever; not on the phone and not in the hospital or clinic. This does not mean the doctor or the staff is immediately at your beck and call, that’s simply an illogical expectation, but you should always expect professionalism, cordiality, and common courtesy from everyone within the facility from start to finish. The first of these is simply good telephone etiquette, being put on hold should always be a request, not a statement and your wait time shouldn’t exceed two minutes before someone touches base with you again. The same goes for the transfer of your call to the voicemail of the person you are trying to reach. Veterinarians and their staff are generally very busy people and cannot always get to the phone right away but your call should always be returned by the end of the day. Also keep in mind that if the reason for your call is of a more serious nature such as a pet emergency, then you should never be put off under any circumstances.
Secondly, if during your routine visit, you are forced to wait longer than your appointment time, do not fret. Remember, this is a healthcare facility, not a McDonald’s drive through. The doctor may be dealing with an emergency involving someone else’s loved one and regardless of the inconvenience, you’d want the same care and courtesy for your pet. Be that as it may, the staff should always keep the lines of communication open. They should be able to tell you how long you should expect to wait and offer other options such as another appointment time if you cannot do so.
Thirdly, you should have enough face-to-face time with the doctor to tackle any burning questions or concerns that plague your mind with regards to your companion. If it seems that your concerns greatly outweigh the allotted amount of time you’ve been scheduled for, then the doctor should offer another time to discuss the matters such as additional appointment or a phone call at the end of the day. You should expect these calls or any others regarding your pet’s welfare, such as the results of test performed, in the time frame promised at your visit. If there is a delay, for whatever reason, it is not unreasonable to expect a courtesy call alerting you of the hold up.
Another concern many people have is their pet’s fearful or angry reaction to the staff as proof of an inability to care for them. Most animals do not take kindly to changes in their environment no matter how sympathetic, kind, or gentle the doctor and staff may be. Hospitals and clinics smell of other animals and strange people. While some of these issues are being tackled in many practices by using separate examination areas designated for canine or feline, as well as adding the use of natural pheromone plug-ins and sprays to help alleviate some stress, it is not home sweet home. Although some of this anxiety can be eased with, treats, soothing words and gentle petting, some of it cannot, and it may be necessary to use humane restraint or relocate the pet to the treatment area in order to provide the needed care. Safety measures for all involved, including you and your pet, should be adhered to during any visit.
For overly stressed pets, house calls or mobile vet services are a convenient option. Many routine procedures can be done right in your home, alleviating the necessity to go anywhere unless your pet requires treatments or testing only the practice can provide. Check with your veterinarian to see if they provide this service. If they don’t, see if they may be able to refer you to someone who does.
With so many veterinarians out there, it can be extremely difficult to choose the right one for your pet. However, I hope you find some of this information useful in your quest to keep your best friend both happy and healthy.
Published in Back Home Magazine July/August 2014